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Volume 567: debated on Thursday 12 September 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate, which follows on from the point of order that I made exactly two weeks ago. I also point out that today is the three-year anniversary of the imprisonment of human rights defender, David Rabelo.

While the global community has understandably been focused on the horrific events in Syria, the actions of the Government of Colombia sadly continue to go unnoticed, despite an escalation in their oppression of the Colombian people in recent weeks.

In letters and meetings, we are asked to believe that the Colombian Government have changed for the better and that Colombia has a President who wants to end the war with the guerrillas, bring peace to his country and move his nation forward. I welcome and wholeheartedly support the peace talks. However, I am disappointed to see that in recent months, President Santos and his Ministers have reverted to the tactics used under former President Uribe’s Government of accusing any opposition groups of being linked to terrorism and brutally repressing social protest. Following the public relations campaign of the past year or so, during which President Santos has travelled around to meet world leaders, many of us are afraid that the mask has slipped and that we are seeing the real President Santos.

The ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodriguez Munera, has tried to convince me that things are getting better in Colombia: that one fewer death means progress and that one fewer disappearance is a good thing. Despite the positive rhetoric, more than 250 civil society activists have been murdered since President Santos came to power and countless people have been imprisoned by the Colombian authorities on the weakest or indeed non-existent evidence. Questions were raised about the Colombian Government’s commitment to justice for victims when we saw the recent military justice reforms, which led to further impunity for military crimes and about which the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns.

I believe President Santos when he says that he wants to succeed in the peace talks. However, there is a contradiction in negotiating with the FARC, which is on the point of political participation, while at the same time denouncing trade unionists and civil rights activists as terrorists. That does not create a political climate that is conducive to democracy and peace. I know that there are serious opponents to the Government’s peace process, not least former President Uribe, but instead of appeasing those extremists, a strong commitment to peace and democracy needs to be shown.

The ambassador and the Colombian Government should not be surprised at our scepticism. After all, President Santos was the Secretary of State for Defence under President Uribe. As Defence Secretary, he presided over the perverse and sickening incentive scheme that was designed to reward military personnel for the guerrilla body count. My scepticism was reinforced when President Santos responded to the so-called “false positives” scandal by changing the law to give immunity to military personnel. That was just incredible. Yes, it can confound our scepticism when we see President Santos negotiating with the FARC to find a peaceful end to the conflict, but he undoes that good by eradicating any opposition by denouncing trade unionists and civil rights activists as terrorists.

This is a very important issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Colombian Government’s policy of land grabs and removing land from the peasant population is further inflaming the situation in Colombia?

The hon. Gentleman is correct that that causes further problems. I know that indigenous people are still having their lands taken.

The politicians, trade unionists, activists and media commentators that President Santos denounces are not terrorists, but he knows beyond doubt that it is effectively a death sentence to say that they are. Yet still he does it. Is it any wonder that I and others are sceptical?

I will turn my attention to the events of recent weeks. As a result of the west’s unending drive towards profit without conscience, the US-Colombia and EU-Colombia trade agreements have been put in place with very weak labour and human rights conditions. Trade agreements already disadvantage poor peasant farmers in Colombia, so it is not surprising that they have been protesting. It is estimated that approximately 250,000 peasant farmers have protested, despite the dangers they know they face.

How have President Santos’s Government responded in recent weeks? At least 10 people are dead, more than 800 are wounded and 512 people have been arrested, including 45 children. A curfew was imposed and 50,000 troops were put on to the streets of the country to crack down on strike action. The social movements have said that this amounts to an undeclared state of siege, with demobilised right-wing paramilitaries used to attack demonstrators. However, the peasant farmers have been joined in their protests by health workers and students. Video evidence shows horrific beatings, torture, systematic vandalism and theft of the few possessions and food owned by the peasant farmers by the police. Human rights organisations have catalogued sexual abuse, torture, degrading treatment, beatings, indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets, and intimidation. As a result of this unchecked state violence, the people of Bogota came out on to the streets in their thousands.

On 29 August, President Santos made a speech putting the blame on the protesters, and sent in the ESMAD riot police. In the same speech, he smeared the Patriotic March movement, knowing full well that it would put them in danger. This followed his public statements about the June protest in Catatumbo, which lead to four protesters being killed.

NIZKOR, a collective of high profile and respected human rights organisations in Colombia, has catalogued the appalling behaviour of the riot police. It reported that ESMAD has been acting in the Boyaca department as an occupying army that has supplanted civilian authority and committed systematic, generalised and indiscriminate violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as acts of vandalism and the excessive use of force. The following are just some issues it has reported: indiscriminate shooting of police-issue weapons against the population; sexual abuse of youths by police agents, as well as repeated threats to sexually abuse women, partners and daughters of the peasants; acts of torture and other mistreatment that involve the arbitrary use of tear gas in enclosed spaces, including in nurseries with 3 to 6-year-old children inside, as well as the use of elements projected or applied to the bodies of the inhabitants; attacks against helpless youths and minors, who are taken from the demonstrations and assaulted while alone; the indiscriminate firing of tear gas from helicopters over gatherings of people; the arbitrary invasion of homes of peasants and the destruction of their property; the identification, false accusation, persecution and threatening of leaders of the agriculture strike in Boyaca; mass arbitrary arrests of demonstrators; looting, theft of money and other common crimes committed by the security forces while accompanied by the investigative police, even in the capital of the department; the occupation of institutions protected under international humanitarian law such as the Pan-American Educational Institute, the New Bolivarian school and the Paloblanco school, all in Boyaca; and the use of ambulances for the transport of members of ESMAD, the riot police, which in itself constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law.

It is exceptionally worrying that there has been an escalation in the targeting of human rights defenders, with 37 dying in the first six months of this year.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is that escalation that led me to secure the debate.

On 28 August, NIZKOR reported that in addition to the previous offences it catalogued, ambulances were being prevented from going into areas where the security services had injured, and in some cases killed, inhabitants. It is worried that civilian authorities find themselves intimidated or supplanted by curfews, militarisation and the hiding of the identification of riot police and police. I welcome the negotiations that are now taking place between the strikers and the Government, but it took 21 days, many deaths and the arrest of many activists to lead to them.

Let me turn now to the arrest of the deputy president of the agricultural workers’ union. Huber Ballesteros is a prominent agricultural workers’ union leader. He is on the executive of the Colombian equivalent of the TUC, and is a leader of the peaceful, socio-political Patriotic March movement, which, as I have said, has been smeared by President Santos. In the classic, tried-and-tested method of the Colombian Government, Huber has been arrested and is in prison accused of rebellion and financing terrorism. It is the old Colombian Government trick of saying that there are incriminating e-mails on laptop computers and using non-credible witness statements, which have been discredited in previous failed cases and criticised by the UN. So-called evidence that would make a British court wince with shame is trotted out to justify this false imprisonment.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Huber should be accused of funding the FARC guerrillas, when the current Defence Secretary has previously said that FARC funded the Patriotic March. One would have thought the Colombian Government could be at least consistent in their wild accusations! In a way, I am grateful that Huber has not met the same fate as Henry Diaz, the agricultural workers’ representative I met 18 months ago in Putumayo district, whose clothes were found, symbolically, between two military checkpoints last year—disappeared and murdered for the crime of representing peasant farmers.

Huber’s reputation internationally is such that he was to be a guest at the TUC conference this week. He is widely respected by Canadian, Irish, UK and US politicians and trade unionists. Sadly, he must travel everywhere in Colombia with a team of bodyguards. Huber is now in La Picota prison. According to Mariela Kohon, the director of Justice for Colombia,

“the prison is intensely overcrowded, prisoners are routinely denied any medical attention”

at all. Indeed, in November last year, she met a prisoner in this very same prison who had literally carved off a slice from his face to remove a tumour.

I am glad to see the Minister in his place, but I have been repeatedly disappointed that successive UK Governments have seized upon the slightest crumb—real or illusory—that Colombia has turned its back on state-backed murder and oppression. Parliamentary answers show Ministers heralding the peace talks, the national protection unit, land restitution and so on as being signs of a better Colombia. We should, of course, congratulate any effort to improve the situation, but Ministers should and must dig a little deeper and judge the Government of Colombia on results, not intent—on concrete actions, not words on paper. Protecting trade unionists because the Inter-American court has ordered it, while at the same time accusing the same people of being terrorists is not coherent. Neither is returning land to peasants while murdering protesting peasants. Engaging in peace talks while intimidating peace activists is, once again, not a coherent approach. We need to see civil society more included in the peace process, and victims from all sides given a voice.

It saddens me to say that our Government have for too long too naïvely accepted the word of the Colombian Government as fact. That can be seen in their welcoming the announcement that there will be no more impunity for military personnel at exactly the time as the Colombian law granting such impunity was changed. No wonder our reputation as a bastion of human rights in the world is so poor in Colombia, particularly among those at the front line of defending human rights. It is shameful to think that the average Colombian views the British as supporters of the oppressor, not the oppressed.

Instead of accepting the sweet words of President Santos, I hope our Ministers will now take a tougher public line, call for civil society’s involvement in the peace talks, publicly reject accusations that the trade unions and the opposition are linked to the guerrillas, get our ambassador to visit Huber in his prison cell in Colombia and speak out about the oppression being doled out with impunity.

If President Santos is genuine about wanting to bring Colombia to peace, he should free Huber Ballesteros. I have received letters from the ambassador, saying that everything is being done through proper process and that the Executive cannot intervene. Well, I am afraid that history has shown otherwise—that all too often the Executive intervenes, and not in a positive way. Now we have an opportunity to intervene positively. If President Santos is genuine, he should stop denouncing anyone he disagrees with as a “terrorist”, and he should call off his slavering, rabid riot police and their accomplices in the military and police. President Santos would, I am sure, want the rest of the world to view him as a saviour of Colombia and as the man who brought peace to his country. He can do that, but not by copying Uribe—he needs to be a man of peace, not an elected dictator.

Let me first congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing today’s Adjournment debate, and thank other hon. Members for their interventions. I know that he and others in their places today take a close interest in the situation in Columbia. I know that the hon. Gentleman spoke at the “Justice for Colombia” fringe event at the TUC conference on trade unions and the Colombia peace process—on Tuesday, I believe.

I was certainly due to speak at that event with Huber Ballesteros. Unfortunately, the business of the House meant that I could not be let loose from here.

Perhaps other Labour Members would rather have been detained here than have had to face the brothers there. That, of course, was a decision facing them, not the hon. Gentleman.

The events of recent weeks have highlighted both the progress that has been made in Colombia and the challenges which—as we have heard—most certainly remain. The Colombian Government’s announcement of their readiness to begin peace talks with the country’s second largest group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, alongside the ongoing talks with FARC, brings closer the hope of a sustainable peace for all Colombians after decades of conflict. That is something that I believe all of us in the House would wish to support.

At the same time, however, there has been a series of social protests throughout Colombia, highlighting the divisions between rural and urban areas. The farmers are demanding structural reforms that address their needs, promote their competitiveness and secure investment in much-needed infrastructure. The Colombian Government have recognised the existence of genuine grievance in the country, and have pledged to address its underlying causes.

While it is right for us to acknowledge the strides that Colombia has made towards reform since President Santos took office in 2010, it is also right for us to continue to express concerns when we have them, and, as all true friends should, advise when things could be improved. The ongoing protests throughout Colombia remain a particular cause of concern. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s permanent under-secretary raised specific concerns about the violent incidents taking place during protests in the Catatumbo region with the Colombian Defence Minister during his visit to the United Kingdom in June. Also in June, our ambassador to Colombia met representatives of the peasant association who were protesting in Catatumbo, as well as senior Government figures in Bogota. We also remain concerned by allegations of police violence against protesters—of which we have heard from the hon. Gentleman—and also of violence by protesters against the police, which have so far cost the lives of eight civilians and one police officer.

We are aware of the recent detention of trade union leader Huber Ballesteros. Our ambassador to Colombia has written to the Colombian prosecutor general to highlight our interest in the case, and to request information on the charges. Staff at our embassy in Bogota are seeking permission to visit Mr Ballesteros in prison.

Although we recognise that the protests have helped to raise the profile of dissatisfaction in the countryside and the need for reform, we should not forget the impact that the strikes have had on others in Colombia. We are concerned by reports of food shortages and dwindling medical supplies, which usually affect the most vulnerable. The loss of income for low-paid workers who are unable to get to work through the blockades will be difficult for them and their families to manage. The impact of the protests on British companies operating in Colombia is also of concern. We are working with the Colombian authorities to ensure that the situation is resolved in the most appropriate and timely manner.

For the reasons that I have given, we welcome the efforts to find a peaceful resolution through dialogue. We are encouraged by President Santos’s statement that there will be an investigation of the recent violence, deaths of protesters, and any use of excessive force by the police.

More broadly, human rights remain an integral part of our relationship with Colombia. We support the efforts of the Colombian Government to address human rights challenges, which we raise regularly with senior Government representatives. When, along with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, I met President Santos during his visit to the UK in June, human rights formed an important part of the agenda. We have a strong and valuable bilateral dialogue on the issue.

The 2012 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights provides a detailed assessment of the key areas in which the Colombian Government have made progress, and those about which concerns remain. Progress that is highlighted includes the peace talks, the creation of the national human rights system and the work of the national protection unit, which now protects more than 10,000 Colombians. However, the report also expresses concern about human rights violations, primarily by illegal armed groups, and about high levels of impunity.

At Colombia’s United Nations universal periodic review in April, we recommended that the Colombian Government increase their efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for threats or violence against human rights defenders, trade unionists, community leaders and journalists. We also recommended that Colombia ensure that its reformed military justice system is fully compliant with international human rights law, and that all allegations of human rights abuses by military personnel are investigated promptly and effectively. The Colombian Government have assured us that this reform will not result in impunity for servicemen. We will press the Government to publish information and statistics on their efforts in this area regularly.

I am listening carefully to the Minister’s response. He will be interested to know that following the death of 3,500 men who, as I mentioned in my speech, were persuaded to go to remote parts of Colombia as a sham work opportunity and then killed by the army in order to claim the rewards under this sickening scheme, not a single person has yet been held responsible.

The Government have assured us that there will be no impunity for servicemen. I raised this with the deputy Defence Minister, Jorge Bedoya, during his visit to the UK in March and we will continue to press the case.

The UK is fully engaged on a range of human rights issues on the ground. Our embassy works with local NGOs and the Colombian Government on a number of projects, whose aims have ranged from increasing access to protection measures for human rights defenders to raising awareness of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. Our embassy in Bogota will support a project to analyse risks around next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections and to increase transparency.

Our engagement with Colombia on these issues forms part of a rich and diverse bilateral relationship.

On the elections, is the Minister aware of any independent observers who will be monitoring the elections to ensure that they are free, democratic and without restrictions?

My default position on elections, wherever they are, is that there should be international observers. In my role as Commonwealth Minister and Minister with responsibility for Latin America, Asia and south-east Asia, I am constantly arguing that where there are questions of transparency, people who are respected should be invited from the international community to observe elections. If there is nothing to hide, all that does is validate the elections. So I would suggest to anyone that they invite in election observers. It is a good rule.

Colombia is an increasingly important commercial partner, offering real opportunities for British companies. We are working with UK industry and the Colombian Government to ensure that British businesses are in a strong position to win contracts. We make no apology for that at all. Unlike the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, we regard trade agreements, such as the EU-Andean free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru, as important for economic growth and prosperity in developed and developing countries. I believe that these free trade agreements will eventually benefit all the people, including those living in the most remote areas, the farmers and so on. It takes a little time and it is painful, but that is where we disagree philosophically about free trade.

The UK pushed hard for a legally binding human rights clause in the agreement, which is consistent with our policy to have a frank dialogue with Colombia and Peru on human rights. We strongly encourage British companies to respect human rights in places where they do business. That applies internationally. The UK’s action plan on business and human rights, launched by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on 4 September, sends a clear message to British firms about the standards expected of them overseas. In May, we part-funded a major event in Colombia on implementing the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and we are now working with the Colombian Government as they create a national strategy of their own.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for securing today’s debate.

Before the Minister sums up, may I ask him one specific question? On 14 September it will be the third anniversary of the imprisonment of David Ravelo Crespo. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, raise this case again, ensure that we are expressing our concern about this continued imprisonment of a human rights defender, and perhaps seek access to the prison?

I will certainly convey the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the Colombian ambassador here in London and ensure that our ambassador in Bogota does the same.

I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South once again for securing the debate. Hon. Members have highlighted many important points and I fully recognise the concerns raised. All in the garden is not rosy. The Government are not blindly supportive of everything being done by the Government in Bogota—[Interruption.] That might be the perception, but the truth is that we are a critical friend and we believe that President Santos is doing an incredibly difficult job. The end goal, which must be a peaceful negotiation and settlement with the FARC and other groups, is something that we believe will radically transform the lives of everybody in that country, wherever and at whatever level they live.

After almost half a century of conflict, Colombia has made great strides in the last three years towards the goal of a prosperous nation free of armed conflict. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that sometimes, rather than just seeing the glass half empty. Of course there is still more to do; how could there not be, given what the country has suffered over the years? In order to achieve greater progress, Colombia must continue to address the legacy of an incredibly difficult and tragic past and tackle the myriad and difficult challenges it still faces.

This Government will remain a constructive, supportive and critical partner, committed to supporting reform moves under President Santos in order to see a developing and prosperous Colombia where the human rights of all people are respected and where all people can live in safety, not in fear of their lives, and enjoy the prosperity that I believe is owed to them and that, as a result of President Santos’s reforms, will eventually trickle down to them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.