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Volume 598: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2015

8. What representations he has made to the Colombian Government on the imprisonment of civil society activists and trade unionists in that country. (901001)

I welcome the Colombian Government’s efforts to improve the human rights situation, but we remain concerned about the number of murders of, and threats against, human rights defenders. Most recently, I raised human rights with Colombian Foreign Minister Holguin when we met at the EU-CELAC summit in Brussels last month.

The FARC announced last week that it would begin a month-long unilateral ceasefire on 20 July, and in response a joint statement by the negotiating teams of the Government and the FARC has announced their agreement to take steps to de-escalate the conflict and implement trust-building measures, as of the 20th of this month. Will the Foreign Secretary call on the parties to agree a bilateral ceasefire as soon as possible to create the necessary conditions for a successful outcome to the talks and to reduce the human cost and suffering of the population?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The peace process, and the peace that we hope will ensue, is the big prize in Colombia for all its people. I therefore welcome the announcement in recent days that the FARC and the Government of Colombia are aiming to de-escalate the conflict and expedite the peace talks in Havana. That is welcome news.

Huber Ballesteros, leader of the Patriotic March opposition movement in Colombia, has been in prison since August 2013. Amnesty International claims that the case is emblematic of those of thousands of human rights activists repeatedly intimidated over their work for social justice and support for marginalised groups. What extra pressure can the Minister place on his counterpart in Colombia to stop this human rights abuse?

We raised these issues some time ago with the Colombian ambassador, who raised the specific cases of Huber Ballesteros and David Ravelo with the Minister of the Interior, and in November 2014 embassy officials visited Mr Ballesteros in prison. The ambassador also raised his case with Guillermo Rivera on 3 February and wrote to the prison authorities that month to ensure his dietary requirements were being respected.

The Minister will be aware that several of us from Northern Ireland have sought to share our experiences with the peace process in Colombia. Does he agree that it might benefit that peace process if, in addition to the call for a bilateral ceasefire, we had some kind of independent monitoring commission, similar to what we had in Northern Ireland, which was of real benefit in building trust and confidence on both sides?

The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as any Northern Ireland Member that a peace process is exactly that—a process—and one has to continue to work at it. His experience, and that of other Northern Ireland Members who have visited, is hugely useful, but in the immediate future we need to get the Havana peace talks back on track. There are then huge issues to address about accountability, impunity and all the other issues that he and I would recognise.