Movement, Politiks, Struggles, Workers

Andy Higginbottom, the human rights defender

Andrew (Andy) Higginbottom. Photo: Indymedia

He is a passionate activist who gives “support to the oppressed” around the world, from the workers in Colombia to the Tamil people in Sir Lanka.

Alistair Nicholas Wood

Andy Higginbottom is Secretary of the ‘Colombia Solidarity Campaign’ and is Principal Lecturer in International Politics and Human Rights at Kingston University of London. Andrew’s early childhood was nomad like, spending “two or three years here, there and everywhere”.

He was raised in some Commonwealth countries, such as Aden and Kenya, which rooted at an early age the crippling effects of colonialism and imperialism.

Colombia has an imposing landscape in the form of the Amazon rainforest and a population of 46 million. Yet both of these vulnerable resources have been, and are being, devastated and massacred; whether it is from the never ending brutal civil conflict or exploitation by the growing number of multinational companies.

Internal displacement in Colombia remains one of the world’s major human rights crises. Between 3 and 4 million people have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in the country; a further 500,000 are believed to have fled to neighbouring countries.

Colombia has become the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists, and a staggering 95% of the roughly 3,000 cases of assassination of union members committed over the last 30 years remain unprosecuted. This combination has resulted in horrific human rights conditions for workers and communities.

Andy Higginbottom has braved the wrath of the anti-trade unionist and anti-activist death squads by establishing with group of fellow activists the Colombia Solidarity Campaign (CSC).

He also is a passionate activist who gives “support to the oppressed” around the world, from the workers in Colombia to the Tamil people in Sir Lanka; he works to give them a voice.

He has two sons, the eldest is the vice president of the student association of the university and he stood as an anti-cuts candidate; his second son is about to go to university.  What is sure is that not the family he grew up in, but the family that grew up with him are involved.

Andy received a death threat in 2003 yet this has not stopped him visiting Colombia several times since (he was leaving on a delegation a day after this interview) to examine the negative effects of the La Colosa gold mine on the local community and environment.

Where did you develop your political interests?

From a teenager I was always very interested in international issues and development issues: I asked, Why is the third world so poor? What are the causes of underdevelopment? It seemed to me strange why more people were not more interested in those issues because the disparity is so enormous and evident.

CSC street theatre outside BP AGM demanding compensation for displaced farmers.

How do you try to make British people aware of third world problems?

Take Colombia as a case in point. I first went there in 1997 and I went with a group of victims of human rights abuses from Turkey and Kurdistan. They organised a conference against ‘disappearances’, people who are eliminated without their relatives knowing their whereabouts or whether even they are alive or dead.

What was soon evident was that British corporations had a very big economic stake in Colombia. BP was the biggest foreign investor at the time and that economic interest has not gone away. Three big mining corporations that are South African/ British and London-based make huge profits from Colombian coal and are now trying to make similarly massive profits out of gold.

Britain, in particular, is completely involved in the extraction of raw materials. A large part of the wealth of this country still comes from overseas. As part of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign we try to defend both the workers and the community affected by these massive extraction projects.

Andy Higginbottom translating for trade union leader Alexander Lopez (now Senator) in his meeting with Labour Minister Mo Mowlam.

How do you think British people feel about Latin American problems?

There are all kinds of people in Britain that all have a range of different views. I think that a lot of people on the left are quite inspired by the developments in Venezuela, Bolivia and in Ecuador by the rise of indigenous movements, by a new vision of socialism for the 21st century. This vision is environmentally conscious, because its structure is horizontal in its manner of working, which comes from the grass roots. The continuation of resistance movements but also of progressive governments in Latin America is important on a world scale.

The survival of the socialist gains made in Cuba is very important as an example of what can be achieved. But I think Latin America is a region with great polarisation at the moment. It has great contrast as there are countries like Colombia, Chile and Peru which are enormously profitable for the multinational mining corporations. So there are two types of economic model clashing, especially in the Andean region. I think what is less known, and it is our job to educate the public here, is the fact that a lot of the

continued underdevelopment of Latin America is not only an issue of US imperialism but also of European capital.

How would the world benefit from having no borders?

You cannot separate the question of no borders from the question of ownership and control of the means of production. Capital generally moves quite freely and moves where it can make a profit. We have a world now where most of the world’s manufacturing is carried out in the global South.

It is the workers who are restricted. Their restrictions are not just in terms of their movements, but it is also about the fruits of their labour. In general workers move not because they want to but because they have to in order to get some decent standard of living.  So I really don’t think that the issue of having no borders can be separated from the cause of the problem which is super-exploitation, not ordinary degrees of exploitation but massive exploitation of the workers in the south, and sectors of workers in the north.

How vulnerable do you think immigrants are in the UK?

Immigrants are always defined as the problem and immigration does have particular problems, but more significantly immigrants bring a lot to Britain. They certainly contribute in terms of their labour, they do the low paid and the dirtiest jobs and so their super-exploitation continues here. I know a lot of Latin American workers in London and have seen how hard they work in the cleaning industry, where they face tough conditions; but I also know that the workers are organising. In fact one of the most hopeful things of the rebirth of genuine trade unionism is that cleaners and others are organising to defend their rights. The issue is also how the law is used against immigrants and refugees. I don’t think anyone should be treated as being illegal simply for being in a certain place. So the fight for workers to be treated as workers and not as criminals is fundamental.

Why are immigrants beginning to get more organised now?

There is definitely an upswing in the organisation of Latin American workers. Firstly, the inspiration that has been gained from the positive developments in Latin America. Secondly, many people come here with experience from their home countries. For example, Colombians who have been active as trade unionists or human rights lawyers before they came to the UK. Thirdly, it is a matter of their response to the conditions that they meet here. In the initial phase it is often difficult for people to organise but once they begin to realise the possibilities and the necessity to organise they start doing it. I also think it is a response to racism, to be blunt. The last general election all the main political parties played the racist card. People began to think that we are either going to be quiet victims, or we are going to defend ourselves. I think there is a general change in mood across all the immigrant communities that is welcome.

Why do the immigrants matter so much to you?

I think that immigrants and refugees are an intersection of the world in a very particular way. They are the living expression of the divisions in the world, especially in a city like London which is so cosmopolitan and very exciting with different cultures, experiences and life stories and yet still dominated by the City of London, the financiers. I think immigrant workers are an impetus for progressive change which is good for everybody.

Are you still involved in political activism outside of Britain and Latin America?

Yes. I strongly support the Tamil community. I think what happened with the Tamils two years ago was outrageous: the killing of between 40,000 and possibly 140,000  Tamils and really how it was all allowed to happen. I could expand on that but I just find it outrageous how it was allowed to happen.

We have good relations with the Turkish and Kurdish community in London. In fact the connection is real because of what the Turkish state is doing right now. They are saying they are bringing in the Tamil solution and attacking the Kurds, extensive violence against a civilian population. They are now bombing villages in Kurdistan.. They have banned the Kurdish MPs in the Turkish parliament. And Kurdish people are being criminalised in the UK for supporting independence.

CSC party in Piccaddilly Circus to launch the Coca Cola boycott campaign.

The Colombia Solidarity Campaign

It was officially formed in 2003 as an anti-imperialist organisation that battles for human rights and for a sustainable peace for the Colombian people.

The CSC aim to draw attention to the horrific human rights situation in Colombia, and that believe that the overwhelming majority of atrocities can be attributed to the action of the army, police, Colombian state organisms and the paramilitaries, which together constitute a policy of Colombian state terror.

Other key aims are to raise awareness of the exploiting of the workers, the environment, and the community by the Multinational Corporations.

The particular focus has moved according to circumstances but the general contours have stayed fairly consistent, which is to support social movements.

They actively campaign through a range of strategies and provide a platform, coordination and support to organisations that share the same goals and dreams for the Colombian people. “As part of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign we try to defend both the workers and the community” says Andy.

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