Skip to main content


Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

The Colombian Government have stated many times their commitment to improving human rights, and progress is being made. However, as I discovered on my visit a few weeks ago, too many Colombians live in fear of violence, murder and kidnapping. Illegal armed groups are mainly responsible, but reports of soldiers and policemen committing abuses are a continuing concern. That is why we are helping the Government of Colombia, and civil society, to protect and promote the rights of all Colombians, which is a priority for this Government.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. According to Amnesty International, Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists to live and work. More than 2,200 were killed between 1991 and 2006, and security forces and Government-backed paramilitaries were thought to be behind many of those deaths. Will my hon. Friend consider withdrawing support for the Colombian security services until they give absolute guarantees that the rights of trade unionists will be protected and observed?

No, we will not withdraw our support, because we are trying to convince people in Colombia that human rights are an important consideration. We are working with the authorities and non-governmental organisations there, and we are certainly working with the Colombian TUC. In fact, I met the president of the Colombian TUC on my visit just before Christmas, and he was convinced that the work we are doing is very valuable. We will continue to take part in efforts to ensure that Colombian trade unionists are given the protection that they deserve. They have been kidnapped and killed by all manner of groups, including FARC, which sometimes considers them to be getting in the way of good drug business in the south of the country. FARC kills trade unionists, just as right-wing militias would.

In addition to suffering quite the most savage and egregious violence of the sort to which the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred, the Minister of State will also be aware that substantial numbers of Colombian trade unionists have been imprisoned—in some cases for very lengthy periods—without being charged with any offence, and therefore without the opportunity to defend themselves in a proper trial. I feel sure that the Minister of State has remonstrated in the strongest terms; perhaps he can give the House details of how he has done so.

Yes indeed. During my last visit, I raised that matter with Vice-President Santos and the Defence Minister. It is not a great advert for any democracy—and I believe that Colombia is a fast-developing democracy, and a good example to Latin America. Everyone must be given a fair trial there, especially trade unionists, who have been very brave in standing up for the rights of ordinary people in some of the most dangerous areas in the world.

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of us who visited Colombia a couple of years ago would very much endorse what he and other hon. Members have said about the role of the trade union movement? Those involved were some of the bravest people we met. Will he therefore continue the dialogue with the international trade union movement? Will he remember, too, that some of the Churches were hugely influential in carrying out marvellous work, and that they too should be encouraged?

Yes indeed; that is an important point. Such things will help Colombia to be part of a wider international dialogue. There is some very good work going on there, and my right hon. Friend mentioned some of the agencies involved. There are many others too, involved with small activities that people are undertaking. Let us also remember that five or six years ago the country was on the verge of being a failed state, run by gangsters. The biggest cartel of gangsters today is made up of those posing as revolutionaries—FARC. It is the biggest drug cartel in South America, and certainly in the western world. It will use any form of repression, such as torture or kidnapping, and it will hold people for a very long time in order to further its own commercial ends.