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Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2014

3. What discussions he had with human rights organisations, trade unions and opposition movements during his recent visit to Colombia; and if he will make a statement. (902505)

I met the deputy director of the national victims unit, Iris Marin, as well as representatives of displaced groups and other victims of the armed conflict who sit on the round table. I also met representatives of a number of non-governmental organisations who work on human rights issues, including members of a Colombian human rights lawyers’ collective and members of Peace Brigades International, a British NGO which is active in Colombia. In addition, of course, I discussed directly with President Santos the importance of protecting human rights defenders and trade unionists.

Last summer, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“Britain must not step back from its historical commitment to human rights for the sake of commercial expediency.”

While he was in Colombia, an eight-month-old baby was shot dead as a result of indiscriminate army gunfire. Congressman Ivan Cepeda, Carlos Lozano and many others received appalling death threats, and the Colombian Defence Secretary continued to brand them as terrorists. Colombia’s human rights record is appalling. Why is the Deputy Prime Minister now turning a blind eye for the purpose of “commercial expediency”?

I do not agree with the characterisation of what we are trying to do in our relationship with Colombia. Colombia is a society traumatised by horrific violence, and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, there are still some instances of terrible abuses and violence. It seems to me that, in the long run, the only way in which the country can find its feet and have a proper, law-abiding system in which human rights are protected is through peace and non-violence throughout the country.

It is important for us to support the negotiations between President Santos and the FARC terrorist group so that we can try to establish peace for the people of Colombia. In the meantime, we are very unambiguous in what we say and do in supporting human rights activists in the country—including NGO activists—and, indeed, in supporting the Government of Colombia in ensuring that human rights are promoted.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister meet the all-party parliamentary group on human rights to discuss issues such as land rights, human rights and the health of the peace process, on which he will have been able to reflect during his visit?

Of course I am keen to look constantly at ways in which we can collectively reinforce our messages on human rights in troubled parts of the world such as Colombia, but we know from peace processes of our own that, in the long run, the best way of guaranteeing human rights and the rule of law is to entrench peace, and to ensure that violence subsides and is then stopped altogether. That is what we are doing in our work with President Santos’s Government. We are also ensuring that the free trade agreements into which the European Union has entered with Colombia contain very clear human rights provisions, to be enshrined in 54 specific measures that the Colombian Government need to introduce in order to protect human rights under the terms of the free trade agreement.

How much more authority and influence does the Deputy Prime Minister think that a future Deputy Prime Minister would have when raising the issue of human rights in a country that he or she visited if we had abolished our human rights legislation and replaced it with a diluted Bill of Rights, or had withdrawn from the European convention on human rights?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is one of the reasons why I am so staunchly opposed to diluting the human rights that British citizens enjoy under British and European law. It is very difficult to urge—as we do—the Governments of countries such as Colombia to aspire to the highest standards of human rights if we do not do so ourselves, as a country.