HUMAN rights groups are warning that teachers will continue to be victims of political threats and assassinations in Colombia, despite an agreement by the largest paramilitary group to discuss laying down its arms by December.
Nick Dearden of War on Want, which has been campaigning against trade union abuses in Colombia for three years, said ceasefires make no difference.
"Human rights groups are actually worried that these may be a strategy of legalising paramilitary organisations, as the country's president, Alvaro Uribe, did when he was a provincial governor. The experiment was detrimental to human rights," he said.
Amnesty International said the deal does not address the serious problem of impunity or acknowledge the links between paramilitaries and the security forces, and there is a serious concern that it could lead to the revival of paramilitarism under a new, legal guise.
According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, educators are among the chief targets of paramilitary groups and other armed parties involved in Colombia's 40-year-old civil war.
The Central Trade Union Federation of Colombia (Cut) reported 13 assassinations of teachers in the first three months of this year and 82 teachers were killed last year, twice as many as during 2001.
The persecution of teachers occurs daily and is widespread. Those active in trade unions are particularly at risk. Testimonies of teachers and university lecturers show that death threats, house raids, unofficial curfews, suspended salaries and assassinations are common. Most teachers affected are forcibly displaced from their homes, many moving to Colombia's capital city, Bogota.
They are targeted because they are branded as sympathisers and supporters of left-wing guerrilla groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombians were shocked by the high-profile kidnapping and brutal assassination of Ana Celilia Duque, a 25-year-old school teacher from Antioquia in central Colombia, in April.
The right-wing paramilitaries, an umbrella organisation initially formed as a self-defence group against the guerrilla movement, are believed to be responsible for the majority of attacks, claiming that teachers collude with the guerrillas. While most teachers have suffered violence by paramilitaries because they have been accused of being guerrilla activists, some cite different reasons.
"We're targeted because teachers encourage freedom of speech and help students be aware of their human rights. We're not afraid to talk about the real problems facing Colombia," said a social science teacher.
"Teachers are involved in social work and community projects and help students to organise anti-government protests. That's maybe why we become victims," said a teacher from Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast.
British military aid to the Colombian government has been stepped up in the past five years - reportedly only the United States gives more - but the union claims violence against teachers has increased since the election of President Uribe last August because of the government's tacit association with and support of the paramilitaries.
"They do it because they know they can get away with it," said a science teacher from Peirera. Trade unions also report that teachers and students have been attacked violently by police during peaceful demonstrations.
The persecution and displacement of teachers means that many pupils, particularly in Colombia's rural areas and zones of conflict, receive a minimal and disrupted education.
The Colombian Federation of Educators is calling for the government to guarantee the safety and protection of its 280,000 members in areas of conflict. It also demands that teachers' salaries be paid promptly and all suspended pay be reimbursed.
The plight of teachers was highlighted during the recent 10th annual Conference on Human Rights, held in Bogota. Nick Dearden, who attended as delegate, said: "War on Want is forming a network of support for Colombian teachers with British trade unions.
"Until you tackle the root of Colombia's problems - desperate poverty and stark inequality - there will be no solution to the human rights catastrophe."
War on Want letter campaign:email@example.comAmnesty International appeal: http:web.amnesty.orglibraryIndexENGAMR230292003?openamp;of=ENG-COL