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Colombia: National Liberation Army

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 22 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking with international partners to facilitate the present round of peace talks between the Government of Colombia and the National Liberation Army.

My Lords, the ceasefire agreed between the Colombian Government and the National Liberation Army is a welcome step. We share the hope that it will contribute to improving security and alleviate the suffering of conflict-affected communities. As penholder on the Colombia peace process at the UN Security Council, the UK plays a key role in co-ordinating support for Colombia with international partners. Since 2015, the UK has committed £80 million through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to support the peace process and improve stability and security in Colombia.

My Lords, the recent visit of the Foreign Secretary to Colombia to discuss ongoing support for the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, and the commitment of a further £3.6 million for that purpose, is to be welcomed and commended. The Minister will be aware of the importance of the Colombian Office of the High Commissioner for Peace to the implementation of President Petro’s policy of total peace. However, this department lacks sufficient resources to carry out the necessary work to promote negotiations with the wide range of armed groups that are still functioning in Colombia. Is it possible to hypothecate any of our ongoing financial support for the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, and will His Majesty’s Government consider so doing?

I thank the noble Lord for raising the broader issue, and I will certainly take his suggestion back to the appropriate Minister. Although we are not directly supporting the Colombian Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which he mentioned, we are supporting it indirectly through the trust funds that I mentioned earlier, to which we are, I believe, still the second-largest UN donor. This is a priority for us in our relationship with Colombia. Of course we want the process to succeed; it matters to the whole world that it does.

My Lords, the peace accord with the FARC included a no-amnesty policy for conflict-related sexual violence. What can the UK, as penholder at the UN, do to ensure that a similar commitment forms part of the talks and any final agreement with the National Liberation Army?

The UK continues to provide support to help Colombia tackle the legacy of sexual violence and impunity for perpetrators from this long conflict. During his most recent visit to Colombia, Minister Rutley discussed the UK PSVI—preventing sexual violence initiative—with the Foreign Minister and met countless victims of sexual violence, many of whom receive direct support from UK-funded projects. This is very high on the radar in our bilateral relationship.

My Lords, I recall that, when negotiations were under way with the FARC, the practical and technical advice given by the UK Government to indigenous groups and to women was extremely helpful in enabling them to participate effectively in the talks. Can my noble friend say whether that assistance is being given currently to these groups in the talks involved with the ELN?

It is. We continue to work closely with the Government and with communities to bolster protection for human rights defenders who, as the noble Baroness will know, have faced particular problems and casualties in recent years in Colombia, more so than in many other countries. Through this work, but also through our international climate finance, we are ramping up support for indigenous communities both in Colombia and the wider region, having secured a pledge from other donors of nearly $1.5 billion for the same. Securing land rights, for example, is a major part of what we are trying to do with indigenous people, as well as bolstering support for human rights defenders and supporting the transition of justice mechanisms that are being trialled and rolled out across Colombia.

My Lords, to go back to the noble Baroness’s question, in November, with an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, I met for the first time indigenous community representatives in the Colombian Senate in Parliament, and her point is well made. Can the Minister reassure me that transitional justice support is a key element of the work that the UK is doing and co-ordinating and facilitating with Norway and Mexico. Those indigenous community MPs were optimistic but the next stage for transitional justice is going to be critical for community buy-in, especially on land rights issues. The Bar Human Rights Committee supported this work. Are we continuing to support it?

The answer is yes. The UK has contributed over £26 million towards transitional justice mechanisms and for victims of the conflict in Colombia since 2016. That included supporting the Truth Commission’s work to gather testimony from Colombians, both in Colombia and abroad, as well as enhancing the investigatory capacity of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Colombia’s post-conflict special court. This issue was raised by the UK’s global ambassador for human rights, Rita French, who met the Special Jurisdiction for Peace recently to discuss our ongoing support.

My Lords, we celebrate the progress being made in the peace talks but there is concern, not least in the United Nations, that the attorney-general, Francisco Barbosa, is obstructing those talks. He is also obstructing the release of young people unfairly detained following demonstrations in 2021. What more can the Government do to ensure that full due process and legal rights are respected in such cases?

My Lords, Colombia is a human rights priority country for the UK. That means that we will continue to monitor any and all impacts that limit our ability to support civil society organisations. As penholder of the UN Security Council, we consistently raise the importance of participation of civil society and young people to realise the full benefits of the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia. We are fully utilising our position as penholder but maintaining Colombia as a high priority for human rights.

My Lords, I declare my interest as director of the Hay Festival. We have been going to Colombia for two decades now and have seen a great deal of changes. It always astonishes me that conversations such as this happen without mentioning the word “cocaine”. Cocaine is the largest growth factor in Colombia. Every year, despite gazillions of dollars being spent by other countries, particularly the USA, the amount of cocaine that is grown increases. They may have got rid of some of the Colombian cartels but now there are the Mexican cartels. To talk about the peace process without confronting the issue of cocaine, which is illegal across the world and which a lot of people in this city help fund, is lunacy. I am not asking the Minister to say whether he approves of legalisation, which the previous president, Santos, did, who was outspoken that you could not stop crime without it, but could he at least tell me what conversations he has had?

The noble Baroness is right to point to the role of drugs. Colombia is still one of the largest producers of coca and cocaine in the world. The trade obviously fuels violence in many areas of the country, as illegal armed groups fight for control of territory and trading routes. That violence disproportionately affects local communities, in particular indigenous communities. Social leaders and former FARC combatants get caught up in it, and so the noble Baroness is right that this issue is inseparably linked to the peace process. Therefore, it is a feature of our discussions with Colombia. We are committed to working bilaterally with international partners, including Colombia, to disrupt, wherever we can, the supply chains that feed the domestic market here that she points to. My own opinion on legalisation is not strictly relevant, but it is interesting that many former presidents of Colombia take the position that President Santos took on this issue.

My Lords, on 8 May, the UN Committee Against Torture raised concerns over the lack of progress in investigations into the police abuses against protesters during Colombia’s national strike mobilisations of 2019 and 2021 under the previous Government of Iván Duque. Can the Minister tell us what representations we have made to ensure that those investigations are properly pursued? One of the things about the past is holding people to account, and we desperately need to ensure that in Colombia.

My Lords, through the same programme, the CSSF, which has been the main vehicle for delivering much of the support that we have provided Colombia with in this area, we have supported Colombia’s peace and stabilisation programme and launched a £2.1 million project on police innovations for stabilisation in Colombia three years ago. That is supporting the transformation of the Colombian National Police, and the work is ongoing. The embassy regularly reviews the overseas security and justice assistance assessments, including what steps can be taken both to mitigate the risks and to hold wrongdoers to account.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the president, His Excellency Gustavo Petro, recently pointed out that many of the key activists in the ELN are actually Catholic priests who are exponents of so-called liberation theology. I do not want to get the Minister into trouble with the Vatican and incur its wrath, but would he agree with me that the Catholic Church should be more proactive in these negotiations?

I hope I am permitted just to agree with my noble friend. It would be great to see the Vatican using the influence that it clearly has in the region to support the peace process.