Human Rights (Colombia)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:46 pm on 23rd March 2004.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 3:46 pm, 23rd March 2004

I am exceedingly grateful that Mr. Allan has secured the debate and enabled us to discuss these issues openly. It is not parliamentary flannel to say that I warmly welcome the measured tone and balance of his contribution. One of the frustrations of dealing with the situation in Colombia is that people with the best motives sometimes lack that balance, and that does not help any of us to make progress. I immediately confirm that we share the hon. Gentleman's view that the human rights situation in Colombia merits great attention. Human rights lie at the heart of the Government's agenda and policy on Colombia.

Colombia's problems are immense and extraordinarily long-standing. They stem from a potent mix of drug trafficking and the wealth that that brings to those involved, a continuing 40-year armed conflict that followed decades of violence, and an historical lack of state control over huge swathes of the country, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The activities of three large illegal armed groups and scores of smaller organisations, as well as of criminal gangs, have made Colombia one of the world's most violent countries. Serious human rights abuses, which affect principally the civilian population, are the inevitable consequence of these problems.

In 2002, President Alvaro Uribe was elected with a strong mandate to tackle these problems. His first priority was to re-establish state control over the whole of Colombia to provide security for the whole population. From the outset, we made it clear that we support his efforts to deal with the dual and linked problems of armed conflict and the trade in drugs. It is critical, however, that those efforts are grounded in a complete and unconditional respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. Indeed, I made that clear to President Uribe when I met him in Bogota last May and in all my subsequent discussions with his colleagues. The London declaration of July 2003, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, was adopted following a meeting of 24 Governments and international organisations. The blunt message that security was necessary, but not at the expense of human rights, was repeated loud and clear in the presence of senior members of the Colombian Government, including Vice-President Santos. We have continued that dialogue since then.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to say that the situation in Colombia is unique and requires unique solutions; there are no off-the-shelf solutions from elsewhere in the world. He also rightly underlined the significant problem in Colombia with respect to the fact that the writ of the Government and state authority does not spread far enough in the country, so that people are beholden to terrorist groups and paramilitaries in a way that is not in their interests. I also agree that there are no simple, easy-to-deliver solutions and that the situation in Colombia is an acute form of the dilemma that faces all of us—balancing people's security against upholding and respecting their civil liberties and human rights. That is an aspect of the current difficulty in Colombia.

The hon. Gentleman referred to non-governmental organisations, which have a critical role to play in any civilised and developing society. That is particularly true in Colombia, where fundamental liberties are under threat from illegal armed groups. Non-governmental organisations have a very important role to play in bringing problems to the attention of local authorities, the Government and the international community. We work with those organisations, and I pay tribute to the work that many of their staff undertake in difficult circumstances. I also believe that civil society more generally must be part of the solution for Colombia, rather than part of the problem, as it has sometimes been portrayed.

We put our money where our mouth is, and give financial and political support to the work of NGOs such as the Peace Brigades International, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Plan, and Save the Children. That is an important priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have continued to make our view clear to the Colombian Government: respect for NGOs and their work must be a priority. We need to continue to make that point.

Although senior Colombian figures have made some unfortunate statements about NGOs—I think that the hon. Gentleman referred to those—I do not believe that the President is deliberately trying to target civil society. I am, however, aware of the danger, in the Colombian context, that certain statements may be taken by illegal armed groups as a green light to attack NGOs and their staff. That is a real concern and it is unacceptable.

I know the speech that the hon. Gentleman was referring to. I have always said to the President and other Ministers in Colombia that if there are specific concerns about alleged links between certain non-governmental human rights organisations and terrorist groups, they should be tackled through due legal process. A blanket condemnation putting all NGOs and human rights organisations in the same basket should not be made. I have made that point and so have other Ministers. The Colombian Government have listened and responded, and we shall continue to put those views.

The President's policies are aimed at cracking down on the illegal armed groups that are responsible for the vast majority of human rights abuses in Colombia. That approach has yielded some impressive results in some areas of fundamental rights. Clearly, much more remains to be done, but we see those improvements as the start of a long and complex process in which we want to be involved—helping the Government to extend those successes.

We are acutely aware of the plight of Colombian trade unionists and other vulnerable groups, particularly with respect to human rights, and have made it plain to the Government that they must provide adequate protection from threats and attacks for those groups that are at risk. Our assessment is that although the situation is still critical, it has improved in the past 12 months. Fewer trade unionists have been murdered and the perpetrators of several murders have been brought to justice. The hon. Gentleman alluded to that.

Our contacts with the Colombian authorities, and, indeed, UK trade unionists, on trade union issues, are complemented by regular discussions with NGOs and trade unions themselves. We have raised individual cases of concern with the authorities and have facilitated visits to the UK by Colombian trade union leaders to allow them to tell their stories first hand to wider audiences. I have met many of those trade unionists.

As the hon. Gentleman said, NGOs are concerned about the effect of the intensification of the armed conflict, and of the President's policies, on the civilian population. The humanitarian crisis is severe, with between 2 million and 3 million Colombians driven from their homes by the conflict. We are also concerned about the illegal armed groups' adoption of new tactics, such as encircling villages to prevent the population from fleeing, thus forcing them to co-operate. That must stop.

We also share the concerns of civil society and our partners in the international community and the UN system about the interlinked problems of impunity and collusion between some members of the armed forces and police, and paramilitary groups. We have expressed publicly our conviction that the Colombian Government need to take early and effective action to stop collusion and to bring quickly to justice anyone accused of human rights abuses. Again, I think that it has to be acknowledged that there has been some progress in that area. About 15 military figures and 20 policemen were recently arrested for collusion with the paramilitaries, and I very much welcome that action.

We shall certainly continue to exert pressure on the Colombian Government to deal effectively with the problems and to meet their obligations under international law. We also believe that it is important for the Government to take rapid and effective measures to implement the 27 recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Progress so far has been slow and we need to look at ways to improve that situation along with our partners.

We have also made it plain to the Colombian Government that we are concerned about the granting of judicial powers to the armed forces and about the future of the paramilitary peace process.

I know that the issue of UK assistance to Colombia provokes as much comment and controversy within this debate as any other issue. Principally, our assistance focuses on two areas: first, on human rights and social development, and secondly, on the fight against the trade in illegal drugs. Recent projects have dealt with creating a culture of non-violence in urban centres and helped poor agricultural producers to market their produce more effectively. Our embassy is crucially involved in those processes. When I was in Bogota in May, I was able to announce the funding for four community human rights ombudsmen in key conflict zones to provide an independent source of advice and assistance to Colombian citizens.

On the anti-narcotics front, we are actively assisting the Colombian Government in the war against drugs, as drugs are an integral part of the problem faced by Colombia. They are also our problem—80 per cent. of the cocaine that arrives in this country derives from Colombia.

The key issue of concern, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in respect of early-day motion 333, is the issue of UK military assistance. Compared to help in the anti-narcotics field, UK military assistance is small scale. It is centred on areas of direct benefit to the Colombian civilian population. We therefore fundamentally believe that it would be counter-productive to suspend it, since that would affect negatively the very civilian population whom we wish to help.

Recent assistance has been in anti-explosives training for police and military officers tasked with defusing bombs, which are often directed at civilian targets. We have also brought Colombian military officers to the UK to participate in senior staff training courses. An important element of all such courses is the role of the military in a democratic society and the need for an understanding of human rights concerns. In the same way we have also provided, along with the UN, training in human rights issues for the Colombian armed forces.

I can give a categorical assurance that no UK military assistance has been given to individuals or units known, or suspected to have been, implicated in human rights abuses or in collusion with paramilitary forces. I fundamentally believe that to be the case, and some of the things that are printed and written about the subject with no basis in fact do not help anyone in Colombia in addressing the issues and in taking the situation forward.

I will now deal with the UN recommendations and the London declaration. We have made it clear that we firmly believe that the Colombian Government must live up to the commitments made in the London declaration last year. I was pleased that President Uribe stressed the importance of that in his recent speech to the European Parliament. Our ambassador in Bogota is taking part in the follow-up process to the London meeting by participating in the working group set up to monitor progress on the commitments. The regular dialogue between Government and civil society representatives facilitated by the group is a vital and integral part of the process. Put bluntly, I strongly believe that Colombia has a moral obligation to carry out its task in respect of those commitments. I will be visiting Colombia soon and will raise the issues again.

There are many threats to the enjoyment of full human rights by the Colombian population. The illegal armed groups have not taken any notice of the recommendations of the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights, which were addressed to them. They continue to torture, murder, kidnap and engage in drug trafficking and to commit the vast majority of human right abuses.

Although we recognise the progress made in some areas and applaud the Colombian Government for what they have achieved in the relatively short time that they have been in power, we will continue to urge them to take urgent and effective action to address the many remaining issues of concern, especially those of impunity and collusion between state forces and the paramilitaries. We will balance regular contact with the Colombian authorities at the highest levels, to keep up pressure on the issues, with close contacts with civil society, to ensure that our policies take into account the important issues, concerns and priorities.