I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Colombia and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I will start with a health warning: my Hispanic is not fantastic, so please forgive in advance any incorrect pronunciation. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to lead today’s debate on human rights in Colombia and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.
The situation in Colombia stretches back many decades, and one cannot overstate its complexity for international observers and activists who care deeply about human rights and peace. According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, the conflict has claimed about 262,000 lives—84% of them civilians. A further 6.9 million have been forced from their homes. More than 37,000 people were kidnapped and nearly 18,000 children recruited into armed groups. Thousands of people disappeared, and others were raped and tortured.
Many will know that the polarising conflict, summarised in a simple form, has involved actors on both the far left and the far right, including armed groups and paramilitaries, as well as Government forces. Historically, nearly all have blood on their hands—some more than others—and others continue to have bloodstained hands as we gather in this place today. The victims, the innocent, have always been the people of Colombia: children, the indigenous, social leaders, activists, those who practise religion and trade unionists.
Colombia may not occupy any column inches or any seconds on our newsreels, but it is one of the most long-standing and brutal internal conflicts in recent human history. The conflict serves as an example of societal breakdown, where barbarism and violence reign supreme and where the very worst of our depravity as human beings is on full show. Despite all that turmoil, those who campaign for peace, human rights and justice are some of the bravest people that we will ever encounter.
At this point, I want to thank the campaign group Justice for Colombia, which does so much in the UK context to educate people and raise awareness of the situation in Colombia, both historically and as it unfolds to this day. I am proud of the work undertaken by many British trade unions with Justice for Colombia. Trade unions in Colombia need our international solidarity.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She mentions trade unionists. Does she agree that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist? According to the International Trade Union Confederation, between March 2020 and April 2021, 22 trade unionists were killed in Colombia.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I wholeheartedly agree: Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. I think that sometimes in Britain we take for granted our ability to go about our daily duties as trade unionists and as members of trade unions. That must be protected at all costs, because it is incredibly important. As I said, I am incredibly proud of the work undertaken by many British trade unions with Justice for Colombia. Trade unionists in Colombia need our international solidarity just as much today as they did 20 years ago.
My hon. Friend is talking about the work of Justice for Colombia. I was privileged to go on delegations to Colombia with that organisation in 2007 and 2012, and I learned about the human rights abuses that are happening across that country. Does my hon. Friend share my concerns that those human rights abuses seem to be escalating ahead of May’s presidential elections, and does she agree that the UK Government should be doing everything they can to condemn that escalation in violence and stop it happening?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I completely concur with the views she shared. As we have heard, Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. More than 3,000 have been murdered since 1989—more than in the rest of the world combined. They are murdered with impunity, often by right-wing paramilitary groups with links to Colombia’s state apparatus, and no one is brought to justice.
The 2016 peace agreement was meant to change that and so much beside for trade unionists and those campaigning for workers’ rights, peasant farmers, former FARC combatants who laid down their arms, and those who sought justice for the crimes inflicted on their families and communities by the likes of FARC. For all Colombians, 2016 was a marker to alter the direction of the entire nation. Indeed, it still can be. Despite the setbacks, it is important to avoid falling into the trap of total cynicism and despair. However, elections are looming next month, and for so many progress is still too slow. Although the violence proves relentless, we are in a volatile period with the forces of peace and chaos delicately balanced. It is the job of Colombia’s international partners, such as the UK, to continue to promote peace, support the outcome of next month’s election and work closely with the incumbent or any newly elected Government on our common objectives.
The key tenets of the 2016 peace agreement between ex-President Juan Manuel Santos and the then commander-in-chief of the ultra-left revolutionary FARC group, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, included a ceasefire and disarmament, justice for victims, action on drug trafficking, the political process that saw FARC become registered as a political party, and wholesale land reform. It must be said that there has been some progress, such as the election of 16 victims into special peace seats in Colombia’s House of Representatives. Some 14,000 FARC combatants have laid down their arms and joined the peace process; the majority have moved out of camps and into civilian life. The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the US asserts that, as late as last year, 29% of the accords had been fully implemented, which is significant given that the process is expected to last 15 years.
On the polarising matter of justice for FARC victims, progress is being made, although it is too slow for some and not far enough for many, who want positive, not transitional, justice. On the other hand, the security situation is either deteriorating or static. The current Government have failed to grasp the severity of the threat posed by the far-right paramilitary groups that threaten to jeopardise the peace process. The current President has a responsibility to safeguard the peace process, and that means affording protection to those taking part in it. Many believe that security, or a lack of it, and the escalating violence are the biggest threats that could tip the balance of forces in favour of chaos.
My hon. Friend touches on a really important point. One of the groups who have been systematically murdered is ex-members of FARC. The signal that that gives to others is that making peace is potentially the wrong road; it encourages people to go back into the jungle and take up arms again. That is the wrong message. There has to be action by any Colombian Government on that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I completely concur.
The early part of this year makes for very grim reading. The murder of Jorge Santofimio, the former FARC fighter turned environmentalist, was harrowing. The number of former FARC combatants killed since 2016 is now over 300. More than 900 social leaders have been killed since the peace agreement was signed in 2016. In the first three months of 2022, 48 social activists and 11 former FARC combatants have been killed, and 27 massacres have taken place. It goes without saying that if those who laid down their arms feel that they are not afforded protection, there is a risk that they will take up arms again. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) made that point very well.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, at the UN Security Council briefing on Colombia, called on the Colombian Government
“to continue to expand its efforts to provide adequate protection and security, improve state presence in conflict-affected areas…and strengthen the institutions that can investigate and prosecute those responsible for these crimes.”
I must also note the murder of the indigenous leader Miller Correa on 14 March this year. Only eight days prior to his death Miller was named alongside other activists in a threat signed by a group identifying itself as the far-right Black Eagles. It was a great loss, and many other leaders now face increased threats. Perhaps the UK Government could obtain clarity from the Colombian Government about why authorities have withdrawn the security detail from indigenous Senator-elect and human rights defender Aída Quilcué, after she faced similar threats to those made about the murdered Correa, again by the Black Eagles. The same Black Eagles group is now making threats against progressive political forces in the historic pact—most recently, Francia Márquez, who is the frontrunner to secure the vice-presidency in May.
In summary, in the run-up to May’s presidential elections, the Colombian Government must step up in defence of the peace process; expand the security afforded to those participating in the process; commit to protect religious, indigenous, sexual, trade union and labour rights; and, without question, accept the outcome of May’s election. The UK Government must aid the Colombian Government in those aims, if they are sincere in pursuing them, and must without question support any new Government that is elected in May.
If Members speak for about seven months—[Laughter.] Seven minutes! I know that Mr Shannon may be there for us. If you speak for about seven minutes, all your colleagues will get the opportunity to have their say, and the Front Benchers will have 10 minutes.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Seven months would be me just getting warmed up. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing the debate and on her fantastic introduction.
Like many, I suspect, my involvement and interest in Colombia started when I was a trade union official. As we have heard from colleagues, Colombia was the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist 20 years ago, and my message for the Minister is that we must not take our eye off that ball.
There are two harsh realities in Columbia. No. 1 is that the peace process does not enjoy universal support. It did not at the time; when ex-President Santos put it to the vote, it was narrowly rejected. There is still a large, residual resentment at the peace process and at the fact that the Government and the state made peace with FARC. We heard that in the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who talked about the pressures to revert to the previous state of civil war, which was the longest-running civil war in the world at the time.
That is one harsh reality. The other, for those who oppose the peace process in Colombia, is that it is the only show in town; it is the only way forward. Peace cannot be established and won just because a document was signed at Cartagena in 2016; it has to be a long and ongoing process. That is why it is so important to see colleagues here from Northern Ireland—my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). I pay tribute to our representatives in the UK from Northern Ireland, including the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Colombia, and Lord Alderdice, and to all the parties in Northern Ireland, who are going—not have been—through a peace process, which is difficult at times for all of them. They demonstrate to the people of Colombia that peace must be invested in day after day, month after month and year after year. Peace cannot be achieved simply by signing a piece of paper—and then we all go home. Peace is difficult. It may not be as difficult as conflict, although some in the large cities of Colombia who have been insulated from the violence might be happy to go back to that situation. We have to continue to give that message and support the people of Colombia.
One big problem the people of Colombia face is that the Government—the state—still do not control large areas of territory in Colombia. Chapter 1 of the peace agreement foresaw comprehensive rural reform, giving people a stake in their own land and life. It also gave them security to carry on their lives without the threat of paramilitaries from either side. That section on rural reform has fallen badly behind in areas where there is no state presence. One set of paramilitaries has been replaced by another. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, they are narco-traffickers or former right-wing paramilitaries, or they sit in the middle bit of the Venn diagram and might be a mixture of them all.
I am pleased to say that the number of armed combatants has fallen. The rough guess of the independent Bogotá think-tank Indepaz is that there are about 5,200 to 5,500 armed, organised paramilitaries, which is lower than the combined total of 50,000 20 years ago. If we include all the different armed groups, there are probably about 17,000 in total, so progress is certainly being made. However, as my hon. Friend said, the number of murders of social leaders and human rights defenders jumped in 2020 and remains stubbornly high.
Four main sources keep count of the numbers of social leaders, human rights defenders and trade unionists murdered in Colombia: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a Colombian Government agency, the human rights ombudsman, Defensoría; and two non-governmental organisations, Somos Defensores and Indepaz. Of those, even the organisation with the lowest confirmed count, the UN high commissioner, still finds that a social leader has been murdered in Colombia every 3.2 days since the peace accord came into effect in December 2016.
A further consequence of the lack of peace and the failure to control territory is illegal deforestation and attacks on the environment. I pay tribute to British groups, such as the Earlham Institute and Kew Gardens, that are doing extremely important work with Colombians and Colombian academics in support of biodiversity programmes. However, deforestation continues, with a 36.9% increase in deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon basin between 2019 and 2020.
The second chapter of the peace accord focuses on political participation and seeks to establish guarantees for people to petition the state or to practise opposition politics. Before and during the decades of the armed conflict, people with reformist or leftist views participated in politics at great personal risk. Thousands were killed, including much of the membership of a political party originally linked to the FARC, the Patriotic Union, in the ’80s and ’90s.
Political participation guarantees still do not go much further than a few nominal changes in the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree mentioned the Kroc Institute’s monitoring report, which found that there is still stagnation on the commitments that would allow progress towards structural reforms of democracy, due to the absence of a political consensus for their substantial and comprehensive progress.
Spending on the peace process in Colombia fell by 18% from 2020 to 2021 and the Colombian Comptroller General argues that that contributes to increasing the lags in the implementation of the comprehensive security system for political participation. Peace is expensive—we know that, and we also know that Colombia has spent a lot of money supporting Venezuelan refugees, and has also had to deal with the pandemic—but it is so fundamental to social progress in Colombia that it is not an area where budgets can be cut.
Chapter 5 of the peace accord covers the processes that could deliver peace. It sets up a comprehensive system for truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace is a transitional justice tribunal that is prosecuting the most serious human rights abusers. Again, it does not enjoy full support, but something that enjoyed full support from one side or the other probably would not be the compromise that a peace deal would bring. A unit to search for the disappeared is working with victims and communities in an attempt to locate some of the 80,000 people who went missing during the years of the conflict. Again, that is similar to what happened in Northern Ireland.
We cannot have peace without justice, we cannot have justice without peace, and we cannot have environmental protection without peace. All are absolutely essential, but let us not forget the trade unionists and civil society leaders who are being murdered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing this debate, which comes at a time between the fairly muted five-year anniversary of the peace agreement and next month’s elections. Those elections will set the direction for the implementation of that peace agreement.
I visited Colombia earlier this month, along with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), at the invitation of ABColombia, which, as Members will know, is a coalition of key Irish and British international non-governmental organisations, including Trócaire, Oxfam and Christian Aid who accompanied our visit. When we were there we met representatives of both the agencies, elected representatives, the United Nations, those processing peace, former combatants and, crucially, local communities that are already engaged in doing so much about the shocking and perilous situation on the ground for those who stand up for the protection of human rights.
As Members have outlined, Colombia’s conflicts spanned five decades, with a death toll of around a quarter of a million, including 45,000 children. As others have said, that includes 25,000 disappearances, where people did not even have the dignity of a body to bury. Clearly, many millions more were displaced due to a conflict that is, at its core, about land; that is the substantial and core unimplemented part of the peace agreement.
The issues are exacerbated by a residual level of violence in the country, carried out with impunity. From my point of view as a fairly casual observer, it appears that the state is at best absent and at worse complicit in many of those violent human rights abuses. That should concern us morally, but it should also concern us because the situation is exacerbated by extractive industries that are exploiting Colombia’s natural resources in a way that means a very small number of people accrue large profits; those of here accrue benefits in material goods, but the process leaves only negative environmental and social impacts for local communities.
Our visit focused on the effects of mining in the La Guajira region to the north-east, near the Venezuelan border, and on the Cerrejón mining company, which is owned exclusively by the giant corporation Glencore and clearly treats indigenous communities as an inconvenience. We looked at the failure of national and transnational governance structures that seem unwilling or unable to deliver justice, rights and fair play for those communities.
We met communities in the Sierra Nevada who had been displaced with woeful resettlement packages, or who were threatened by displacement due to the massive mine, which is literally hundreds of kilometres of open-cast. It is the biggest mine in Latin America, and is a shocking and violent vista. Wherever one looks there is a massive crater in the environment that looms over and oppresses people, both visually and environmentally. They have had the air around them, the soil under their feet and the water that they depend on polluted by mining practices. There has been a sharp increase in disease. Some people have already had their water supply diverted—or risk having it diverted—to satisfy the mine’s insatiable need for water.
We visited the Arroyo Bruno—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree has better Spanish than mine—around which communities have lived and grown sustainably for many hundreds of years. Those communities now face an existential risk to their existence and human rights, and those who are attempting to stand up for those rights are particularly at risk. It is worth saying that those developments have almost no spill-over economic benefit to the communities. Workers and the materials that supply the mine are trucked in, and coal is noisily and dustily trucked out. We drove past a train that was so long that we were driving past it for literally 10 minutes. At all hours of the day and night, it spills out coal dust.
The basic human right of these communities to somewhere to live—as they have lived for years—is not being protected. They have not had the opportunity to feel the benefits of peace and security at the end of the conflict. The water is sold back to them in plastic containers, and there is no benefit whatever to the communities. We are rightly confronting the human rights implications of our dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, and it is appropriate that we also focus on impacts in other areas.
Coal is over. Everybody knows that that mine and many others will close in the coming years, but it is important that we use our influence to ensure a just transition for those communities and other communities whose rights have been abused. We must ensure that these issues are not lost in the implementation of the peace deal. I have tried not to do that Northern Irish thing of overlaying and viewing every single international issue through the prism of where we grew up, but I must say that it is encouraging and courageous that Colombia is dealing upfront with the issues of truth and justice as a pre-requisite for reconciliation. It is courageous that those issues are being confronted head-on, and I say that as someone who lives somewhere where for 25 years we just tried to keeping closing the door on the truth, allowing the perpetrators on various sides to move on with their lives, and the victims not to have clarity and the release of justice.
We understand that the truth commission will publish its report, on which it has engaged heavily, a couple of weeks after the presidential election—come what may. What is clear to me, and what I hope hon. Members will be able to use their influence to ensure, is that the crucial issues of land reform, land abuse and theft, and the accruing of resources, are not lost as we implement the peace deal. It is clear that accompaniment and scrutiny is important in Colombia. The country is rightly interested in what the world thinks about it and has an interest in transitioning to clean sources of energy, but it is vital that as its Government implement this deal, they bring forward a new approach to managing, serving and dealing with indigenous communities.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on setting the scene very well, as she always does. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) referred to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and her grasp of the Spanish language. With an Ulster Scots accent, I will be miles behind her.
Ms McDonagh, you invited me to speak for seven months. I was just thinking to myself, “Could I do that?” I could certainly make an attempt, but I guarantee that I will not be doing that today. I have been happy to speak on many occasions about Colombia, and I know the hon. Member for Belfast South also has a deep interest in the country. My party leader here in Westminster, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has been involved in many trips to Colombia over a great many years to try to find a way forward, and I have been a member of the parliamentary friends of Colombia group. I am pleased to add my support to what the hon. Member for Belfast South has said.
I see things very simply: I see right and I see wrong. It does not matter to me who the people in the wrong are, and on this occasion we see clearly what has happened. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has contributed greatly to the peace process. The hon. Member for Belfast South is right that we cannot see everything through the prism of Northern Ireland, but we can use some of the things that have happened as an example of how we can help others to achieve some of the goals that we have achieved.
We have not reached where we want to be yet—that is a fact—but at the same time, we have made massive steps in Northern Ireland, moving towards a society that embraces all traditions from all sides and all opinions. It is important that we recognise those contributions and the movement we have all made. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast South does not mind me saying this, but I think that she and I—speaking for myself, primarily—have moved in a direction that, 30 years ago, I probably would not have. However, I realise that if we want to make a better society, we still have things to do, and we must also try to do that in Colombia.
I will speak briefly on the issue of freedom of religion and belief, which the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree and for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) have spoken about. Often deemed a bellwether human right, where freedom of religion or belief is protected, other human rights tend to be secured, too. In places where we see freedom of religion or belief violations, other human rights abuses are never too far behind, as hon. Members have spoken about at some length. Trade union members have been attacked, injured and murdered. Some 25,000 people have disappeared—wow! That is a salient reminder of Northern Ireland. I always think of those who disappeared in Northern Ireland; their bodies were never found, so their families never had the chance to lay their loved ones to rest, which would help them to cope with that final conclusion. We have all experienced those things.
I also think of the giant companies that—with great respect to business—disregard people because they do not have money, position or power. However, those are the people I am speaking for and will always speak for in this House: the wee man and the wee woman who do not have anyone to speak for them.
During Colombia’s internal armed conflict, all actors were responsible for serious human rights abuses. Freedom of religion or belief was one such right to suffer, with hundreds of church leaders targeted for assassination and churches facing extortion from armed groups. Moreover, the military refused the right to conscientious objection on account of religious beliefs. A return to open hostilities in Colombia would undeniably be disastrous for the human rights situation there, not least the right to freedom of religion or belief.
It is therefore with great and serious concern that I attend this debate to examine the situation in Colombia. Despite the landmark peace agreement reached in 2016—which we all hoped would be a catalyst to bring change and right the wrongs we have seen over the years—levels of violence in Colombia remain high, with community leaders, human rights defenders and women, in particular, violated and vulnerable. Those responsible for the human rights abuses must be held accountable by the laws of the land.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights report notes the concerning situation for the human rights defenders. It is a grave injustice that illegal armed groups took advantage of the national health crisis due to covid-19 to increase their attacks on human rights defenders. It is equally alarming that community and indigenous leaders were some of those most at risk of such horrific violence and illegal land grabs. There is such disregard for those people. It does not matter that they have farmed the land for years; their land is simply taken off them. As far as the companies and the Government are concerned, those people are nobodies. However, they are somebodies, and we are speaking for them today.
It is vital that Colombia does more to bolster security presence in conflict-affected areas. I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for City of Chester on deforestation; we need to control and stop it, and protect those forests. That goes for the whole world, but especially Colombia.
It is also vital that more is done to promote acceptance of FORB among indigenous communities. Although the Colombian constitution protects freedom of religion or belief, Colombian courts rule that such rights do not extend to those living on indigenous lands, where collective cultural rights take precedence instead—I mean, really? I was saying to the hon. Member for Belfast South that I am reminded of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, where some people are more equal than others. How true that is, when some can express their religious beliefs but, for others, that freedom of religion or belief is not carried through in the laws of the land.
Again, I look to the Minister, who has a great grasp of these issues. I know he will reply with understanding and passion. I am looking forward to hearing from the shadow spokespersons, the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), two gentlemen who also have a grasp of the issues. I know they will make their contributions with passion, understanding and a desire for the change that we all want.
In many cases, members of indigenous communities who convert to other faiths or no faith at all face severe discrimination in their communities, including threats of forced displacement. It is important, therefore, that the Colombian Government enact legislation that protects freedom of religion or belief for all Colombians, including those living on indigenous lands. Will the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place on the protection of the rights of indigenous people?
The human rights situation in Colombia is complex and precarious. I hope we can all agree that while any progress towards full implementation of the peace agreement is positive and should be celebrated, much more needs to be done. As we comment on the human rights situation in Colombia, let us ensure that we do not lose sight of the importance of freedom of religion or belief—a multifaceted human right.
I conclude by expressing my sincerest hope that Colombia will see the peace agreement fully realised. It must be peace with justice, otherwise it means nothing. There is no place for war and conflict in the world today. I am reminded of the biblical statement that there will be
“wars and rumours of wars”.
We are certainly living in such times. I urge my United Kingdom Government and my Minister to continue using their influence in the multilateral sector to promote the practical implementation of peace in Colombia and to pursue the defence of human rights for all. “For all” means exactly that: for the wee man and the wee woman.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this debate and on her comprehensive introduction. It is the latest in quite a series of debates on Colombia in Westminster Hall in this Session—although I think the first where we have not been required to wear face masks, which is quite a good thing.
The Minister should be aware that there is growing awareness and interest in the situation in that country. Some of it is long standing: there are passionate campaigners here who have been working on the issue for decades. Others are becoming more aware, especially as we reach the anniversary of the peace accord. The APPG, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), is increasingly active; we recently welcomed the new ambassador. Organisations such as Justice for Colombia, ABColombia and the trade union movement as a whole are all doing a tremendous job to raise awareness, and campaign for peace and justice.
It is slightly disappointing that the Minister has not been joined by any of his Conservative Back-Bench colleagues. It is noticeable, but I am not quite sure what the reason is. I hope that if any members of the Colombian expat population in the UK are following this and similar debates, and live in constituencies represented by Conservative Members of Parliament, they make that contact. Indeed, if others are following this who have an interest in justice and peace, I hope that as constituents they make their voices heard and ask for representation if they are represented by a Conservative Member of Parliament.
Constituents contact me about Colombia. There is awareness and passion for peace and justice in principle, particularly among those of us who have the opportunity to meet campaigners and human rights defenders, whether they have come here through some of the organisations mentioned or whether we have had the privilege of visiting the country, as I did with ABColombia in 2018. I saw the potential of the country and all its wonderful diversity; it has the potential to thrive if violence can be consigned to the past and the peace accords can be implemented in full.
Implementing peace and sustainable development in Colombia also stands as an example to the rest of the world, for good or ill. We heard about the continuation of violence and instability, and the statistics—the highest rate of murders of human rights defenders anywhere in the world. During COP26 in Glasgow, at an incredibly powerful vigil organised by Amnesty International, the name of every human and environmental rights defender around the world who had been murdered in that year alone was read out. The vast majority of the names were from Latin America, of which a significant number were from Colombia. So it is a crucible—an example—of what is going on elsewhere in the world.
The point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the challenges around freedom of religion and belief is particularly important. That relationship between indigenous communities and the land is at the very heart of a lot of indigenous religions. That means that to be separated forcefully from the land is a breach not only of all kinds of human rights, but particularly of the fundamental right to freedom of religion and belief; and religious leaders are very often wider community leaders and human rights defenders as well. It is important that that point is made and reflected in the UK Government’s response to the situation.
One of the big takeaways from my visit, from the conversations that I continue to have with campaigners and from the speeches that we have heard so far is that there are disparities between the rhetoric of the agreement, the structures—quite often well funded—that have been put in place, the bureaucracies that exist in the capital, Bogotá, and the reality on the ground, which is that people are still facing challenges and insecurities on a day-to-day basis and murders are continuing and increasing. Violence throws the whole electoral process into instability.
The UK Government have to rise to their role in all of this as the penholder at the United Nations; indeed, they have a more significant role on the Security Council at the moment. I welcome the dialogue that continues between Ministers. They respond very well to correspondence, parliamentary questions and debates like this. There is a good relationship between the campaign groups, individual Members and the embassy in the country. However, dialogue is not enough. One of the opportunities, allegedly, of Brexit was our “soft power” superpower—our ability to do things differently and show global leadership. How will that be lived up to in the implementation of the new trade accords that are being signed in the UK-Andean trade agreement? Will the commitments to respect for human rights that are built into it actually be implemented and followed through?
The alternative is a slide back to violence if people are cleared off their land for developments of the type that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) spoke about. Such developments will make way for palm oil plantations to feed our demand in the west for cheap consumer goods, cheap food and products that are made with palm oil or fuelled by coal, or whatever. If people in Colombia feel that that comes with a lack of power, voice and agency, we can understand why people think that violence is the only opportunity to make their voice heard.
I was struck by how young the people were. We hear the term “human rights defenders” and think of grizzled old world-weary campaigners, but these were young people, standing up passionately for the rights of their community. They were incredibly frustrated that the democratic structures that had been put in place were not properly respected. The multinational behind the mine that we saw said it would be a small, artisanal project. It was called La Colosa. They were going to blow the top off the mountain, which would have had environmental consequences downstream and would have affected everybody. The community voted against it, but it appeared to be going ahead anyway.
We must live up to the standards in international agreements, like the Ruggie principles on business and human rights. We must think about whether there is something we can do with our domestic legislation to ensure that those rights are secured and that it has an impact in countries that we want to trade with and exercise diplomatic relationships with overseas. The potential is there to drive peace forward. The solutions are identifiable. The campaign groups, us as Back Benchers and Government Ministers all have a role to play in driving that forward.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate on human rights in Colombia.
As Members may recall, I led a similar debate on this matter in July 2021. It is a topic that has a place in my heart. I have a particular interest, having visited Colombia on more than one occasion in recent years to witness the situation there first hand. As hon. Members have said, that was with Justice for Colombia, which does such a great job highlighting the Colombian struggle, along with others, such as ABColombia.
I will say again that the human rights situation and state violence in Colombia are out of control. Despite the historic peace agreement reached in 2016, Colombia remains a country plagued by high levels of violence, with attacks against trade unionists, community leaders, human rights defenders, former combatants, and often women.
The murder of social activists continues unabated. According to the local human rights organisation Indepaz, 48 killings were committed in the first three months of this year, an increase on the same period last year. The UN mission received reports of 43 social activists murdered between 28 December 2021 and 25 March 2022. On 28 March, just three weeks ago, there was a reported killing of six civilians during a military raid, in which a total of 11 people were reportedly killed and five more were injured. The victims reportedly included an indigenous governor, a community council president and his wife, and a 16-year-old boy.
The Peasant Human Rights Network of Putumayo said that a festival to raise funds for local infrastructure and community projects had been attacked by masked soldiers, who initially claimed to belong to a guerrilla group before opening fire indiscriminately. Members of the local community said that the soldiers placed weapons on the victims, before taking pictures and videos. Despite the killings, the Colombian President defended the operation, claiming that 11 dissidents had been killed. In a tweet, Iván Duque claimed:
“Our security forces achieved the neutralisation of 11 FARC dissident members and the arrest of four more.”
The incident has drawn parallels with the so-called “false positives” scandal, which saw the Colombian military murder at least 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008. The victims were presented as combatants, to imply success in counter-insurgency operations and secure financial incentives. The UN Verification Mission in Colombia and the UN human rights office in Colombia have visited the area to hear testimonies from the community, and have called for answers from the Colombian authorities. I ask the Minister to do the same here today.
The 2016 peace agreement was an historic moment that brought genuine optimism to many, particularly in the most impoverished regions of the country. Overall implementation has been very slow, and in some areas non-existent. The UK needs to do more to support Colombians in their search for peace in their homeland. At the end of 2021, we marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Colombian peace agreement, with 147 parliamentarians from across the UK and Ireland signing a statement emphasising the continued importance of the agreement. I think I am right in saying that many, if not all, of the hon. Members here today were signatories to that.
In that letter sent to President Duque, we expressed our deep concern at the lack of progress overall by the Colombian Government in the implementation of some of their crucial obligations in the agreement, leaving the peace process weakened and, so far, denying the Colombian people the opportunity to experience the agreement’s transformative potential to build a sustainable, lasting peace. We still have minimal progress on the coca crop substitution programme. By October 2021, around 45,000 hectares of coca crops had been voluntarily removed by the close to 100,000 families enrolled on the programmes, but there is widespread concern at the slow progress, with roughly only 7% of families having access to alternative economic projects, which are fundamental for the sustainability of the programme.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Colombia to mark the anniversary and reminded the Colombian Government that the security provisions of the agreement must be fully implemented, as well as the chapters on rural reform. He also recognised the FARC’s commitment to the peace process, commenting:
“The vast majority of former combatants, some thirteen thousand, are admirably striving to build new lives in peace.”
Over 300 former FARC combatants have been murdered since entering the reincorporation process. The lack of security in Colombia, and the failure to ensure civilian state presence in large parts of the country, continues to be extremely worrying. According to the UN verification mission report in January,
“With one-third of the time frame envisioned for the implementation of the Final Agreement and despite urgent security challenges across the country, the public policy to dismantle illegal armed groups, criminal organizations and their support networks has not been adopted.”
We know the peace agreement contains important mechanisms not just to improve the economic lives of Colombia’s poorest, but to radically improve the security situation. However, key elements have not been advanced, and we must do more in our role as penholder to the Colombian peace process at the UN Security Council.
I will raise a few concluding points. First, I ask the Minister what more the UK Government can do at the United Nations to ensure that these issues are satisfactorily addressed, so that there can be genuine progress over the next five years. Secondly, the UK embassy’s call for a ceasefire between armed groups during the elections is a welcome first step. Will the UK Government now commit to encouraging peace talks between the Colombian Government and the ELN? Finally, I ask the Minister and the Government to ensure that the UK honours our role as penholder, taking a lead in international efforts to support a full implementation of the Colombian peace agreement, which is undoubtedly the best hope we have of bringing an end to this human rights crisis and seeing Colombia truly receive peace and justice, once and for all.
Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker): this is an important debate, and it is worth making the important point that when we talk about the peace process, it is a process, not a conclusion. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made the point that this has been the longest-running civil war that the world has known; actually, Colombia is still in a state of civil war. The ELN is still active, and parts of the FARC have returned to armed combat because of the failure of the Colombian Government to implement the peace process and their commitments. The paramilitaries—who always were the biggest killers in Colombia—are more than active, and there is a need to disarm all those groups, but the Colombian state is also a perpetrator of the kind of violence that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) mentioned a few moments ago.
That peace process is absolutely fundamental. The first thing I would say to the Minister—I know he will say this himself—is that whoever wins the presidential election that is now well under way, the British Government, as a friend of Colombia, has a responsibility to be very active in demanding action now to disarm the paramilitaries, work for a peace agreement with the ELN, and bring state forces under real control. That is fundamental, because that control has never been there. We are a friend of Colombia, and I accept that, although I have some doubts about the outgoing Government in Colombia. We can, though, be more vocal in establishing the bounds of our friendship.
As the penholder at the United Nations, but also as a country that has helped to fund the truth commission—I very much welcome the British Government’s role in that process—we must make sure that the work of that commission is recognised, heard, taken to the United Nations and monitored, because implementation of its recommendations will be fundamental in building momentum around the peace process. I hope the Minister can give an assurance that when the report comes out, we will take that process very seriously, and do all we can to make sure it is not simply heard, but worked on.
I have several other quick points. I am conscious of time, Ms McDonagh, and I think others still need to speak. A number of my colleagues spoke about the death toll that affects particular groups—yes, trade unionists, human rights defenders and environmental campaigners, but also the ordinary people of Colombia, who face the lack of control of those groups. We have done this in the past, but we have to help the Colombian Government establish mechanisms to ensure that impunity becomes less likely. It will take a long time for impunity to be taken out of existence in Colombia because of the historical forces and that culture, but strengthening the institutions—for example, strengthening the capacity of the prosecuting authorities to take the perpetrators of great violence through a legal process—is absolutely fundamental, because that has never been the case. That level of impunity means that generals, those who control the wealth of Colombia and those who were members of armed groups in the past can and will continue to murder and inflict the kind of wounds that Colombia has suffered so much from in the past. As a friendly Government, we can make a material difference to strengthening those institutions.
I have been involved with and interested in Colombia for well over the majority of my life. It has not always been a pleasure, because sometimes there is real tragedy. I have known people who have died—people I have counted as friends have been murdered—but anybody involved in Colombia knows that it is a beautiful country whose people are worth fighting for. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to the wee folk, and it is the wee folk of Colombia who we must speak up for. It is worth doing, because that beautiful country and those beautiful people deserve better. They can have better. The peace process can make a material difference, but we, as a friend of Colombia, have to work with them on it to bring it to some kind of fruition. It will take time, but the value of it is so enormous that it is worth doing.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this hugely important debate, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing it.
I thank the hon. Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and the hon. Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for their contributions. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) for her contribution. As she said, I spent the first week of Easter recess with her in Colombia, alongside Mr Gary Gannon, the TD for Dublin Central. We were there at the invitation of ABColombia, the advocacy project for a coalition of humanitarian organisations made up of Oxfam, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Christian Aid, Trócaire and CAFOD.
While we were in Colombia, we met a wide range of governmental, civic and international organisations, including CINEP, the peace and advocacy organisation. We met and discussed human rights and the peace process with the Irish ambassador and representatives of the UK embassy in Bogatá. We met the Colombian truth commission, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian Commission of Jurists and the director of the Government’s office of indigenous and minority rights. We even met the UN Security Council’s Verification Mission in Colombia, as well as several politicians from Colombia and representatives of the coalmining giant Cerrejón.
Most importantly, we met and listened to the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada and La Guajira regions in the impoverished remote north-east of the country. Those indigenous communities—the Wayuu, the Kankuamo, the Kogi, the Wiwa and the Arawako—alongside their Afro-Colombian neighbours, are engaged in an existential battle with multinational coalmining companies and other mega power projects, as well as the Colombian Government, over access to their sacred traditional lands and the water on which they depend to survive. I will return to the issue of land and the human rights of those communities.
As we have heard from many speakers, Colombia is at a crossroads, and what happens in the next few weeks will have a long-lasting effect on the future of the country and its people. On 29 May Colombia will elect a new President, and just one week later the truth commission, the official body established to investigate human rights violations, war crimes and other serious abuses, will hand over its official report to the new President.
That report will be comprehensive and detailed and, given the history of Colombia over the past five decades, I think we can safely assume that an awful lot of people, on all sides of the conflict, will be very unhappy with what the truth commission reports. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, our sincere hope is that the new President will accept the report in full and implement its findings. I would appreciate assurances from the Minister that, as penholder on the verification mission, the UK Government have a plan in place to support the truth commission when it reports.
All political analysts expect the presidential election to come down to a run-off between Gustavo Petro, the progressive, leftist candidate, and the right-wing candidate, Federico Gutiérrez. I think that, as well as the economy and the future of the peace agreement, one of the big issues that will dominate the campaign will be the human rights of indigenous and minority communities, their access to land and water, and what role multinational mining conglomerates will play in Colombia’s future.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the election is Petro’s choice of running mate—Francia Márquez, a remarkable young Afro-Colombian woman who has come to prominence as a human rights defender and environmental activist. She has bravely championed women’s rights and the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and in 2018 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize. Now, remarkably, she is just six weeks away from potentially being vice-president of her country.
I am reminded that when Francia Márquez received her Goldman environmental prize, she said:
“Colombia is a country that has traditionally been run by wealthy families. When Black and Indigenous communities demand that large-scale mining be removed from our communities and we ask for protection under the rule of law, the ruling families say that we’re posing a hurdle to economic development. That’s when I ask, what kind of development are they referring to, especially when Indigenous and Black communities lack basic utilities? The community I live in has no drinking water, and our river has been polluted with chemicals used for illegal mining.”
Her story matches almost exactly those that I and the hon. Member for Belfast South heard time and again when we visited Sierra Nevada and La Guajira at the start of April. We heard multiple stories of violence, intimidation and murder being carried out, particularly against female community leaders who dare to stand up for human rights and the protection of their traditional lands.
La Guajira, close to the border with Venezuela, is home to the Wayuu people. However, it is also home to the largest open-cast coalmine in Latin America, Cerrejón, which is owned entirely by the Swiss mining giant Glencore. Cerrejón’s footprint stretches to a mind-boggling 70,000 hectares, or almost 300 square miles, of that incredibly beautiful, mountainous, densely forested area, with its remarkable biodiversity.
Apart from the very obvious damage that coal extraction does to the planet, mining requires water—lots and lots of water—and right now a battle is raging through the Colombian courts between the Cerrejón mining company and the indigenous people of La Guajira for access to that water. At the centre of the current dispute is the Arroyo Bruno, a river that the Wayuu people have relied on for centuries for drinking, washing and irrigation. It runs right through the centre of Cerrejón, and the company has decided to reroute the river to allow it to expand its coal extraction.
Two weeks ago, I walked along the dry bed of what was once a thriving, living river. I was amazed by what I can only describe as the circular insanity of allowing the destruction of one of the most beautiful, biodiverse places on the planet to access water that will allow further extraction of coal, the burning of which has contributed to rising global temperatures, which have directly contributed to the scarcity of water in the tropical forests of northern Colombia. As one Wayuu community leader told us:
“Mining in Colombia is destroying the land. It is destroying the people. It is destroying the future for us and our children…and ultimately it will destroy you too.”
The coal mined at Cerrejón is not for domestic consumption. The millions of tonnes taken from that vast open-cast mine are destined for Europe, which is increasingly turning to Colombia in the face of Russian sanctions. While the people of Europe know full well the enormous damage that burning coal does to the environment, I am sure they have no idea about the impact on the human rights of the indigenous Colombian people of every lump of coal that is taken from their land.
Before leaving Colombia, our delegation attended an historic meeting of the four peoples of the Sierra Nevada. It was historic because it was the first time that the four nations of the Sierra Nevada, which is known as the “heart of the world”, had agreed to work with the Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities of La Guajira to speak with one unified voice against the mega energy projects and the complicity in the destruction of their land and culture. At that meeting, we agreed to be the voice of the communities of the heart of the world in Europe, and here we are today in this Parliament starting to fulfil that promise. In addition to speaking in this House and in the Dáil, we will be contacting the Colombian embassies in Dublin and London, and the Cerrejón coalmine’s parent company, Glencore in Switzerland, to raise our serious concerns.
Our final meeting before we returned home was with a group of Colombian senators, who just yesterday moved a motion in the Colombian Senate on the kidnapping of water by transnational companies. We have agreed to join forces and to invite politicians from other European countries to join us in shining a light on what is happening to the indigenous people and the Afro-Colombian communities in Colombia.
I will finish by echoing the words of the hon. Members for City of Chester and for Strangford. There cannot be justice without peace, and peace is fundamental to any progress in Colombia. I believe that with the support of the international community to implement the truth commission report, and with political leaders who will put human rights first, ahead of the interests of multinational corporations, there can and will be a bright, peaceful future for Colombia and all Colombians.
Thank you for chairing this morning’s proceedings so well, Ms McDonagh. This is a very timely debate, because we are about to see elections in Colombia that could fundamentally change the political structure, but not necessarily the peace structure, that is in place there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing and opening the debate. She told us some extraordinary and distressing facts—for example, that 262 lives have been lost over the history of this conflict, 84% of them of civilians. Nearly all the groups involved, from the far left to the far right, have blood on their hands, and we recognise that too. This has been a long-standing and brutal conflict. It is something that all of humanity should be ashamed about. Campaigners for peace are some of the bravest people in Colombia. As we know, it is certainly the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, and it has been for many years.
My hon. Friend drew our attention to the role of Justice for Colombia and the trade union movement in the United Kingdom to bring into focus and to our attention the abuses that go on every day, not to mention the appalling murders. She said, though, that it is important not to enter into the trap of hopelessness and despair, and I absolutely agree. The Opposition do not intend to be despairing, because it is so important to continue to have hope in the very best of humanity to overcome the worst excesses that humans can inflict on each other.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) expressed his concern, as a former trade unionist and trade union official, for the trade unionists in Colombia, who are feeling the brunt of the abuse and murders every single day. He said—the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), quoted him on this—that the peace process does not command universal support. That is the harsh reality, but peace is a process, and it is the only way forward. There is no other option.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester compared the process in Colombia with the process in Northern Ireland, and that comparison was made a few times by other contributors this morning. Peace cannot be achieved, he said, simply by signing a piece of paper. How right that is. We have many good examples, Northern Ireland being one, that show us that peace is a process. It is far more than a piece of paper. It is communities coming together again; it is the overcoming of inequalities that often lead to violence in the first place. There can be no peace without justice, but let us never forget that it is trade unionists and peace campaigners who have paid the highest price of all, by giving their lives in this terrible conflict.
We then heard from—I am sorry she is not in her place—the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). She mentioned that the state is absent and at worst complicit in some of the violence, and talked about the role of the extractive industries in exacerbating the situation. She went on the ABColombia visit this month, together with the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. I was supposed to go on that visit as well, but unfortunately I had to withdraw at the last minute. I really wish that I had gone, and hope to be on the visit to observe the presidential election at the end of next month, together with members of Justice for Colombia.
The hon. Member for Belfast South said that there are crucial land reform issues that also must not be lost. Indigenous communities are the victims of abuse and exploitation. We know that: we have seen the reports; we have read many of the horrific tales.
We then heard from my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I always enjoy hearing from. He has had many years of involvement with Colombia, as have many in this room and many other colleagues from across the House. He expressed the clear view, and he is absolutely right, that this is an issue of right and wrong—of peace versus violence; of the exploitation of indigenous communities versus sharing the riches of such an extraordinary and wonderful land. There is no simple comparison, he said, between the peace process in Northern Ireland and Colombia, but there are lessons that could be learned, which is an important point. He also drew our attention, as he always does, to the denial of freedom of religion or belief as a key indicator of other human rights abuses in that country. He, like everybody else, has hopes for peace with justice being realised in Colombia in the future.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who always has a great contribution to make to these debates, about increasing awareness of the issues relating to justice for Colombia. He was disappointed—as am I and, I am sure, are other Members in this room—that we do not have true representation from right across the House. I am absolutely sure that Members from the governing party are just as concerned about the issues that we have raised today. Never mind that trade unionists are the target for violence and murder; this is about fundamental human rights. It is about a country living in peace and sharing the fruits of the resources of that nation together.
It is disappointing, Minister, that there not Members from the governing party here. I am sure they are just as concerned, and I am sure, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North said, that members of the diaspora community will express their concerns and views to Conservative Members. We need to come together for the future of Colombia, if it is to have a future, and that means all parties in our great democratic nation showing Colombia that there can be an alternative to the violence, murder and brutality that we see each and every day.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North agreed with the hon. Member for Strangford about the central role of freedom of religion and belief in ensuring the true observation of human rights. He also said that the UK Government, as a penholder at the United Nations, should be more active. I certainly agree, and the Opposition agree, and that is one of the questions that I would ask the Minister to address in winding up. We can play a stronger role in a true peace agreement—in justice for all Colombians. Many still think, sadly, that violence is the only way forward—the only way to make their voices heard when democratic structures fail.
We then heard from—I am sorry she is not in her place—my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who always has a great deal to say, because she is passionate about Colombia. She secured the previous debate on this subject that I spoke in, in this Chamber. She said that she has visited Colombia on many occasions and that the violence there is completely out of control, especially against human rights defenders and social activists. She mentioned the outrage in the Putumayo district, to which I was going to draw Members’ attention. That raid in Puerto Leguízamo just three weeks ago was a shocking example of the way in which a peaceful fundraising event can be invaded by violent extremists who want simply to destroy and not to help to rebuild the great nation of Colombia. That was another shocking example of why action is needed.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), a dear friend and colleague whom I have known probably longer than anyone else in this Parliament. I first worked with him when he was Minister of State in the Foreign Office in the Blair Government of 1997. My hon. Friend, through his commitment, has shown continued involvement in all those issues that he was the Minister responsible for at that time, 25 years ago. He mentioned that the civil war in Colombia is still the longest-running civil war in the world, and that the paramilitaries always were the biggest killers—and they still are. The British Government, as a friend of Colombia, have a fundamental role and could be far more vocal, as I just said. The Government of Colombia are complicit in the shocking violence, and there must always be consequences for the abuse of human rights and the horrors that we have seen.
The peace agreement recognised that high levels of ingrained and structural poverty, especially in the countryside, contributed to and exacerbated armed conflict in the country. There has been very little positive movement on that since 2016. In remote areas across Colombia, thousands live in poverty, with little access to basic public services. That has made it easy for the armed groups to recruit, especially among young men with few prospects. Those areas have far too few prosecutors, investigators and judges, or police to provide adequate protection and justice for people who so desperately need them. In many remote areas, there is simply no state presence.
In 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Colombia is estimated to have had the second largest displaced population in the world after Syria. We rightly concentrate on the horrors that are going on in Ukraine right now, but conflicts such as that in Colombia get no headlines. We know very little about them, yet still they carry on. Very little has been done to alleviate this shocking situation.
To conclude, Colombia is a wonderful country and a great nation, with fantastic and brilliant resources. When I was first given the brief for Colombia, I reached for my library and looked at the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel laureate of Colombia in literature. I read “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, and it gave me a picture of a country that I have yet to visit. It made it seem like a magical place, as of course Gabriel García Márquez is the expert in magical realism. I commend that novel and the rest of his canon to anyone who wants to know about the intellect, the beauty and the people of Colombia, in all its diversity and magic—a country that can be recreated and, with our help, will be, with that hope and optimism for peace.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing this debate. I join the chorus of support, echoed by a number of speakers today, for an important speech, brought to this House at an important time. She delivered her concerns about the situation and her desire for improvement in the country most eloquently and passionately.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) is the Minister with responsibility for our relationships with Latin America, and therefore with Colombia. She is travelling on Government business, but it is a pleasure to stand in her stead and have the opportunity to respond to hon. Members’ points. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for being so assiduous in highlighting the contribution of each Member who has spoken today; I echo his thanks for their thoughtful contributions.
As has been said by almost everyone today, the situation in Colombia has been terrible over several decades. From the 1960s until 2016, Colombia endured what became the longest-running conflict in the western hemisphere. State forces, paramilitary groups, left-wing guerrillas and criminal gangs all fought, with more than 220,000 people losing their lives and over 5 million people forced to flee their homes. Last November, Colombia marked five years since the signing of the peace agreement, and remarkable progress has been made in that time. There are still challenges, however, and I will address those later on.
Security conditions in much of the country are considerably improved and thousands of ex-combatants have rejoined civilian life. Colombia’s transitional justice system, formalised in the peace agreement, continues to put victims at the heart of the truth and reconciliation process. This year will be another turning point on that path for the Colombian people. We look forward to seeing the final report from the truth commission in June this year. We also expect the first sentences to be handed down by Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Last month’s election of 16 victims into special peace seats in the House of Representatives is another major step in the right direction, giving those affected by conflict a voice at the highest levels.
Let there be no doubt that full implementation of the peace agreement is a major task and, as Members have mentioned, requires constant effort. Its provisions go to the heart of some of the most challenging issues facing Colombia, including social inequality and land ownership reform. It is clear that the agreement cannot immediately solve issues that have plagued Colombia for decades. The Government still have no permanent presence in a number of strategic areas formerly occupied by FARC. Armed groups continue to fight for control of cocoa cultivation, drug trafficking, illegal mining and other illicit activities, with devastating consequences for communities, who face threats, violence and sadly, as has been highlighted, murder. The covid-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Venezuela have added additional pressures.
That is why the British Government continue to support Colombia to overcome those challenges. We are the second-largest donor to the UN trust fund supporting the implementation of the peace agreement. Since 2015, we have spent more than £69 million through the conflict, stability and security fund to support development, reintegration, and justice. The fund also supports the truth commission’s work to gather testimony from Colombians, both at home and overseas. Meanwhile, our leading role at the UN Security Council, where we support Colombia, continues to make a positive difference. Last year, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a UK-drafted resolution to expand the mandate of the UN verification mission.
As I and others have mentioned, communities continue to face appalling threats and brutal violence. Among the worst affected are former combatants, social leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian leaders.
The Minister mentioned indigenous peoples, whom I referred to in my speech. Within the constitution, they are second-class citizens because of their religious views. While I am mindful that this area is not the Minister’s responsibility, I ask him again: what discussions have been had with the Colombian Government on this issue? Could he come back to me and other hon. Members? We all wish to hear the answer.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and for the passion he displays for the rights of people of all faiths and none. I will touch upon our engagement with the Colombian Government in just a moment.
Because of the ongoing violence, we designate Colombia as a human rights priority country, placing addressing human rights at the heart of our diplomatic engagement. We regularly raise human rights issues, as well as specific cases of concern, directly with the Colombian Government.
Just last week, my noble Friend, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon met President Duque to discuss peace, security and human rights ahead of the latest UN Security Council briefing on Colombia. Last February, the Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean discussed human rights issues with Vice-President Ramírez. I will seek to obtain the details about support and protection for indigenous peoples following those meetings.
We consistently call on the Colombian Government to strengthen the institutions that investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of human rights abuses. We also engage with stakeholders and affected communities.
UK aid has supported a network of sexual violence survivors to document 1,200 cases that are now being considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative also plays an important role, alongside our international partners. Over the past year, the UK has funded three projects in Colombia helping to strengthen justice and accountability for survivors. The projects have enabled survivors to access legal aid and monitor the cases they have brought through the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. UK funding has also enabled male survivors of sexual violence, who face specific barriers to accessing justice, to bring their cases forward.
As Colombia begins its recovery from the pandemic, the UK also supports opportunities for its citizens. Since 2011, we have provided more than £240 million of climate finance to Colombia to halt deforestation and promote greener supply chains, which not only helps tackle some of the root causes of violence, but also helps protect the country’s beautiful environment.
Our Andean free trade agreement also has an important role to play in advancing human rights. The agreement includes provisions that ensure we can directly raise issues with partner countries where we believe there have been violations of workers’ rights or environmental commitments. I assure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) we will make sure those are enforced.
As Colombia looks ahead to the presidential elections next month, we call on all stakeholders to ensure that they are peaceful and inclusive and that the elected parties maintain their commitment to the peace agreement. Colombia’s success over the past five years serves as an important reminder that the resolution of differences must only be done through peaceful dialogue. Finally, I assure Members of our continued commitment to supporting peace and human rights in Colombia.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in Colombia and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.