Mark Thomas writes an open letter to a minister

Is the British government helping to train Colombian military units suspected of killing trade union

Open letter to Bill Rammell, parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs (responsible for human rights)

Dear Bill,

Choosing to be a politician is an odd career path: so much power, so much state prestige, so much responsibility, and yet you couldn't really call it a proper job. Few children see the chamber of the House of Commons on TV and say, "When I grow up I want to do that." And if I ever heard one say that, I would seriously consider calling social services.

However, let us for a moment suspend disbelief, fly in the face of public opinion and experience, and assume that MPs go into politics with good intentions. I am sure that David Blunkett didn't start out on Sheffield Council thinking: "If I play my cards right, one day I could introduce internment without trial." Nor did the young Charles Clarke dream of saddling students with so much debt that Bono would have to campaign to get it cancelled. And you, dear Bill, didn't go into politics thinking: "I shall defend human rights abusers, provide them with military aid and encourage murder and torture."

But that, dear Bill, appears to be precisely what you are doing.

The UK government provides military aid and training to one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, the Colombian armed forces. Everyone, from the US State Department to Human Rights Watch, has documented the atrocities committed by the UK's pupils. Indeed the latest UN report on human rights in Colombia notes a significant increase in reports of violations attributed directly to the security forces. And only a few months ago three men - trade unionists and social activists - were publicly executed by the army on the streets in Arauca. Did Britain help to train these murderers?

Until you, Bill, tell us what Colombian army brigades the UK trains and what mechanisms there are to prevent known or suspected human rights abusers from receiving that training, we must assume that the UK is aiding state terrorism in Colombia. Until you can explain Britain's role in military intelligence training, we have to assume that the UK could have aided what is known in Colombia as "Operation Dragon".

Weeks ago, a police raid in Cali netted an army colonel who was found in possession of various documents. One of them was an analysis of a popular and effective campaign led by Sintraemcali (a public sector trade union) against the privatisation of the municipal water and power company. It listed organisations and individuals who supported the campaign, including various groups such as War on Want, Unison Manchester, Justice for Colombia and Mario Novelli (a UK academic and Colombia Solidarity Campaign organiser).

That a company would wish to analyse what happened during a campaign or a strike against it is perfectly normal. However, this document was found on an army colonel in Colombia, a country where 4,000 trade unionists have been killed since 1986. It is unlikely that there is any threat to Unison Manchester or War On Want; but what of the Colombians who appear in these reports? Other documents found with the colonel were printed on the headed notepaper of the army's central military intelligence and marked "Secreto". These list Colombian trade unionists, politicians and activists, including Alexander Lopez (a left-wing congressman), Luis Hernandez (president of the trade union) and the human rights activist Berenice Celeyta Alayon. The document provides photos of many of those named, details of their cars, addresses of campaign HQs and their employment registration numbers.

Another document stated that a primary objective was, "to change the leadership of the union to a more favourable one".

When the Colombian army has documents with these objectives alongside military intelligence documents listing trade unionists and congressmen, we can jettison the phrase "conspiracy theory" and stick with the word "conspiracy". Some of those listed believe that this is a plan to target, harass, detain or kill opponents of privatisation. Indeed, the recent murder of two bodyguards working with the ex-trade union leader and governor of the Valle del Cauca department Angelino Garzon, who is listed in the intelligence documents, has led to a belief that Operation Dragon has already begun.

Military intelligence work plays an important - indeed, vital - role in the assassinations of trade unionists and activists. The time to stop UK military aid and training to Colombia is long past, but unless you detail the work that the UK military does and the army units that it does it with, you, Bill, will be seen as an ally of barbarism.

Yours, Mark

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The gambler