I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Colombia peace process.
It is a pleasure to see you again in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. Colombia has suffered one of the longest civil wars in history—more than 50 years of armed conflict, with thousands of people tortured, disappeared and slaughtered, and millions displaced. It remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, and human rights defenders and social leaders have been, and still are being, murdered with impunity.
The armed conflict was a result of a deep-rooted social and political conflict. Despite the country’s huge natural wealth, many Colombians live in poverty. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few people who wield enormous political power. They also own large sections of the media. These people are concentrated in urban areas that represent a tiny proportion of Colombia’s landmass.
The Colombian state, right-wing paramilitaries and guerrillas waged a decades-long war that none could, or would, ever win. When the peace negotiations began in 2012 and were overseen by the UN, there was a glimmer of hope. As someone who has campaigned on behalf of trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders for well over a decade, I felt that there might finally be a small chance of the Colombian people living in safety in the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and commend her campaigning on this issue over many years. Does she agree that there is a real concern at the moment, as we read and hear about the killing of community leaders in rural areas? This must stop, and peace must be enforced. The peace that we have is precious and must be continued and secured.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The spike and increase in the number of civilians being murdered, and the lack of any prosecutions or convictions, is one of the reasons why the peace process implementation is so fragile at the moment.
No one doubts the challenging circumstances in which those negotiations took place. Through work by the non-governmental organisation Justice for Colombia, politicians from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland helped share their knowledge and experience of the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday agreement with the Colombian Government and FARC, so that they could benefit from the lessons that had been learnt. After four years of negotiation, the Colombian Government and FARC announced the final peace agreement in August 2016. A bilateral ceasefire took place; then there was disarmament by FARC, which became a legitimate, legal political party.
The peace agreement was put to a vote of the Colombian people. One of the most outspoken critics of the deal was former President Álvaro Uribe, who had been in power between 2002 and 2010, when some of the worst atrocities against trade unionists and human rights defenders were committed by the state and state-backed right-wing paramilitaries.
One of the groups of victims at that point included people who had suffered sexual violence in conflict. I know the British embassy in Bogotá had started a human rights programme. Has the hon. Lady assessed how successful that has been in dealing with people who had suffered sexual violence in conflict?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is something on which I hope the Minister will be able to elaborate in his response to the debate, because the UK and Colombia are friends. We wield enormous influence over what goes on in Colombia, and that is one of the programmes that I hope will continue, so that we can ensure that that particular group of victims does not suffer further.
In 2013 President Uribe co-founded a new political party, the Centro Democrático or Democratic Centre, largely to oppose the peace process in the 2014 Colombian elections. Despite the extremely narrow rejection of the peace agreement in that plebiscite, a revised agreement was ratified by the Colombian Congress shortly afterwards, in December 2016. That final agreement, for which the UK is the penholder on behalf of the UN Security Council, was structured around six areas. The first was comprehensive rural land reform. The Government promised to provide 3 million hectares of land to the landless or land-poor peasants, and to formalise legal property titles on another 7 million hectares, in addition to heavily investing in infrastructure projects and state-building in previously FARC-controlled areas.
The second area was political participation. As I said previously, FARC became a legal political party, and was guaranteed a minimum of five seats in Congress and five in the House of Representatives for two legislative terms, starting in 2018. After that point, FARC will have to win seats competitively in elections.
The third area was the ending of the conflict, disarmament of FARC, transition to civilian life and reincorporation, and guaranteed security conditions for former combatants and communities in UN-monitored reincorporation zones. In August 2018 I visited one of those zones, a specific camp in Filipinas in the Arauca region on the north-eastern border with Venezuela. I saw what little progress had been made in establishing those zones and getting former combatants to a position in which they could make a living and fend for themselves.
The fourth area was ending the drug trade, which will obviously have an impact on drug consumption in the UK—cocaine is a particularly topical point at the moment. The crop substitution programme with the Government and FARC will help farmers to stop growing coca and instead grow legal crops in order to make a living and grow their local economies.
The fifth area was justice for victims of the conflict, which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) touched on. A transitional justice system called the JEP would be established. Special tribunals would adjudicate war crimes and other atrocities committed by Government security forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas, with reduced sentences for people who came forward. The emphasis of the HEP would be on restorative justice and ensuring the rights of victims.
The sixth and final area was the implementation and verification of the peace agreement, which is a really critical part. The UN special political verification mission would take an oversight role, and a commission would be set up to follow up the implementation process. It would be known by its Spanish abbreviation, CSIVI, and consist of three senior Government members and three senior FARC members.
At first, the peace agreement implementation seemed to be working. There was a significant drop in violence in 2017, Colombia’s safest year since 1975. However, there was a very significant change in direction in 2018 with the election of Iván Duque as the new President. He is a protégé of Uribe, and ran on a platform of dismantling parts of the agreement, particularly in relation to political participation by FARC and the work of the JEP. Since his election, he has systematically attempted to undermine the JEP, despite its being recognised by the international community and, most importantly, by the victims of the conflict as a way to provide truth, justice and reconciliation for victims on all sides and an end to the impunity that has operated for decades. That has resulted in a significant stalling of the process, which is threatening the very existence of the peace agreement.
After the United States, we are the second-largest investor in Colombia. As a penholder to the peace agreement, we play a particular role in the process. The UN Security Council warned on 16 April that the peace process
“stands at a critical juncture”.
All sections of the peace agreement are crucial, but I want to focus a few remarks on three of them—ending the conflict, political participation and the role of the JEP. One third of the peace agreement’s 578 stipulations have not even begun to be implemented, and an estimated 1,700 former guerrillas have returned to armed struggle. The arrival of President Duque in London yesterday is very timely. I know the Minister is meeting the President later today, so I hope Opposition Members have questions for the Minister and issues that he can raise with President Duque when he sees him.
I now turn to the armed conflict. Colombian human rights organisations estimate that 591 social leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the agreement, and 236 of those assassinations have happened in the 10 months since the President took office.
My hon. Friend will know that I went on delegations to Colombia in 2007, when Uribe was still in power, and in 2012. We heard widespread evidence of human rights abuses, and I am really disappointed to hear that slow progress has been made with the peace progress. Does she agree that it is time for our Government to step up and work with human rights defenders to bring about a country-specific plan to protect human rights defenders in Colombia?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the questions I have for the Minister is on the help that we have been giving to the Colombian Government and their Ministry of Justice and Law in training their lawyers in investigation and disclosure. It does not seem to be working, because impunity continues.
An estimated 135 former FARC combatants have been murdered since they laid down their weapons in the disarmament process. One of the most recent victims was Dimar Torres, who is alleged to have been murdered by Colombian soldiers. The local community found his body next to a recently dug grave, raising suspicions that the soldiers were attempting to make his body disappear, which is what we saw over years and years, prior to the signing of the peace agreement.
A recent statement by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and the UN working group on enforced disappearances urged the Colombian Government to
“cease inciting violence against demobilised individuals of the FARC…and to meet the guarantees that were made to them during the negotiations in Havana, most importantly respect of the right to life.”
The Minister responsible for peace implementation, Emilio Archila, reacted by responding that the statement was “badly intentioned” and rejected the conclusions, while former President Uribe attacked the UN on his Twitter account.
That follows revelations from The New York Times in late May that the army has reinstated orders to soldiers to show results of the killings of armed groups, with performance-related pay. That is a chilling reminder of the military’s involvement in the “false positives” scandal under Uribe’s Administration, during which thousands of civilians were murdered by the military and dressed up in army fatigues as though they had been guerrilla fighters killed in combat. After a huge outcry, the Colombian Ministry of Defence said that it would amend the orders, but concerns remain. Last week, the Senate voted to promote General Martinez Espinel, even though he was second-in-command of a brigade accused of murdering 23 civilians in that way between 2004 and 2006.
The Colombian Government recently claimed that there had been a 32% reduction in killings of social leaders, but that is in direct contradiction of the evidence from the many reports of human rights organisations on the ground. Uribe recently said that 5,000 FARC members had returned to the mountains—a coded reference to their taking up arms again. That claim is completely fake, with no evidence to substantiate it. It is not supported by anyone involved in the monitoring of the peace process and is a deliberate strategy by Uribe—the figurehead of President Duque’s party—to undermine the implementation of the peace process and the UN verification mission. In turn, that undermines Britain’s role as penholder for the agreement. At his presentation at Canning House yesterday, President Duque made no reference to human rights abuses and the targeting of social leaders in Colombia.
My second point is about the JEP. Its implementation has been resisted by Duque’s Administration, which sees it as too lenient and as treading on the toes of the criminal justice system. In March, the statutory law providing the legal framework for the JEP was stalled after President Duque refused to sign it off, citing concerns about six articles. After a lengthy legislative battle, it was eventually signed into law this month, after Congress and the Constitutional Court rejected President Duque’s changes. Duque’s resistance to such a fundamental part of the peace agreement should be a worrying warning to our Government about his attitude and disdain towards the agreement.
The case of Congressman Jesús Santrich, in which the Minister knows I have taken an active interest, perfectly illustrates the genuine concerns in Colombia and internationally about President Duque’s commitment to the agreement and to the JEP in particular. There has undoubtedly been political interference in the JEP by the Colombian Government, most notably by the actions of former Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martinez, who recently resigned following the long-awaited release from prison of Congressman Santrich.
Jesús Santrich was a key negotiator of the Colombian peace agreement, a member of the FARC delegation to the negotiations, and an architect of the agreement. At the time of his arrest in April 2018, he was a member of the CSIVI, the implementation committee that I mentioned earlier. He was due to take his seat in the House of Representatives in July 2018, as part of the FARC’s 10 representatives in the Colombian Congress, which was a specific part of the peace agreement. However, in April 2018 he was arrested on the order of an international arrest warrant requesting extradition, issued by a New York court. It alleged that he had conspired to smuggle 10 tonnes of cocaine out of Colombia in an aeroplane. He categorically denied the accusation, but was imprisoned in solitary confinement in La Picota high-security prison in Bogotá.
Last August, I visited Santrich in his prison cell. He is blind, suffers from a degenerative eye condition so severe that his sight is almost non-existent, and has other major health problems. He spent 13 months in La Picota prison, during which time he undertook a lengthy hunger strike to draw attention to his plight. When I met him, he was extremely frail, in declining health, and was being refused access to essential medical care. No adjustments were made to accommodate his disability. When I returned to the UK I met the Minister, and I am pleased to say that shortly afterwards, some disability aids were provided for Congressman Santrich. At no point was any evidence disclosed to his lawyers to back up the allegations against him, the basis on which the extradition warrant had been issued.
Santrich has since presented his case to the JEP, arguing that it had jurisdiction, rather than the Colombian criminal court. The then Attorney General challenged the case and lost. The Attorney General was asked by the JEP to provide evidence to substantiate imprisonment and the proposed extradition, but none was forthcoming. The US Department of Justice did not provide any evidence, either. On 15 May this year, the JEP gave its ruling, guaranteeing that there would be no extradition. It ordered that Jesús Santrich be freed. The Colombian Procurator’s Office appealed the decision, but the JEP insisted on Santrich’s release. The Attorney General refused to sign the order for release and has since resigned, saying that he is not prepared to sign the order. Santrich was kept in prison until 19 May, and on his arrival outside the prison gates, he was immediately re-arrested and taken to the Attorney General’s building by helicopter. Ten days later, on 29 May, the Supreme Court ordered his release and eventually, on 11 June, he was sworn into office.
I went into detail about that because the entire process has been carried out in the context of strong opposition to the JEP by the Government party. There has been a deliberate attempt to diminish the authority of the JEP that has wide-ranging consequences for its proper functioning and authority. Unsurprisingly, the case has caused huge concern among defenders of the peace process, which adds to the considerable concerns about the lack of implementation of the process, the rise in murders of civilians and continuing impunity.
As a key member of the negotiating team who was due to occupy one of the 10 seats in Congress guaranteed to FARC, Santrich has become symbolic for the peace process. That is why I hope that the Minister will tonight seek an explanation from President Duque about his Government’s conduct in this case—the conduct of the former Attorney General in particular—and ask what reassurances can be given about Jesús Santrich’s freedom and ability to carry out his democratic role in the future.
Finally, I will return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) about the UK’s role in assisting in Colombia. It has been mentioned in past debates that we have given support to the Fiscalía to help it learn about investigation and disclosure. If we are still doing that, why are we doing so when the JEP is being politicised and abused in such a way?
The debate may last until 5.30. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past 5, and the guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would be kind enough to allow Jo Stevens three minutes at the end to sum up, that would be appreciated. Until seven minutes past 5, it is Back-Bench time, and I have one hon. Member seeking to contribute: Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates, but I will try not to prolong my speech beyond the time that you have so kindly given me.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) has presented the case for the Colombian peace process very well. She referred to my colleagues, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and the former Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan. They were, individually and collectively, involved in trying to progress the peace process—I, too, am a member of the Parliamentary Friends of Colombia group. Both my colleagues were invited to Colombia to speak and to tell their story about Northern Ireland. The reason was obviously what we—I say “we”, because everyone together made it happen—have done in Northern Ireland, although the political process has stalled at the moment. We ended the violence, started a political process and found a methodology to take that process forward. It was an example for the rest of the world, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has spoken about it in many countries, one of them being Colombia.
I have a deep interest in Colombia, and I hope that its people will see the peace we have in many places across the world. As my party’s spokesperson on human rights and equality issues where they pertain to religious persecution, I am aware that some groups in Colombia—those who are Christians—have been targeted because of their religious persuasion. Peasants have also been targeted, although I use the word “peasants” in a general sense; it is meant not as a marker for anything, but for the people who live on the land and depend on it for their survival, livelihood and income.
Some of the things that have happened in Colombia are quite unbelievable. I have an interest in the country, which I believe has real potential and an appetite for change. With a bit more effort from the Government and everyone involved, Colombia could move from where we are to a peace process that can actually do something. My hope, prayers and ambitions are for that to happen. I believe in prayer—I say that because it is true—and I have prayed for peace in Colombia and across the world.
About this time last year, I asked a written parliamentary question:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what discussions has the Minister had with the Columbian Government on progress on the peace process in that country.”
I received a full answer from the Minister present. He always responds well, and I am not just saying that because he is here—he does, and he has a deep passion for and interest in Colombia, as is the case with many other countries of the world. He is keen to see progress, peace and prosperity. His response was:
“The UK has assisted the peace process since 2012, contributing over £28m in Conflict Stability and Security Funding since 2015 and holding the pen in the UN Security Council. I have had numerous discussions with the Colombian Government during that time on progress, most recently with the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs on 21 June.”
Clearly, the Minister and our Government have made a financial input, have an interest in the process and have regular discussions with the Colombian Government. This nation—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—has made clear attempts and taken strides in the past to be a help and a guide in such scenarios, but equally clearly, almost a year down the line from that question, the journey to peace still needs a wee knock-on or a nudge—perhaps a detour—and more to be done.
To say that Colombia is a war-torn nation is an understatement. The national victims unit, which was set up in 2011, and which records crimes that have occurred since 1985 in the context of the armed conflict, registered almost 280,000 killings, the majority of them involving civilians. That number is horrific, and it gives an indication of a genocide that has taken place—the slaughter of innocents. More than 46,500 people have been forcibly disappeared. By 1 November 2016, more than 7 million people had been forced to flee their homes. The actual figures are expected to be considerably higher; these are guesstimations of what has taken place, but they indicate the magnitude of the issue.
Over the years, I have had the chance to have direct contact with people with the friends of Colombia group. We have had meetings in London, here in Westminster, and elsewhere on such matters. We have had meetings in Belfast, back home in Northern Ireland, and people wanted to have an idea of how the peace process worked and was taken forward. Such meetings gave me an insight into what took place. Some of the people we met told horrific stories of what had happened to their relatives and friends—some had disappeared and never been found.
The nation of Colombia needs peace, medical care, education systems, social welfare, housing and initiatives to take people out of poverty. We have an advisory role, and perhaps even a clear practical role, in helping to achieve that. A fair and democratic process, and a commitment to that process, are needed. I do not want to be unfair, but I sometimes feel, looking at the situation from the outside in, in an observational way, that the commitment of all those involved in the process has not as been as transparent as it perhaps could be. However, I believe that we are not that far away from moving things forward. In Northern Ireland, when the process moved forward, it was by small steps—but those steps then led to big strides. That is what we need.
We need to see an end to the land grabs—to the theft of land from people who depend on it for their living. The killings that have taken place need an explanation and an investigation, because those who carried them out should be accountable for their crimes. No one can carry out crimes and expect to get away with them.
On justice and holding those who have committed horrendous crimes to account, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the establishment of the unit to dismantle the paramilitaries is a particular priority, and should be brought forward with due haste by the Duque Administration?
I agree with the hon. Lady. Clearly, paramilitary groups think that they are above the law, and they are carrying out atrocities. They need to be accountable and to stop that; if the peace process is to go forward, we need to ensure that those who have the power are doing their best to stop these things.
There have been kidnappings, and people have gone missing. In Northern Ireland, we always wished for the remains of those who were kidnapped, murdered or disappeared to be found and returned to their families. It is important to have that in place—for families to have the final resolution of being able to bury their loved ones in graves, and to have time to grieve for people who had disappeared. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central referred to many examples of people being disappeared, although in one case the person was found because the security forces were still trying to dispose of his body.
I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights, and they feature at the top of my agenda, in whichever country they are being abused. We need action to stop women being sexually abused and horribly tortured by security forces. We also need to help those activists—we have been aware of some of them for a number of years—who have been kidnapped and disappeared. Some journalists, who are spokespeople for human rights issues and who have made the world aware of what is going on, have disappeared and never been found—any dissent has been trampled on right away.
I am not any smarter than anyone else—far from it—but coming from Northern Ireland and having a personal knowledge of the country, I perhaps understand more than some others in this place the emotional trauma that is passed from generation to generation of those who have suffered at the hands of paramilitaries, as well as the impact and lasting legacy the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) referred to in her intervention. That can only be dealt with in two parts. First, we must allow time for wounds to heal over without anyone picking open the scabs. That means an end to violence and the threat of it, so that people can grieve and learn how to exist in a new nation where everyone is equal. Secondly, opportunities are required for things to be different—for children to be educated and get paying jobs, for skills to be taught, for work to be made available so that people can earn a wage, and for communities to recover.
We should do more, while not overstepping. I look to the Minister, whom I respect greatly, and who understands my passion for these issues, to explain the view of the Department, in particular, and the steps that can be taken so that we can play a small but valuable part in this process for peace.
I have two observations to make. First, rarely can a country-specific debate have been held immediately before a presidential audience to which the Minister of State responding has been invited. Secondly, we have a little more time available for the Front-Bench speeches than we thought. As long as the process is not abused, I am prepared to be flexible with the guideline limits for the Front-Bench speeches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; as always, your advice is extremely diligent and welcome. I will not speak for desperately long because this is the second debate on Colombia that we have had in recent months, after the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) secured a full debate in September. I declare an interest in this subject because, at the time, he and I had just returned from a visit to Colombia hosted by ABColombia, which is a platform made up of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Trócaire and a couple of other organisations to provide research and advocacy of the human rights situation in that country. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, also contributed to that debate back in September.
This debate has proven to be a welcome opportunity to reflect on how things have changed since then, particularly in the context of the President’s visit. As the hon. Member for Cardiff Central laid out in considerable detail, the situation has changed even in those few months: progress towards peace has become slower and pretty precarious, and there is a risk of the situation deteriorating. The case of Jesús Santrich is emblematic of that.
The bombings that have taken place have led to further deterioration of that peace process, particularly the bombing of the police academy in Bogotá on 17 January that claimed 20 innocent lives and is just one example of sporadic but increasing violence and tension across the country, particularly in rural areas, where poverty and the legacy of conflict are most acute. That is perhaps exemplified most significantly in the dramatic increase in the number of killings, threats, and instances of intimidation of human rights defenders.
During our visit, we had the privilege of meeting several human rights defenders in different parts of the country that we travelled to. The Minister will be aware that the hon. Member for Rhondda and I have written to him about a couple of specific cases of individuals we met who received direct threats of intimidation, violence and death. I hope he will be able to respond, if not directly in his speech then in writing, and will look up that letter in advance of his meeting with the President this evening.
The lack of security for human rights defenders, especially those working in rural areas on the implementation of the peace accord and on practical aspects of land restitution, environmental issues and crop substitution, are incredibly concerning. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) outlined in detail some statistics that should worry and alarm us all. As we all know, Colombia is the worst country in the world for the killing of human rights defenders. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 110 were murdered in 2018, and that trend has continued into this year, with an average of three defenders killed a week.
Colombia is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. There has been growing global attention to the hugely important role that those members of the community play in speaking up and defending the rights of others who they represent. They take huge personal risks to speak out against injustice and abuse of human rights in their countries, often by their Governments or by other non-state actors. It is hugely important that we recognise around the world the particularly acute situation in Colombia.
The Scottish Government remain committed to protecting human rights worldwide. As part of that commitment, last year they saw the launch of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, which offers human rights defenders the chance to work with the Scottish Government, Scottish universities and civil society organisations to share expertise and work together to protect fundamental rights across the globe. I believe it may be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who is sitting next to me, that it is hosted at the University of Dundee. We echo Amnesty International’s support for human rights defenders across the world and support its call for a flagging system to facilitate visa applications and allow them to travel more easily to the UK for work or respite and relief.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is clear research that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade union activist?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I was going to reflect on that towards the end of my remarks. I know that he met the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress last week, and had a full debrief of the Justice for Colombia peace monitoring delegation that visited the country towards the end of May, which included the STUC general secretary and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). The role of our civil society to hold both Governments to account is hugely important.
It is important that we take the opportunity to engage appropriately with President Duque, especially while he is here. I fully endorse everything that the hon. Member for Cardiff Central said about the special jurisdiction for peace; related to that is how to deal with land restitution, which is a key issue for sustainable peace across the country. There have been attempts to undermine the amount of land that should be up for restitution by the Government, despite the effort of many non-governmental organisations. That law needs to be fully extended, so that time is properly available to restitute the land to those who need it.
We should welcome the UK Government’s efforts, through its embassies, to support the JEP programme and to highlight its centrality as a pillar of the peace agreement. It is important that they continue to guarantee the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition. The two important UN mandates that are operating must be renewed this autumn to their full strength and for as long as possible, so that their important work can continue. I finish by echoing the points about the importance of ensuring that civil society is fully engaged. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is very nice to see you in the chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this timely debate, and I thank Justice for Colombia for organising my visit at the end of May. In Bogotá we met members of the Government and members of the Opposition and civil society, but we also went out into the countryside. We went down to Cauca in the south-west, which is a very troubled area, and up to the north-east. When we got to Cauca, we went to a village and I was shocked: on the wall they had pinned up photographs of 30 human rights defenders who had been killed. The reason I was shocked was that they had all been killed in the past year.
That speaks to the first challenge: in the areas that the FARC have vacated, the Government have not put sufficient resource in to build up the criminal justice system. That is why paramilitaries and criminals have come in. For example, we met an old lady who said that people walked around her house at night with guns, and she had no idea who they were. The UN says that last year, 116 human rights defenders were killed; this year, it thinks that the number will be even higher. The first thing that the Colombian Government need to do is strengthen the criminal justice system in the rural areas.
The root of the problem, as hon. Members have said, is land. What has happened in Colombia in the 20th century is akin to what happened in the highland clearances in the 18th and 19th century. First, we saw people taking land from the campesinos to build sugar and banana plantations, but now that has shifted, and people are stealing land from indigenous people for very aggressive mining. We met people who had not been given what they had been promised as part of the peace settlement—coca farmers who wanted to switch but were not being given the capital and equipment to do so. It is really important that the August deadline that was set for achieving that change is extended, because the promises have not been fulfilled. In Tierra Grata in the north, one of the zones where things were supposed to be going so well, we went to a village where there was no running water, no connection to electricity and no roads. That is also extremely problematic.
The third challenge is about the Government’s lack of respect for the transitional justice process, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central described in some detail. Building on experience in Northern Ireland and South Africa, it was decided to right past wrongs through the JEP, through a truth commission and through the unit for the disappeared. The under-resourcing of the JEP by the Government is so severe that lawyers who work there have a caseload of 600 cases. It is not working as it should do.
I know that the new Government face a situation that is intrinsically difficult and complex; they have been in power for only 10 months and they have to cope with 1.5 million refugees from Venezuela. That is not straightforward. It is important that those people who gave up their weapons—the UN oversaw the process of disarmament; it says that it was done properly, and that people did it truthfully—are rewarded, so that there is an incentive for the FARC people who have yet to join the peace process to join in and for the ELN, which is a more extreme group, to get on board with it. That will happen only if the Government fulfil their promises. It is important that the international community continues to support them.
I will tell the Minister the things that I think the British Government could do that would be helpful. First of all, they could send election monitors for the local elections in the autumn. That is very important, because they have privatised the electoral roll. Secondly, the UK is the penholder. The UN Security Council will make a visit in July, and it is really important that when its representatives are there, they meet trade unionists and human rights defenders and go out into the countryside. Thirdly, it is really important that the mandate and the budget for the UN is extended beyond October, in order to have that neutral, impartial and fair overview of what is going on.
Fourthly, I would like the Government to include case studies from Colombia in the two forthcoming conferences that they are organising, on journalism and on sexual violence in conflict. It would be worth studying Colombia in that. Fifthly, they should maintain the work that the embassy has done on minerals and the environment, and co-operating via the OECD. Sixthly, they should deliver the messages to the Colombian Government that I set out—the three key points.
Finally, the Government should remind the Americans that they too sat in the Security Council, supported and agreed the peace process and are signed up to it. They should not undermine it, as they do when they take away the right to visas of judges in the JEP who make judgments that they do not like. That is interfering in another country’s judicial process and is extremely unhelpful.
I do not know whether you have been to Colombia, Mr Hollobone. It is a very beautiful country. The people we met were extremely welcoming. They deserve better. We cannot do everything for them, but I think that we can help, and I hope that the Minister will do so.
Thank you for chairing our proceedings, Mr Hollobone. I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for securing the debate, which, as she says, is impeccably timed to coincide with President Duque’s two-day official visit. It allows me to recognise the hon. Lady’s longstanding engagement with the issue and her obvious, genuine and passionate commitment to justice in Colombia, which we all applaud.
I welcome the opportunity to give the Government’s assessment of the direction of the peace process. The majority of the commitments made by the FARC and the Colombian Government as part of the peace accords are being implemented. FARC is no longer an armed group—it has laid down its weapons—and, for their part, the Colombian Government have made the constitutional and legislative changes necessary to enable the peace process.
In 2018, the FARC took part in elections that had a record turnout and were noted as being the safest for decades; it now has members serving in Congress. The Colombian Government are setting up the legal structures that will govern the Special Jurisprudence for Peace—the JEP. This should pave the way for a transitional justice system that can offer justice for the victims of the conflict.
In the context of a five decade-long armed conflict, all of this is hugely significant, but it is also difficult. Inevitably, there have been, and there will continue to be, bumps in the road, particularly around transitional justice. This is a contentious but critical part of the peace process and it is crucial that it enjoys both political and public legitimacy. We were pleased that President Duque signed the legal basis of the transitional justice system earlier this month.
Some of the wider and more practical aspects of the peace deal are yet to be fully implemented. New momentum is now needed, for instance to bring greater security and prosperity to post-conflict areas, especially in rural districts. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said—I commend her for her best ever speech—the UN and observers should focus properly on the rural areas; I find that argument compelling. It is important that all Colombians, particularly those living in rural areas, see that the peace agreement is being consistently applied, and know that they will all benefit from it.
Reintegration of former combatants, on the scale necessary in Colombia, is another challenging issue. More than 13,000 former FARC fighters and militia have registered for civilian reintegration. Regrettably, slow progress with training, fear of reprisals and long waiting times have led many to join dissident and criminal groups. The murder rate in Colombia has fallen to its lowest level in over 40 years, but the delay in reintegrating former combatants risks undermining that positive record. Indeed, we raised our concerns about killings by criminal groups at the UN Security Council in January, and at the UN Human Rights Council in March.
Tragically, as we have heard, those who speak out for the rights of local communities are often singled out for attack. The UN reports that at least 115 human rights defenders and community leaders were killed last year, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned in her speech. Amnesty International has described Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders.
The Colombian Government accepted all the UK’s recommendations to improve the protection of human rights defenders at their universal periodic review of human rights in May 2018. We welcome this, but much work remains to be done. We are supporting that work. We regularly meet with human rights defenders and have spent more than £3 million since 2011 on projects to support them. Those projects are making a real difference to the lives of human rights defenders, social leaders and, importantly, victims of sexual violence.
The ELN perpetuates insecurity in Colombia. We should not forget the 20 innocent people killed in the ELN attack on a police academy in Bogota in January. The ELN was not party to the 2016 peace agreement. It is a cause for regret that it rejected President Duque’s conditions for a return to peace talks in September. It is perfectly clear that the ELN and other criminal gangs are more interested in conducting a campaign of violence, extortion and intimidation in order to control illegal mining and profit from the record levels of coca production. We urge the ELN to reinstate its ceasefire and end its campaign of violence.
We have supported the Colombian peace process every step of the way, and we will continue to do so. We are proud to be the penholder at the UN Security Council. We are the largest donor to the UN fund that supports the implementation of the peace agreement and a significant donor to the UN Office for Human Rights and the Organisation of American States peace monitoring mission.
I thank the Minister for his contribution and other hon. Members for what has been a good debate. Will he acknowledge in particular the role of women human rights defenders in Colombia? I know that Amnesty International in particular has been doing some fantastic work, and they are often those under particular threat.
I will acknowledge them very fulsomely. We particularly support the women’s network, which assists women who have been victims of sexual violence, which is often the most repulsive and hideous aspect of the violence that they suffer.
Returning to what we are doing, through our conflict, stability and security fund alone we have spent over £40 million since 2015 on projects and programmes that help to cement a lasting peace. President Duque’s visit this week has been an important opportunity to strengthen our relationship with the Colombian Government across the board— he has many Ministers with him for the two days of his visit. The Prime Minister expressed her full support for implementation of the peace accords in her meeting yesterday, as did the Foreign Secretary when he and I met the President earlier today.
Our discussions of course went much further than that, covering the full range of co-operation, from climate change and trade to security and human rights. It is a sign of how our relationship is evolving towards a genuine strategic partnership through which we will work together to address the shared challenges we face.
Later today, we will announce a memorandum of understanding for a sustainable growth partnership, through which both countries will commit to meeting ambitious targets on halting deforestation and environmental crime and to working together on the low-carbon transition. President Duque was clear at his Canning House lecture yesterday: deforestation in Colombia must stop. I am confident that our new sustainable growth partnership will be an important weapon in Colombia’s arsenal with which to fight deforestation and environmental crime.
It is worth noting the programmes that the UK undertakes in rural areas of Colombia, which directly benefit communities there and their environment. UK-funded programmes in Colombia work across the country, at national, regional and municipal level. Recovery of post-conflict rural communities is a priority focus for the cross-Government conflict security and stability fund programme that supports the peace process throughout the country. It directly supports 18 organisations working in rural parts of the country, while the cross-Government prosperity fund also works with six local rural partners. Our international climate finance programmes work with partner organisations in rural areas, and directly with farms and indigenous communities.
On the wider issue of business and the environment, honourable Members may wish to be aware of UK action in the extractive sector in Colombia. The UK has sought to address human rights risks in the Colombian mining industry by encouraging compliance with the OECD’s due diligence guidance and by fostering partnerships between the private sector and international organisations, local government and civil society to support responsible mining practices.
That is very important, because it is the new source of conflict in Colombia. I would like the Minister to consider that we perhaps need to have some sanctions on people who do not abide by the OECD guidance; I do not think there are any at the moment. Could he possibly take that away?
I must say that I found the hon. Lady’s thesis about the importance of land very well thought through, very important and very significant. In terms of sanctions, as she well appreciates, from the legislation—
Not those kinds of sanctions—penalties.
To complete my logic, at the moment we do actual sanctions with the European Union, although we will be able to do that soon, but I understand what the hon. Lady says about penalties; removing impunity for bad behaviour and bad conduct is, I think, what she is saying.
We funded a “train the trainer” project in the country on due diligence guidance for responsible supply chains. In addition, the UK has funded a project to support the engagement of the private sector with Colombia’s Truth Commission in its work as part of Colombia’s transitional justice process. The project developed methodologies, tools and recommendations aimed at addressing and promoting the role of the private sector in the transitional justice process.
Our £25 million prosperity fund programme also supports projects to help to develop Colombia’s national infrastructure and to build capacity in agritech and local government. This work will have important knock-on benefits for the Colombian economy and environment and for the peace process.
I also want to put on record, as has been mentioned today, our appreciation for Colombia’s generosity in hosting more than 1.5 million Venezuelans who have been forced to flee their home country. We are playing a part in the regional response by supporting it with an £8 million contribution to the global concessional financing facility.
We commend Colombia for the progress it has made following the peace accords, but we recognise that more needs to be done to implement them in full, to bring security and prosperity to all areas of the country and, crucially, to protect human rights. As an international partner and an old, long-standing friend of Colombia, the UK will continue to support the implementation of the peace agreement and to work with Colombia across a broad range of issues to promote prosperity and opportunity for all its people.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I think that we have covered off all six areas of the peace agreement in detail. I thought all the contributions, whether speeches or interventions, were made in a very thoughtful and knowledgeable way, and I am very grateful to colleagues for their participation. I also thank the Minister for his response. There were some very helpful and useful suggestions from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), which I hope the Minister will take up with the Colombian Government, although I might have got my timings wrong about when the Minister was seeing President Duque today—
Twice today, and again tonight.
That is good. That is excellent. So he will be able to raise with the President the points that we have raised today. We all have a shared interest in the peace process and its success, so when we raise our concerns it is because we are genuinely concerned about what will happen to Colombia in the future. I thank, again, all colleagues for participating in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Colombia peace process.