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Colombia: Human Rights Abuses

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Colombia about investigating human rights abuses, including killings, by police during the protests in that country in September 2020 and May 2021.

UK Ministers and senior officials regularly raise human rights issues as well as specific cases of concern with the Colombian Government. Most recently, on a visit to Colombia last November, the former UK Minister for Europe and the Americas, Wendy Morton, spoke to Vice-President Ramírez regarding the human rights situation. We look to the Colombian authorities to investigate fully any reports of excessive use of force against protesters and to take appropriate action against those responsible.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, despite that engagement between the UK and Colombia, human rights abuses continue, including in November last year with the abduction and murder of a teacher trade unionist. Does the Minister agree that it would be proportionate to suspend the invitation to Colombia to join the UK-Andean trade agreement—a call made by the TUC—until police abuses and impunity are properly addressed? Will the Minister meet me, other concerned noble Lords and the TUC to discuss this matter?

I commend the noble Baroness for her efforts on the subject of Colombia— I know that she is very involved in it—and of course we would condemn any further abuses. Perhaps I may give a slightly longer answer on what the Colombian Government are doing—obviously, we are pushing them on this. The national police have opened 231 internal investigations against members of their own institution for alleged excessive use of force during the 2021 protests. Currently, 111 inquiries remain open and the rest are being closed. Six police officers have been sanctioned and two have been dismissed from the institution. The prosecutor’s office confirmed that it had opened 200 inquiries for the alleged excessive use of force by the national police during the 2021 protests. Ninety-four disciplinary processes are currently under way and three officers have been prosecuted. It is fair to say that the Colombian Government are taking this seriously.

My Lords, the difficult situation in Colombia continues to develop. As migrants from across Latin America and indeed other parts of the world head north towards the United States, the almost impenetrable Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama is becoming a breeding ground for people traffickers, smugglers and other criminal networks. Given that our embassy in Bogotá is the largest in the Americas after that in Washington DC, can my noble friend encourage our embassy to take a lead in urging regional co-operation to support the Colombian Government?

I am very happy to reassure my noble friend on that basis. She will also be aware that the UK is the lead on the Security Council on matters regarding Colombia.

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord said to my noble friend in respect of the actions of the police. Is he aware that members of the Colombian senate have warned that a new security law will further criminalise protests and weaken human rights protections? What discussions have the noble Lord’s Government had with other Ministers in the Colombian Government on a new security law?

I cannot answer the noble Lord on that specific issue, but I can tell him that in the last three months there have been a number of high-level discussions between the UK Government and the Colombian Government. That includes a meeting in September last year between the Prime Minister and President Duque. I have already referred to the visit to Colombia by the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas, Wendy Morton. As I say, there were a number of other recent interactions —I think there were about 10 between September and December. It is very much an open channel.

My Lords, Global Witness reports that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental activist—65 people were killed in 2020. Given that the FCDO oversees the climate fund, will the Government review environmental funding to Colombia to ensure that protecting environmental and indigenous activists is a key priority?

My Lords, Colombia is one of our strongest partners on climate and the environment, with a leading regional influence and an ambitious nationally determined contribution of 51%. The UK-Colombia Partnership for Sustainable Growth, which was signed in June 2019, formalises the relationship between the two countries on clean growth and climate change. The reason I mention all that is because Colombia is a COP 26 priority country, and the UK has committed over £240 million of international climate finance in Colombia since 2011. We believe that the promotion of sustainable economic opportunities will help tackle some of the root causes of ongoing violence.

My Lords, during the 2021 protests, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights received over 60 reports of sexual violations allegedly perpetrated by the Colombian police, many in the context of arbitrary arrests. Given Her Majesty’s Government’s commendable lead on the prevention of conflict sexual violence and the forthcoming conference I believe we will be hosting on this topic, have the Government raised these reports with the Colombian Government and if so, what has been their response?

I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question, but I go back to my earlier answer. The Colombian police and Government are investigating a large number of various allegations of poor behaviour and I will certainly take back the question and ask my colleagues.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister agrees that full implementation of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace agreement remains crucial but advocates for peace continue to face violence and intimidation. In December, a group calling itself the Black Eagles issued death threats against Colombian senators Iván Cepeda, Victoria Sandino and Maria José Pizarro and a number of civil society activists. Will the Minister condemn these threats and make representations to the Colombian Government over the safety of the named individuals?

We should all condemn all threats to individuals in a functioning democracy. The UK has, as I said earlier, been a leading international advocate of Colombia’s peace process which, as the noble Lord rightly points out, is five years old—indeed, Wendy Morton went to Colombia to celebrate the fifth anniversary. We commend the Colombian Government on their commitment to implement the 2016 peace accords and we have contributed more than £68 million in support through the UK’s Conflict, Security and Stability Fund. We are the second largest donor to the UN trust fund for Colombia and, of course, we continue to raise these issues.

My Lords, political activism is one of the clearest examples of personal freedom. The BBC has reported that 145 activists were killed last year in Colombia. The Foreign Secretary says that British policies for trade and diplomacy are now combined to support personal freedom. Now that we have an independent trade agreement with Colombia, what discussions have we had with regards to the human rights and trade policy with that country to protect personal freedom?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He may remember that my noble friend Lord Ahmad discussed this issue at length during a virtual visit to Colombia last year, including with the Government and members of civil society. We are taking forward their suggestions of further assistance that the UK could provide.

Regarding the trade relationship, I am sure the noble Lord is aware that we are on a bridging agreement at the moment. The Colombian Government—actually, it is the Colombian courts, not the Government—have not yet ratified the agreement. Continuity for the framework governing UK-Colombia trade is provided by this bridging arrangement but, of course, those matters are enshrined in the agreement for when it is signed.

My Lords, the UK has a long-standing £2.1 million training programme with the Colombian police. Not only did the December UN report into the April/May 2021 strike protest conclude that there was a

“unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by police officers”;

but Amnesty International’s November report into the protests found that the Colombian security forces, particularly the mobile anti-riot squad, inflicted more than 100 eye injuries with non-lethal projectiles in a pattern of deliberate behaviour that it concluded was intended to punish victims for

“exercising their legitimate right to social protest”.

After lots of requests for this, is it not time for a formal review of our continued support for the police training programme?

My Lords, obviously we are aware of those reports of eye injuries. As I said earlier, all these things are being investigated. We have made representations to the Colombian Government as regards police activities but, in terms of our activities with the police, I assure noble Lords that everything that we are doing there is intended to support the development of civil society. I think it probably makes sense for us to continue to do that.

My Lords, the UK played a noble and honourable role in promoting the peace agreement. I want to return to the question posed by my noble friend Lady Blower. Will the Government agree to a cross-party meeting with interested Peers and others about what can be done now to make sure that the writ of the agreement runs in parts of Colombia where it currently does not?

I thank the noble Lord for that reminder; I apologise for not answering the noble Baroness’s question earlier. I am happy to take that back and try to facilitate such a meeting.