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Colombia

Volume 808: debated on Monday 7 December 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their support for (1) human rights, and (2) the peace process, in Colombia.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness and look to working with her on this important agenda. Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country and we raise human rights with the Colombian Government’s representatives whenever possible. Indeed, I discussed the issue at length with Ministers, relevant institutions and civil society during my virtual visit to Colombia on 13 October. We are also proud to lead on Colombia’s peace process at the UN Security Council and have contributed £60 million in support of peace, stability and security since 2015.

I thank the Minister very much for his Answer, and refer to my interest as recorded in the register. The peace process is clearly vital. A recent newspaper report in Colombia, revealing details of an undercover operation by the Colombian Attorney-General’s office, apparently designed to entrap FARC peace negotiators and undermine the peace process, is alarming. The Attorney-General’s office, led by Néstor Humberto Martinez, reportedly provided five kilos of cocaine for the operation, but this and other relevant information was withheld from the courts. Was the British Ambassador—or other British authorities—made aware of those details at the time of the arrest of the FARC peace negotiator in 2018? What is the Government’s assessment of these revelations?

As the noble Baroness will appreciate, I am not going to comment specifically on press reports. In terms of the specifics of the case, she raises important challenges that Colombia continues to face. The issue of narcotics and drugs is a major one. Colombia remains one of the largest producers of cocaine in the world—among others. The violence that we currently see affects local communities and former FARC combatants, led by the issues we have seen around drugs. We remain committed to peace accords, which the current President and his team have assured us of. On the specific matter of the case the noble Baroness raises, if there is more information to share, I will write to her.

My Lords, I was privileged to meet brave journalists when I visited Colombia—people such as Jineth Bedoya. Can my noble friend say what support the Government now give to the Colombian Foundation for Press Freedom and how effective they assess that to be in the face of the continuous threats of rape, kidnap and death that journalists face?

My Lords, I first pay tribute to my noble friend for her leadership, during her tenure as Minister of State at what was the FCO, on a broad range of human rights and for standing up for human rights defenders. Indeed, in my virtual visit, my first meeting was with journalists, to ascertain and understand more effectively the challenges they have. We are aware of allegations that members of the Colombian military have been illegally gathering surveillance on activists, including journalists and opposition politicians. We have raised this directly with the Colombian authorities. We are lending technical support and will be raising the issue of journalist freedom and press freedom across the piece in our leadership role on the coalition for media freedom.

My Lords, the UK has spoken up in the Security Council about the special jurisdiction for peace, but can the Minister say what public support has been given by the UK embassy in Bogotá to this war crimes tribunal, in light of attempts by President Duque to undermine its work?

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work in this area. The United Kingdom has provided, and continues to provide, support to help Colombia tackle, in particular, the legacy of sexual violence from its long conflict. The UK continues to support survivors and has now helped document 1,200 new cases that are now before the transitional justice system. Let me assure the noble Baroness, that in my visit to Colombia I made it absolutely clear that, while this is an independent judicial body, it should not be interfered with. We continue to stand up for the rights of all survivors of sexual violence during the period of conflict.

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-president of Justice for Colombia. The transitional justice court, which was created in Colombia by the peace agreement, has been hailed by the International Criminal Court as a benchmark for the world. Is our Government aware that the Colombian Government are undermining the court’s mandate? Of course, this is in a country where there is still widespread violence. Does the Minister agree that ending the court’s ability to function fairly rather contradicts HMG’s funding to support the peace process? What steps can the UK take to protect the court’s autonomy?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that during my visit, and indeed in all engagements through our ambassador, we raise the importance of the very matters that he refers to. In terms of our commitment to the peace process, I think the UK can be proud of the fact that it has contributed to the importance of an inclusive peace process, and we will continue to do so.

Global Witness has found that Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for environmental activists, with more 60 murders in 2019. How are we engaging to help protect these activists, and combating climate change in Colombia generally?

My Lords, as I said in my opening Answer, Colombia remains a human rights priority country. I agree with the noble Baroness that the statistics are quite shocking. In the latest figures the UN has released, at least 45 human rights defenders have been killed this year alone. That said, we are working very closely with Colombia on the importance of protecting the environment and tackling climate change. Our climate programme in Colombia is designed with a conflict-sensitive approach. Much of its aims are to protect Colombia’s biodiversity, but also to protect those who are leading important roles within country.

My Lords, Colombia’s supreme court has declared that state security forces systematically violate citizens’ democratic right to peaceful protest, and the Colombian army has this year been implicated in killings in rural areas. Given that the UK is providing funding to train Colombian police, are steps being taken to ensure that human rights concerns about the Colombian security forces are properly addressed?

My short answer to the noble Lord is that yes, they are, but the concerns he has raised are real and he is quite right to bring them to the Floor of the House. I can assure him that in all the exchanges we have, including our support, be that financial or technical, the issue of human rights obligations among those who are trained and are there to protect people is very much at the forefront of our discussions.

My Lords, in aiming to help to strengthen and reinforce democratic principles and the rule of law in Colombia, can my noble friend say whether the British Council is playing a significant role? Is that part of the Government’s assessment process which he has already outlined?

My Lords, we have an extensive programme, but on the specific and ongoing engagement of the British Council, I will write to my noble friend.

My Lords, keeping Colombia at centre stage and supported is much needed after long agony. The Minister has referred to the question of drugs. Could the Government assist by helping to provide essential access to markets for Colombian farmers as a substitution for the growing of coca and, if so, how might this be achieved? This would be in addition to encouraging that all FARC combatants stay engaged with the peace process and that the ELN comes to the table, along with supporting measures to ensure that human rights are respected, with the possible deployment of UK police, with their professionalism, to offer training and support to the Colombian authorities.

My Lords, the noble Viscount has made some very practical suggestions that I will certainly take forward. On the general point of how we can shift those who are reliant on the drugs trade within Colombia to alternative means, that is again a very practical suggestion and I can assure him that through our work on the ground, in particular through the embassy, we are working on identifying appropriate measures that can be taken to ensure that we can act responsibly and move people away from narcotics and other drugs.

My Lords, as the Minister said earlier, we have an important role as a member of the UN Security Council. Will he go back to the council and ask for a new initiative via the United Nations to approach President Duque Márquez to persuade him to get the peace process moving again? If we could do that, as a result of this important Question, the United Kingdom would be making a very significant move in the right direction.

My Lords, do Her Majesty’s Government accept the description of the head of the UN Mission in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, of an

“epidemic of violence against social leaders, human rights defenders and former combatants”?

If so, what are they doing to address the situation, especially as regards the Colombian security forces?

My Lords, I have already spoken to this issue and I agree with the noble Lord that the situation for human rights defenders is dire. We remain deeply concerned about the continuing presence of illegal armed groups in Colombia and their violence and intimidation, particularly towards local people, let alone human rights defenders. However, as I have already said, I can assure the noble Lord that all our support is inclusive, particularly as we continue to press the existing Government and the president for a renewal and real vigour behind the peace talks. In all their actions, the important work of human rights groups and human rights defenders, and more generally the citizens of Colombia, should be totally and fully protected.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We come to the fourth Oral Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bird.