Colombia (Human Rights) — [Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 27 January 2010.

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Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North 2:30, 27 January 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I sought this Adjournment debate because I visited Colombia last year and saw at first hand the human rights atrocities that go on in that country. The Colombian Government are a slick PR machine, well rehearsed at saying all the right things about how they are tackling the human rights crisis, but the real situation is very different from what they say. In fact, the regime in Bogota is complicit in the abuses.

However, the Labour Government are endorsing the proposal for an EU-Colombia free trade agreement-something that will only serve to legitimise the terrible record of the Uribe regime. Our Government say that they will ensure that a human rights clause is incorporated in the agreement and that that will provide the UK and the EU with leverage to force Colombia to comply with certain human rights standards, so I want to pose these questions to the Government.

First, if innocent people are still, as we speak, regularly being murdered by the Colombian army, why do the Government and the European Union believe that rewarding the regime with an FTA will do anything to improve the situation? Surely it would be better to wait for the killings to end-to tell the regime that it can have the agreement after it starts respecting human rights, not before.

Secondly, how will the Government monitor improvement by using the clearly bogus figures produced by the Uribe PR machine? Thirdly, what is the mechanism for withdrawing the agreement? We understand that withdrawal requires unanimous agreement by all the EU member states-something that we are never likely to get, regardless of the abuses in Colombia. Lastly-this is the proof of the pudding, as I see it-the EU already has a generalised system of preferences trade agreement with Colombia, which includes human rights clauses that the Colombia regime is currently flouting, yet the EU, far from suspending that agreement pending an investigation, as it is doing with Sri Lanka, is choosing to reward the Colombian regime with a full free trade agreement.

I come now to some specifics of the human rights situation in Colombia. First, I want to focus on the abuses suffered by our trade union colleagues, because, as we all know, that country is the most dangerous place on earth in which to be a trade unionist. It is vital to put it on the record that contrary to the assertions of the regime in Bogota and some of its more fervent supporters in the international community, the situation has not improved for trade union members. The facts are clear. In 2007, there were 39 assassinations of trade union leaders; in 2008 there were 49. That is a 25 per cent. increase in the number being killed.

The statistics are the same for other abuses. More trade unionists are receiving death threats and being forced to flee their homes and jobs. More trade unionists have disappeared and more trade unionists are being locked up without trial. It is high time that people stopped swallowing the propaganda of the Colombian regime and looked at the reality.

It is also important to examine who is perpetrating the attacks and, according to the Colombian TUC, that is pretty clear. In 90 per cent. of the cases, the perpetrator of the abuses is the state, either directly via the police and army or indirectly through allowing right-wing paramilitaries linked to the army free rein to butcher our trade union colleagues in that country. The question of why they are being targeted also comes back to the Colombian state. On repeated occasions in recent years, the Colombian President himself, President Uribe, has spoken out publicly about trade unionists, human rights activists and the like, but instead of saying how important their work is and offering support for their predicament, he has lashed out at them, describing them as criminals or terrorists. Such comments lead to people being killed, and President Uribe knows that.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have visited Colombia, but I did so about eight years ago. I met President Uribe and all the officials there and was given assurances that the extra-judicial killings and the murders of trade union representatives were now under control and were stopping and it was all a put-up job by other organisations. I came back to this country and had meetings with Ministers here and was given the same assurances, but we see things, if not staying the same, getting even worse. Is the hon. Gentleman confident that this time the Government will actually listen and take action on this matter?

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

The proof of the pudding will be in my hon. Friend the Minister's response. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that the Colombian Government run a slick PR system and they are very convincing, especially when we are talking to Ministers, but I am confident that our Minister will see through that and see the Colombian regime for exactly what it is.

What is truly astonishing, however, is the impunity that the perpetrators of the attacks enjoy and the almost total lack of any genuine effort on the side of the Colombian authorities to confront the problem. More than 100 union leaders have been murdered in Colombia since 2007, yet in not one of those cases does anyone appear to have been convicted and jailed for the assassination. That is a green light to those who engage in the attacks to continue doing so. Although the Colombian regime claims that it is dealing with the issue, it is unable to supply the names of anyone who has been convicted of any of the killings or to say in what jail they are being held.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Does the hon. Gentleman accept, if he takes the figures from the Human Rights Observatory, that in fact there has been a significant reduction in the number of union leaders being killed? For example, in 2008 it was 17; in 2009 it was nine. I would be interested to know where he got his figures from.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

We got the figures from the Colombian TUC, and nine killings is nine killings too many.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

There is nothing to celebrate in nine people being killed through no fault of their own.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I was told eight years ago that the killings would cease totally, and they have not.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

You can imagine the outcry, Miss Begg, if nine trade unionists were killed in this country; you can imagine the effect that there would be. The situation is similar for journalists, because Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist. Six were assassinated there during 2009, and the concerning thing about such cases is that those murdered are invariably the journalists reporting on Government corruption, human rights abuses or other issues that the regime in Bogota would prefer to be swept under the carpet. There has been widespread harassment of journalists deemed unsympathetic to the Administration of President Uribe, including by the DAS-Department of Administrative Security-secret police, who in one case threatened to murder the daughter of a reporter if she did not shut up. It is not enough simply to condemn those who violate press freedom or kill trade union activists. Those responsible need to be named and shamed, and in this case that is primarily the Colombian regime.

The second human rights issue that I want to touch on is political prisoners, as although the regime in Bogota appears to find it impossible to arrest those responsible for killing trade unionists and others who speak out against President Uribe, it seems to have no problems whatever in locking up critics for long periods without trial, on the flimsiest of evidence. That tactic of jailing opponents is used by several nasty regimes around the world. Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan jump to mind, and the Foreign Office has rightly spoken out in those cases. What is strange in the case of Colombia, unlike the others that I have mentioned, is the deafening silence from our Government. Let us be clear: although the regime denies it, the Colombian authorities are throwing large numbers of people in prison simply for their political beliefs.

With five parliamentary colleagues, I visited several of the victims of that criminalisation in two prisons in Colombia last year. It was clear that they were being locked up on bogus evidence that would not be taken seriously in most countries. They are normally accused of rebellion or terrorism; but they are not taken to court so cannot clear their names. They are left to languish in jail for months-and, indeed, for years.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

I, too, had the opportunity a few short years ago to visit Colombia. Along with my colleagues, I had the chance to meet a number of displaced people. I understand that their number has increased to about 4.5 million-but perhaps my hon. Friend was coming to that. Does he agree that that figure alone suggests that it is time for a strategy to return to peace in a country that does not give the impression that its leadership is prepared to do so?

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

My right hon. Friend is renowned for his work in international development. Indeed, he is regarded by many in the House, if not all, as a man of the highest integrity. In case there is any ambiguity about what we are saying, my right hon. Friend has confirmed that it is also his view.

Why have we not condemned this state of affairs more forcibly? The truth is that it should not need much pressure to get the Colombian authorities to release those prisoners. For example, the British NGO Justice for Colombia has managed to get more than 15 political prisoners released; and only days after we visited the prison, one of the prisoners whom we had met was freed, which allowed a very public denunciation of his situation in the Colombian press.

I would like to focus on one prisoner, a woman I met last year. She is an outspoken defender of human rights and trade union rights, and she remains in prison unconvicted even as we speak. I ask the Minister to consider the case of Liliany Obando. She is an academic, and has toured north America and Australia at the invitation of trade unions there, with the express intention of raising awareness of the human rights crisis in Colombia. Her high profile work clearly angered the regime in Bogota. Shortly after she returned from one of her speaking tours, she was dragged from her home in front of her young children, and thrown into jail. That was a year and a half ago, and she is still there. I therefore urge the Minister to make urgent representations on her behalf and publicly demand that the Colombian authorities release her immediately.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk

I understand that one of the accusations against Liliany Obando is that she was collecting money for terrorists, yet she had raised money from a Canadian trade union to be used for an educational project in Colombia. That accusation was condemned by the Canadian Government. I hope that the Minister will consider taking the same position today.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. The Canadians have been very proactive, not only in that case but on the situation in Colombia in general. I shall touch on that aspect later.

I wish to cover one other matter-one that is so important that it deserves the attention of everyone here today. It is the question of extra-judicial execution. It is a deplorable practice. The Colombian army is murdering civilians, and then dressing their bodies and pretending that they were guerrillas killed in combat. It does it because, in the grotesque world of Colombia's Ministry of Defence, soldiers who achieve a high body count receive financial bonuses with time off work and their officers receive promotion.

To the south of Bogota is a poor neighbourhood called Soacha. Over the past few years, countless young men from that neighbourhood, where unemployment is extremely high, have been offered jobs by a bogus employment agency established by the army. The young men, some as young as 17, when going off for their first day at work, simply disappeared-that is until their bodies were paraded on television by the army as guerrillas killed in combat; they were even wearing FARC guerrilla uniforms. The problem was that although their bodies were riddled with bullet holes, their uniforms were not; they had clearly been dressed as combatants after they had been executed.

It has since transpired that that practice is systematic, and is carried out by military units across Colombia. I understand that about 2,000 cases have been identified-that is 2,000 civilians who have been slaughtered in cold blood by the Colombian army. What happened at Soacha was important, although Colombian human rights groups had been highlighting the practice for some time-only, I might add, to be accused by President Uribe of being anti-army terrorists.

Soacha was the first time that the media, the United Nations and others became involved. Indeed, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the phenomenon was so extreme, so systematic, that it could be described as a war crime. Soacha therefore became an emblematic case; and everyone, including the US Government, expressed concern and called for justice-and the Colombian Government promised that justice would be done.

Once again, however, despite the promises, the Colombian Government appear to have done nothing. Although a small number of soldiers were detained pending trial, I understand that in the last couple of weeks, now that international scrutiny has subsided, the Colombian authorities have started releasing those men without them having faced trial. Basically, those responsible for that industrial-scale slaughter are back on the payroll.

That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, as the majority of those involved were not even investigated. Their ringleader, General Mario Montoya, who in any other country would have been jailed for life, was instead appointed Colombian ambassador to the Dominican Republic. He remains there today, no doubt living the cushy life of a diplomat, yet his victims' families have received no justice.

The contrast with the plight of Colombia's political prisoners could not be greater. It is astonishing that the authorities in Colombia seem unable to catch the soldiers responsible for the extra-judicial killings, or the hundreds of people who have assassinated trade unionists, yet at the same time they are most effective at locking up those who speak out against the abuses and the Uribe regime more generally.

To sum up, it is important to say that the Colombian regime is expert at misleading the international community, and at providing misleading and bogus information to try to pull the rug over our eyes. Senior Government officials will sit in front of us, smile, look straight into our eyes and tell a pack of lies. It is crucial that we do not fall for it. We need to listen to what human rights organisations, trade unions, independent journalists and so many other brave members of Colombian civil society are saying. What they are saying is supported by evidence that the Uribe Administration are complicit in the violence and are not the slightest bit serious about dealing with the abuses.

If we believe the propaganda, we will be doing an immense disservice to the people of Colombia. For that reason, I call on the Minister to end British political, diplomatic and military support to that odious regime. In particular, in light of all the evidence, it is absurd to suggest that pushing ahead with a free trade agreement between the European Union and Colombia will help to alleviate the suffering of Colombian civil society. Colombia's trade unions, human rights groups, organisations that represent peasant farmers, its indigenous people and thousands of others have made it clear that such an agreement would make the situation worse, not better.

It would be a disgrace for the British Government to support anything that merely served to legitimise Uribe. We should be on the side of those whose rights are being abused, not of those who are perpetrating the abuses.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin 2:48, 27 January 2010

I congratulate Jim Sheridan on securing this debate. He brings an important subject before the House. I have much respect for him. I know that he feels passionately about the matter and has consistently spoken up for human rights in Colombia.

I declare an interest in that I recently visited Colombia as a guest of the Colombian Government; it is entered in the Register of Members' Interests. I am also secretary of the all-party group on Latin America, and a member of the Conservative party Human Rights Commission with responsibility for Latin America. I have often raised human rights matters, not only with the Colombian ambassador in London but with incomers and ministerial visitors from Colombia-and, indeed, when I was in Colombia.

I condemn any killing of any sort in Colombia, whether it be the assassination of political leaders, the recent assassination of a regional governor, or the assassination of trade unionists or journalists. All murders and killings are wrong, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman and some of his esteemed colleagues will recognise that progress has been made. I dispute the figures that he has brought before the Chamber this afternoon. Every murder and killing is a murder and killing too far; they leave behind a suffering and grieving family. None the less, there has been a reduction not only in extra-judicial killings but in the killings of journalists and trade unionists. The perpetrators of such murders are wide and varied, and it would be wrong entirely to place the blame at the foot of the Government of President Uribe.

If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at the statistics for the amount of close protection and bodyguards that are given to trade unionists, he will see that they have increased. Perhaps I might pay tribute to him in that regard. The Government of Colombia were right to listen to the view of many people in this House-whether they be on the left or right-that there should be better provision for the protection of trade unionists, and that is happening and it should continue to do so. The Government of Colombia are right to keep the matter under review and if the provision needs to be extended, so be it.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the hon. Gentleman's argument. On the one hand he suggests that the Government should do more to promote human rights in Colombia, and on the other, some people on the Labour Back Benches have been campaigning very hard to see human rights training for senior military officials in Colombia withdrawn. That is what has happened. Therefore, the contradiction at the heart of his argument is clear. We need people at the very top as well as people in voluntary organisations, non-governmental organisations, and advocacy groups promoting human rights.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

Does the hon. Gentleman not concern himself with the fact that when we look at Colombia we discover the tremendous problem of drugs and the influence of the drug barons? We are told that drug-related conditions are second only to cancer as a cause of death. Does he not feel that much more needs to be done to co-ordinate a response to remove that blemish?

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The fact is that drugs from Colombia-I was recently in the jungles of Colombia-fuel crime in the streets everywhere, whether it be in West Bromwich Albion, Shropshire, or in the Rhondda. I am glad that the British Government are working in close co-operation with the Government of Colombia to deal with the issue. What is of particular concern is the new and emerging link between al-Qaeda and the FARC, which live and breathe off drug money. Moreover, because farmers have been so successful in diversifying their crops away from cacao, a lot of the drug production has been displaced into Venezuela. A question perhaps for another day is: what are the Government of Venezuela and President Chavez doing with the revenue that is coming from drugs in Venezuela? Therefore, progress is being made, but we want to see more.

Let me touch now on the organisation Justice for Colombia, which is funded by the TUC. Although I do not have an issue with that, the TUC and some trade unionists need to recognise that progress is being made. If occasionally they made one positive statement about the most minuscule amount of progress in whatever Government department in Bogota, some of their many siren calls about the Government of President Uribe might be taken more seriously. They need to applaud on occasion and condemn, as I do, when there are human rights abuses. I suspect that even if President Uribe or any future president were to get it absolutely right, Justice for Colombia may well move on to President Calderon and become Justice for Mexico.

Let us consider the facts. There has been a reduction in homicide, including the homicide of union leaders and teachers, who are also unionised members; a 90 per cent. drop in kidnappings; and a huge demobilisation of guerrillas, from the FARC and the other two groups-perhaps there is a lesson there for the Afghanistan campaign-the members of which have become integrated into society and run farms and small businesses. FARC numbers are running at around 9,000, which is a huge success. Both individuals and the collective have been demobilised and vulnerable groups have been protected.

If we look at who has attended this debate today, we will see that many of the glitterati of the left are here, and they are entitled to their view. I suspect that much of this agenda-not all of it, the human rights issue is important-is driven by an anti-capitalist outlook on life. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Yes, shock, horror. It is also driven by a slight dash of anti-Americanism. The fact is that the EU-Colombia free trade agreement will address many of the issues on which we agree. It will reduce poverty, enfranchise people to set up their own small and medium enterprise businesses, allow people to have the money to put shoes on their children's feet, and enable people to send their children some distance to go to school. If there is no agreement, millions of Colombians will be locked into the poverty they find themselves in at the moment. If there is a real campaign against the free trade agreement, the left in the Labour party should say so and tell its Front-Bench team. I will support the Government if they continue to support the drive to see that trade agreement come forward.

There have been successes in the Colombian economy. GDP and exports are up; inflation is down and private investment and foreign direct investment have risen. Britain, of course, is a major investor. I caution the left of the Labour party, those anti-bilateral trade agreement people, and those who have the dash of anti-Americanism running through their blood, that many pension trusts and investors from this country invest in Colombia. A destabilised Colombia would present a peril to pension investment and to the people who draw pensions in every constituency represented in this House today. The public sector debt and unemployment are down, and we want to see more people in employment, but let us recognise progress when progress is made.

Please forgive me, Miss. Begg, but I need to leave this debate early. I am sure that some hon. Members will be delighted about that. I will read the debate in Hansard. I am sure that it will be exhilarating, especially with my hon. Friend Mr. Francois and the Minister for Europe on the Front Benches.

Let me finally touch on Venezuela. It is particularly unhelpful to the poor people of Venezuela and Colombia and to the region as a whole for President Chavez to use hot talk to endanger stability and geopolitical peace in the region.

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

The hon. Gentleman talks about stability in the region, but have President Chavez's troops interfered in any other country in the way in which Colombian troops did in Ecuador?

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I just look at the incoming traffic to Caracas, which represents the glitterati of peace and human rights: President Ahmadinejad, Prime Minister Putin-

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

Answer the question.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I am coming on to that; I am giving the hon. Gentleman some context first. The fact is that there are incursions on both sides of the border. They should end and both Governments should ensure that the rhetoric is reduced and that there is dialogue in a measured, calm and reasonable way, because conflict in the region would be absolutely disastrous for both countries.

I also encourage the hon. Gentleman himself, through his Venezuelan contacts, to encourage the Government of Venezuela not to talk in apocalyptic terms and not to talk about nuclear ambitions-I have a reference to such talk here and I am happy to send it to him. That talk is destabilising for the region and-dare I say it?-it is also destabilising for the poor people in the region and for human rights throughout Latin America.

I conclude by saying that much progress has been made in Colombia. It is not enough, it is not being made quickly enough and more needs to be done. However, I encourage the glitterati of the left in the Labour party to recognise where progress is being made. Yes, they should condemn when it is appropriate to do so, but occasionally they should recognise and applaud where breakthroughs have been made.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone 3:01, 27 January 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan on securing this debate. It is an important debate and he has covered the issues affecting Colombia comprehensively. Indeed, when one also takes into account what Mark Pritchard has just said about his involvement with and understanding of Colombia, it makes for an extremely comprehensive background to the debate.

The issue that I want to raise is a narrow one. I want to focus my remarks on the secret police in Colombia, who are known as DAS. I want to bring to the Minister's attention, although I think that he will be aware of them already, the press reports in Colombia that have suggested that there is a link between the UK security forces and DAS, which is a suggestion that I find greatly disturbing. We need to take these reports seriously and I will be listening to what the Minister has to say regarding the issue.

When we look at the situation of the security forces in Colombia, I think that hon. Members would agree that the reports that have emerged indicate that there is a straight link between President Uribe and the security forces; that, in fact, they report directly to him. I think that colleagues will also be aware of the recent scandal involving the security forces in Colombia. They have been involved in drug trafficking. It would appear that their involvement has been basically to neutralise the complaints that have been made regarding other activities.

This may be another point that the Minister can respond to, but I understand that, because of what has gone on in Colombia with the security services there, Interpol has decided that it should no longer co-operate with the DAS security forces. As I say, perhaps that is something that he will refer to in his winding-up speech.

I also understand that senior Colombian officials have been embarrassed by the scandal involving the country's security services and that they themselves have made statements, which have also been reported in the press, calling for disbandment of the security services. Again, that may well be something that the Minister wants to refer to in his winding-up speech.

Having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, I think that it is fair to say that there is still thuggery in Colombia. I think that that is accepted, although the hon. Member for The Wrekin made the point that there has been a reduction in the number of homicides in Colombia. Nevertheless, the very fact that a homicide can take place is to be considered disturbing. Although that decline in the number of homicides has happened, the thuggery is still there.

Indeed, when we look at what the Colombian security services have been involved in, we know for a fact-the evidence shows it-that death lists have been drawn up by the security services, they were passed to paramilitaries and paramilitaries carried out the murders. Although there may be a reduction in the number of homicides, the fact that that kind of activity can take place in a modern society is very disturbing.

Hon. Members may well have seen or read this already, but I understand that it has been reported in the Colombian press that, in one instance, members of DAS were ordered to participate in the murder of a trade union leader. The fact that the security services are involved in intimidation, which can lead to murder, and have tried to cover their tracks by drug trafficking again causes me concern about the way in which that society operates.

We also know that the threats have been widespread. I want to make the point to the Minister that communication intercepts of, for example, Supreme Court judges, trade unionists, human rights activists and so on have been made. We know that as a result of those intercepts, death threats were made. It would be a laugh if it were not so serious, but the death threats have been made in accordance with a textbook that is issued to DAS officers. The textbook sets out how they should approach or communicate with a particular person to make their death threat. It is because of the way in which these death threats have been made to this group of people that they have been traced back to that textbook and therefore to the security services.

I understand that the actual machinery that was used to make those intercepts is alleged to have come from the UK. It is alleged that the machinery was provided to the security services of Colombia and that it is being used, as I have said, in an intimidatory way. Perhaps that is something else that the Minister will refer to in his winding-up speech. If there is indeed evidence that such technology has been exchanged with or sold to Colombia, I hope that he will take action to ensure that that activity is brought to an end.

The final point that I want to make to the Minister is related to the way in which the British embassy in Bogota appears to have a relationship with, for example, the director of DAS. I have been told that I can be provided with a list of the people who were invited to a dinner at the embassy last year and that among the names on that list is that of the director of DAS. If that is correct, again, I find it very disturbing that that man, who is responsible for intimidation, has been invited to attend a dinner at the British embassy.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. However, is he not in danger of confusing the relationship between the UK embassy and Colombia in relation to counter-terrorism advice, help and support and the embassy's counter-narcotics help and support, given that those two issues are linked to what goes on in the streets of London and elsewhere?

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone

I do not think that I am in danger of confusing those issues. We have evidence that the director of the security services is so involved in thuggery that we should keep our distance from him. We should pass instructions down the line to our embassy in Bogota saying that we should not invite people to dinners at the British embassy when we know that they have been involved in the violation of human rights, as this person has been. When the Minister winds up, perhaps he can let us know whether any instruction has been passed down the line to ensure that we do not invite people who are involved in thuggery to the British embassy. Inviting such people to dinners at our embassy is not helpful, because it gives Britain the wrong image throughout Latin America. If I am proved correct about this issue, I hope that action can be taken and that an instruction can be passed down the line saying that we should not be involved with people we know to be involved in thuggery.

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet 3:11, 27 January 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan on securing the debate. I have been described as many things, but I have never been described as part of Labour's glitterati. When I look round at Members from places such as Barnsley, Paisley and Renfrewshire, and Bradford, I know that those are the places where the real glitterati hang out.

My hon. Friend mentioned the proposed free trade agreement between the EU and Colombia and how its so-called human rights clauses are likely to have no effect on the situation in Colombia or on the behaviour of what can only be classed as the abhorrent regime in Bogota. However, I would like to add a couple of points about the agreement that make it even more imperative that the British Government insist on delaying it.

The first point relates to the international situation and the United States. Mark Pritchard accused some of us of anti-Americanism, but I side with Americans such as Mark Twain, who said that he did not want to see the eagle of freedom sink its talons into any other country. There is a sizeable body of opinion in America that thinks differently from right-wing Republicans. As hon. Members and the Minister will be aware, the US Congress, backed by the President, has so far refused to ratify the country's free trade agreement with Colombia. The reasons that have been given for that are the human rights situation, the ongoing attack on trade unionists and others and the continuing impunity that the Colombian authorities have permitted. I understand from recent press reports that the US ambassador in Colombia announced last week that he thought there was little chance of the US-Colombia agreement going anywhere at this stage. Interestingly, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers are often portrayed as America's outriders, so I wonder how they feel about the present situation. On most occasions, we seem very pleased to follow in America's wake, but what are we doing now?

In addition, the Canadian Parliament has not ratified the proposed Canada-Colombia trade agreement, again after incredibly fierce debate about the human rights consequences. Similarly, the European Free Trade Association group of countries has delayed approval of its free trade agreement with Colombia, again on human rights grounds. For the European Union to press ahead with such an agreement would send entirely the wrong signal-that human rights are not so important to the European Community. It would also shatter the international consensus on the issue and provide President Uribe-one of the worst human rights abusers in the world-with an incredible domestic propaganda victory, which his regime, more than any other, does not deserve.

My other point on the free trade agreement is perhaps of more concern. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that informal discussions with the European Commission have revealed that suspending the proposed EU-Colombia free trade agreement on human rights grounds at some point in the future would require the unilateral agreement of all 27 EU member states, and senior Commission officials have privately admitted that there is no chance whatever of securing that unanimity. The Colombian regime presumably knows that-as has been said, it has an excellent intelligence agency domestically and internationally-and therefore has little interest in whether there are human rights clauses in the agreement, safe in the knowledge that they would never be enforced in any case. Therefore, the arguments that the Foreign Office has repeatedly put forward in recent months about including human rights clauses in the agreement are slightly disingenuous-I am being quite polite there. Colombia clearly does not respect human rights, and incorporating in the agreement clauses that will never be implemented will do nothing to change that.

My hon. Friend mentioned that Colombia benefits from a generalised system of preferences-plus trade arrangement with the EU. That mechanism specifically says that countries benefiting from the GSP must comply with several international human and labour rights standards. If they do not, it says that an investigation should immediately be opened into their conduct and that trade preferences should be suspended, as recently happened in the case of Sri Lanka and, before that, Belarus. Colombia complies with virtually none of its obligations under international treaties. Do not get me wrong, the Colombian Government swear that they comply with everything, but that is nothing more than spin in reality. They regularly breach International Labour Organisation core labour standards, and collective bargaining in the public sector, for example, is illegal under Colombian law. They also flout international human rights norms almost daily. Has the European Commission pushed for an investigation or a suspension? It has not. I wonder why. When such abuses so clearly continue, why on earth would it be sensible to upgrade Colombia's trade status?

When one looks at how the GSP human rights clauses have been so comprehensively ignored, it is beyond belief that the Foreign Office should continue to bleat on about how the human rights clauses in the proposed free trade agreement will make all the difference, give us leverage, force an improvement and all the other nonsensical arguments that we have heard. When I last met a Colombian trade unionist just before Christmas, she clearly told me how strange she and her colleagues felt about what was happening with the free trade agreement. They had always assumed that Europe was to the left of, or more progressive than, its counterparts in Washington. For us to push ahead with the agreement, while the United States has taken the position that it has on human rights, is an utter disgrace. It is stomach-churning that a Labour Government should provide this undeserved reward to a regime that murders more trade unionists than every other repressive regime in the world combined. I and other members of the glitterati will continue to raise this issue, because the fate of working people, whichever country they live in, is closely linked with our politics, and we will not give up on them.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. I would like to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm. I call Jeff Ennis.

Photo of Jeff Ennis Jeff Ennis Labour, Barnsley East and Mexborough 3:18, 27 January 2010

It is always a great pleasure in such debates to follow my hon. Friend Colin Burgon, who is a new Labour colleague and friend. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan on calling the debate. It is always a great privilege to support an hon. Member whose constituency's title is as long as mine.

In December 2009, I was fortunate to be a member of a delegation to Colombia sponsored by the Justice for Columbia campaign, and if hon. Members have a look at the Register of Members' Financial Interests, they will see my entry in that weighty tome. I want to make some general remarks about that visit, which was my first to Colombia. First, the country is very beautiful and has an excellent climate. Its regions are very fertile and it is very productive agriculturally. It is rich in mineral resources and the people are fantastically friendly to Europeans like us. The problem, currently, is that the people of Colombia are being badly let down by their national Government, whose performance has a negative impact on the country's standing in the world. The biggest problem is the infringement of Colombian people's human rights, particularly the number of extra-judicial killings that continue to take place, and particularly the killing of opposition politicians and trade unionists. As Amnesty International has said, Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist. For the past decade, more trade unionists have lost their lives in Colombia than in all the other countries of the world put together.

When we arrived in Bogota to go to the hotel in the city centre, one of the first things that I noticed was the number of people on motorcycles, and the fact that they all had reflective bibs and crash helmets with the registration number of the motorcycle. That is because of the number of drive-by shootings from motorcycles carried out in places such as Bogota. That is the sort of legislation that the Colombian Government have had to pass to try to protect as many ordinary people as possible. It is a sad indictment of the current state of affairs.

I want, having set the general scene, to turn the Minister's attention to two seriously worrying incidents that occurred while we were in Colombia. The first was something that we witnessed in a town called La Macarena, a tiny community in a remote rural region called Meta, which the delegation visited. My hon. Friend talked about the appalling phenomenon of extra-judicial executions, in which the Colombian army has murdered thousands of innocent civilians and then tried to deceive public opinion by claiming that they were guerrillas killed in combat. The people responsible for those crimes have gone unpunished, and I understand that the new commander of the Colombian army, who was allegedly appointed to clean things up, was previously the officer in charge of a region called Antioquia, where perhaps more extra-judicial executions have occurred than anywhere else. In addition to him, numerous other army officers who were behind those killings have been promoted. Virtually all remain on active duty, which is no doubt the reason why the murders continue.

In La Macarena we met local people and human rights activists from the region, who gave us details of case after case of innocent, mainly young, people simply disappearing. No one was investigating the cases, and those who dared to speak out about them were threatened and, in some cases, forced to flee the area. However, what shocked us the most was the cemetery in that small village, which could be better described as a mass grave. On the village outskirts, right next to the main military base in the region, was a cemetery with more than 1,000 unmarked graves. Each had a little cross with the letters "NN" on it, which in Colombia means an unidentified body, along with the date of burial. Nearly all had a date in either 2008 or 2009. There were just as many dated 2009 as there were dated 2008, to answer the point made by Mark Pritchard, who is no longer in his place, about progress being made by the Colombian Government. That is not what I witnessed at first hand in La Macarena.

Even more chillingly, there were four graves that had been dug ready for the next crew. I got the impression that they had been dug to order, ready for the next four extra-judicial killings. No one except the army knows who the people in those graves really are, and as access to the region is severely limited, and no autopsies or investigations are carried out, it is almost impossible for anyone else to identify the victims. To make things clear, those people are not included in the 2,000-odd cases of extra-judicial execution that are being investigated. Those dead people are completely unregistered. I strongly believe that the army in that region systematically murders people and buries them in the cemetery. The army admitted to killing them, but said that they were all guerrillas killed in combat- although there are not that many guerrillas within 100 miles of La Macarena because of the heavy military and police presence.

Something else that caused me concern was that when we met the officer in charge of the military establishment, Colonel Yunda, he explained to our group that he had been trained by the British Army. He even gave us the name of the sergeant-major in charge of the course he was on. We were all very disappointed and found it very hard to accept that a British soldier had trained that colonel for the Colombian army.

My first request to the Minister, therefore, is that he should arrange for our embassy in Bogota to take a serious look at what is happening in La Macarena. I have no idea whether all those bodies are still there. Some say that the Colombian army might try to remove them, now that it knows that the cat is out of the bag, but we have plenty of photographs as documentary evidence. Given the relationship of the Foreign Office with the regime in Bogota I feel sure that a strongly phrased request from our ambassador to the Colombian authorities to explain who the hundreds of dead people in La Macarena cemetery are, along with pressure to allow an independent investigation and proper autopsies, would have an effect on the Colombian Government. I ask the Minister to ensure that our embassy intervenes.

When we flew from La Macarena to Villavicencio we went to a civilian airport, and that was the only place where I saw direct evidence of harassment of local people. On that day flying around Colombia to the war zones, as it were, we were accompanied by two human rights activists, Edison Cuellar and Carolina Hoyos, who are very brave people and a credit to the people of Colombia. When we got to the civilian airport we were late for our next engagement, so we got on the minibus as quickly as we could. I was called later, as I was the only MP there, to go back into the airport, because the people there had detained Edison and Carolina. We had shown our passports and gone straight through, and the people on the gate had called two guards over-I guessed they were members of DAS-who began investigating and questioning them, asking them where they were from, their home addresses and so on. They were harassing them. After a while, when I went to find out who those people were, they gave us false passes. The dispute went on for a while and I said I would raise it with the ambassador. Eventually, those two guys, who were dressed in jeans and did not look like security men at all, produced passes showing that they were DAS security men. I know that if I had not been there Edison would have been in danger of taking a good beating. It reminded me to some extent of Grimethorpe in 1984 during the miners' strike.

My second request to the Minister relates to one of those activists who were in our company, Carolina Hoyos. She is an exceptionally brave young woman, and a human rights activist in Meta region. She helped to arrange our visit to La Macarena. Carolina has taken testimony from hundreds of victims of human rights abuses in the region and has been a great help to us. We were in awe of her commitment and bravery. However, just days after we left the region, when we got back to England, her home had been broken into. All the documents about the cases that she was investigating-cases clearly showing the complicity of the Colombian army in the abuses-were stolen. Other items of value were left. It was clearly a burglary to order. I do not think that it was a coincidence that her house was burgled after she had accompanied us on the visit. I am deeply concerned for Carolina's personal safety, and would therefore welcome a commitment from the Minister that he will look into her case, and that of her colleague Edison Cuellar, who also worked with us on our visit and is the vice-president of the regional human rights committee. It needs to be made crystal clear to the Colombian authorities that nothing should happen to either of them.

The UK's relationship with Colombia is extremely important to the Colombian Government. After all, the UK is the largest foreign investor in Colombia after the USA, with investments totalling more than $16 billion. We should be using our relationship with the Colombian Government to apply more pressure to eliminate human rights abuses.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin said that nothing positive comes from the Colombian Government. The number of kidnappings in Colombia has fallen drastically in the past few years. That should apply equally to the number of extra-judicial killings.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

I said that I hoped to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.30.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 3:30, 27 January 2010

I congratulate Jim Sheridan on securing this debate on an issue of undoubted importance.

Colombia is suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. It has the world's second largest number of internally displaced people-3 million to 4 million have fled their homes in the past two decades-and one of the highest murder rates in the world. Today we have heard from many hon. Members who have been to Colombia and witnessed at first hand the suffering of the people there, including poor peasant farmers, indigenous people, trade unionists, human rights activists and journalists. The list seems to go on and on. Although killings by gangsters are obviously a great cause for concern, there is something particularly chilling about state-sponsored executions and the repression of different political viewpoints. It is an affront to the foundations of a free democracy.

Behind the figures and statistics often heard in such debates are individual stories, particularly those of people whom Members have met, which often end up being the most poignant and powerful. I was moved by the story of Liliana Obando and am looking forward to hearing the Minister's response on her case. Equally, I was shocked by the practice of killing innocent civilians and dressing them up in guerrilla clothing in order to claim a bonus. The fact that that happens not occasionally but systematically is deeply shocking.

The Colombian Commission of Jurists shows that state agents are directly or indirectly responsible for three quarters of extra-judicial killings, political murders and forced disappearances. The Colombian Government's record has been pitiful. Last year, they made a show of arresting 42 current and former members of the army for such crimes, but 38 have been released pending trial, and now the deadline for prosecution has lapsed. As many Members have pointed out, even when the Colombian Government say the right thing, they all too often do the opposite.

The UK Government have changed their position on Colombia. They have cut off bilateral aid for de-mining and human rights training for the army but, bizarrely, continue to give military aid for counter-narcotics programmes. The Minister is shaking his head; I hope that that means that it is no longer happening. We should not be giving military aid and legitimacy to an army with such a poor human rights record. In addition, although I do not have time to go into detail, the many killings by right-wing paramilitary forces and by guerrilla groups, including FARC, have left many ordinary Colombians fearing for their lives.

President Uribe seems to be following the worrying trend in the region of trying to extend his term of office by changing the constitution, but that is ultimately an issue for Colombians to decide. Depending on the Constitutional Court's ruling, there might be a referendum in which they get to have their say, but in general terms, it is not a good trend for democracy. In a democracy, no one person is indispensable. Last month, the International Crisis Group highlighted the dangers for institutions in Colombia and the dominant Executive power if democratic checks and balances were undermined and the constitution were changed. It could have severe consequences for the human rights situation in Colombia.

I will be brief, because I want to ensure that the Minister has plenty of time to respond to the many points raised in this debate. I encourage him to touch particularly on human rights abuses by the Colombian army and the state itself. The Government have been strong in their condemnation of paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. I hope that condemnation of the Government and state actors will be equally strong in his remarks.

There has also been an interesting debate on free trade agreements. Although discussions and negotiations should certainly continue, there is no strong case for renewing the agreement while the human rights issues remain unresolved. I welcome the Minister's comments on that and look forward to hearing him set out clearly and in full how he thinks the Government can bring pressure to bear on the Colombian Government to protect the human rights of everybody in that country.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe) 3:35, 27 January 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I congratulate Jim Sheridan on securing this important debate, which he introduced with evident commitment.

In the past decade, Colombia has made significant progress in reasserting Government control over much of its territory, combating drug trafficking and terrorist activities by illegally armed groups and reducing poverty. Since the development of Plan Colombia in 1999, the Colombian Government, with substantial support from the UK, the United States, Canada and others, have stepped up their counter-narcotics and security efforts.

Against that backdrop, the human rights situation is improving, but Colombia remains a country in transition. Although the country's security situation has vastly improved in the past decade, fighting between the armed forces and illegally armed groups continues to harm the country's citizens, especially its most vulnerable groups, the displaced, the indigenous population and Afro-Colombians.

Years of reforms and training, as well as key changes in leadership, are leading to welcome progress in increasing the armed forces' respect for and understanding of human rights. Practical examples include the army's new rules of engagement, which exist to ensure that international humanitarian law is followed in combat situations. However, revelations of extra-judicial killings in Soacha and a preliminary report by the UN special rapporteur for extra-judicial killings indicate that far-reaching reforms have not fully taken hold.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman is being as generous as ever. The British Government support a European free trade agreement with Colombia, with the justification that human rights in the country will be closely monitored. Given that the budget for investigating forced disappearances was only £13,000 last year and the budget for identifying the victims of forced disappearances was £39,000, would it not be wise for the Minister to commit to considering that budget in order to ensure that there is a body of evidence to test the justification for the treaty?

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may want to have a repeat bite at the Minister himself if time allows, but he has put the question to me as insurance. I will not speak for the Minister-I will allow him to respond in his own way-but having sufficient resources to investigate such matters is probably important. However, I will leave him to give his own definitive answer.

To their credit, the Colombian Government have responded firmly to the revelations of extra-judicial killings by issuing a zero-tolerance policy for abuses and implementing reforms to prevent similar crimes in future. The prosecutor general's office continues to investigate more than 75 members of the armed forces linked to the killings. The Government still have much to do, but those are signs that they recognise the severity of the problem and are working to address it. None the less, according to Human Rights Watch's annual world report published in January 2009, hundreds more cases of extra-judicial killing and other human rights abuses await resolution. Non-governmental organisations have criticised the impunity resulting from the backlog of cases, and some worry that the departure of prosecutor general Mario Iguaran on 31 July 2009 will cause further delays. In 2008, the Colombian Government increased the office's budget and personnel levels, which was a step in the right direction and an indicator of the Government's commitment to ending impunity, but more trained investigators and prosecutors are needed to address the office's overwhelming case loads.

Despite the challenges that the prosecutor general's office faces, it has made several important advances in human rights cases during the past two years, including arresting four retired generals for collusion with paramilitary forces and reopening the case against retired general Rito Alejo del Rio for his alleged crimes during Operation Genesis.

It is crucial that the United Kingdom Government do all they can to help Colombia during the next few years. I know that my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington has spoken to both British and Colombian officials, who expressed their disappointment at the Government's decision on 30 March 2009 to end bilateral human rights projects with the Colombian Ministry of National Defence, even though the United States and Canada have increased financial commitments to such projects.

Will the Minister say why that decision was taken at such a crucial time for the evolution of human rights in Colombia and will he confirm that the decision was not linked in any way to cost-cutting measures in the Foreign Office? In addition, will the Minister explain how the budget shortfall currently affecting his Department is impacting on funding for Colombian programmes? While the Foreign Office is under so much financial pressure, it is important that the Government finally shed light on how much they are spending on counter-narcotics programmes. That issue links indirectly to human rights abuses across Colombia.

I have no doubt the Minister will explain that the Government are unable to publish what resources are used in counter-narcotic operations because of security concerns. However, the United States, which runs extensive counter-narcotic operations in Colombia, diligently lists every dollar spent on such operations for the public to see. The Department of State's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs annually publishes extensive information on not only how much money is spent, but details of the programmes in place and analysis of their success over the past 12 months. Of course, there is a need to protect national interests and individual personnel, but the secrecy with which the Government surround their counter-narcotics programmes leads only to unfounded suspicions and, in some cases, conspiracy theories. Will the Minister let us know which body monitors how much money the UK Government spend on counter-narcotic operations in Colombia and who is responsible for assessing the effectiveness of the programmes?

Despite the difficult fiscal reality in which we find ourselves, I urge the Government to continue to take the issue of human rights seriously and to support the Colombian Government in their reforms. In the past, Colombia has struggled to exist as a democratic nation against an utterly ruthless, well-organised, drug-financed terrorist group. I ask hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon-some with considerable passion-to acknowledge the reality that the country has faced.

Investment in and trade with Colombia can help the country to overcome those challenges. A free trade agreement would be an effective mechanism whereby Colombia could use the resulting economic opportunities to boost social conditions. That would ultimately lead to better respect for human rights and reaffirm Colombia as a strategic partner for the UK in Latin America. UK investment in Colombia is substantial-more than $16 billion a year-and it is surely in both countries' interests to build on the trade links that already exist.

However, having said that, it is undoubtedly true that real issues remain around the persecution of trade unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia. A human rights clause in any free trade agreement with the EU that would enable suspension of the agreement if it is breached would act as an incentive to have frank and constructive dialogue. The promises and good will expressed by the Colombian Government have not always been translated into practical effect and improved human rights at a grass-roots level, but sometimes they have. I hope that the Minister will continue to give those issues a high priority in the formulation of Government policy.

Many points have been made and I have been urged by a number of hon. Members to give the Minister as much time as possible to reply. I know that Back Benchers will want to press the Minister in interventions, so partly out of deference to them, I will conclude and give the Minister 16 minutes to speak in response.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe) 3:44, 27 January 2010

It is a delight to sit under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan on securing the debate. This subject is one of the key issues the UK faces in our relations with Latin America and the European Union. As he may know, there was a very interesting debate on the subject in the European Parliament on Monday. I know that many hon. Members follow these matters keenly, as do many of our constituents. Many hon. Members write to me on the issues that their constituents have raised, and we watch the topic very closely.

I am reminded of the words of Arthur Ponsonby-a Labour Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office in 1924-who, a few years after 1924, said:

"When war is declared, truth is the first casualty."

In the ongoing war there has been in Colombia between different groups-paramilitary and military, and different drug lords-it has been difficult to see the truth. Although Mark Pritchard spoke with his customary intelligence, his version of events was rather different from the version of events that I have. He has a rather over-optimistic interpretation of the situation in Colombia.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

When truth is tested, we need to adhere to our virtues. I have a simple request for the Minister: will he comment on the activities of the former British ambassador to Colombia, Sir Tom Duggin? I understand that after leaving the embassy in Bogota, he took control of the Colombian operations of the mercenary company Global Risk Strategies, which is now known as the Global Strategies Group. That firm was established by Damian Perl, a former marine, and Charlie Andrews, a former Scots Guard officer. It has operations in Afghanistan and is one of the largest mercenary companies operating in Iraq. The company has been mired in controversy, and many of its staff members-ex-Fijians and ex-Gurkhas-have been killed in action. Will the Minister comment on the appropriateness of our former ambassador taking up such a role in such a controversial country?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I understand that Sir Tom Duggin has not worked for the company to which he refers for a couple of years. It is obviously difficult for me to comment on his work for that company when he is a former civil servant. I am not aware of any direct conflict between Sir Tom Duggin's former responsibilities and the work he has done, but if my hon. Friend has specific allegations he would like to make, I hope that he will put them in writing to me, so I can look into them.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It is not an allegation; I would just like to know whether the Minister thinks it is appropriate for a former ambassador to work for a mercenary company.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

I do not know the specifics of the matter or of the work in which Sir Tom Duggin has been engaged-I have never met the man-but if my hon. Friend says he is not making an allegation, I suppose that there is nothing I can investigate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North spoke with passion. Whether he is a member of the glitterati of the left-a rather weird phrase that was used this afternoon-I do not know. I have spoken to others who went on the trip to Colombia and know that the visit was an eye-opener for many of those who went. I will come on to some of the specific issues that he raised in a moment. The hon. Member for The Wrekin suggested one of the more bizarre things I have heard today: that FARC and al-Qaeda are somehow linked. That is the first time that I have ever heard such an allegation, which seems bizarre in the extreme.

It is interesting to note that the work we do on counter-narcotics with the Colombian Government is very similar to the work we do with the Venezuelan Government on counter-narcotics. Both of those countries fully acknowledge the problem that they have. We have to acknowledge that the consumers of cocaine in this country are part of the problem that leads to the human rights abuses across the Andean countries-in Peru increasingly, in Colombia, in Ecuador and, of course, in Venezuela. In Venezuela, the issue is largely to do with the trade-the passage-through the country, which often goes on to Africa. I am glad to say that we work closely with not only the Venezuelan Government but the Spanish Government to try to prevent that trade. The hon. Member for The Wrekin has a rather exaggerated understanding of what a free trade agreement can or cannot achieve.

I also say to Mr. Francois that, although I want to see a free trade agreement with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, I do not believe that it should be any free trade agreement. The point being made today is this: if we are convinced that the current human rights abuses are such that we might want to cease the free trade agreement, why on earth would we want to sign up to a free trade agreement that we could not be certain we would be able to suspend? I have said regularly to my Colombian counterpart, and to President Uribe for that matter, that they will have to do significantly more work before the whole of Europe will feel able to subscribe to a free trade agreement. I also believe that it would be wrong for us to close the door on negotiations on a free trade agreement, because that would simply be like saying to Colombia, "Don't bother engaging with Europe on those issues and carry on exactly as you are doing."

I think that we should be pushing hard on the issue of human rights with Colombia to ensure that all the issues are dealt with so that we can then sign a free trade agreement, and that is the track that we have been encouraging the Spanish Government to go down during their six-month presidency of the EU. It cannot be just any free trade agreement. One specific issue on which we have held firm is the question of whether a suspension, if we wanted to suspend, would come in immediately when we think that there are significant human rights abuses, or after a 15-day delay. We think that it should be immediate, and I have made that point firmly to the Colombian ambassador to the UK.

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

On that point, would the Minister clarify whether unanimity across all member states would be required to trigger that suspension? If that is the case, does he not think that it would be virtually impossible to achieve?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unanimity would be required to sign up to the agreement and to suspend it. I am less pessimistic than he is about the possibility of securing a suspension if one was wanted, because that is precisely what we have done in the case of Sri Lanka, on which it has not been all that difficult to secure unanimity.

There are some key challenges in Colombia in relation to human rights. The first, which has barely been touched on today, is the problem of poverty. Many millions of Colombians live in abject poverty and have no opportunity to make a decent living or feed themselves properly. That is one of the key issues the Uribe Government have said they are intent on tackling. It is true that they have made some progress on poverty, as have many other countries in Latin America, but we want to see much further progress, not least because the roots that the drugs trade is able to press down into Colombian society depend on the endemic poverty across the country.

The second key human rights challenge, as many hon. Members have mentioned, is the number of murders. Colombian statistics might indicate a fall from 28,000 murders in one year to 16,000 in another, but that is still 16,000, a very large number of murders. That is accompanied by complete impunity. We have heard today of the number of cases in which there is no investigation, let alone the cases in which there is some investigation that takes a long time. Clearly, where there is no justice, there is a significant human rights abuse. Therefore, I want to see all the murders tackled, whether they are extra-judicial killings or those that result from the general level of violence in the population.

The third key human rights challenge, as hon. Members have mentioned, relates to trade unions, and I raise that point as a trade union member myself. The number of trade unionists, and other human rights defenders for that matter, who are murdered in Colombia is still far too high. We could have an exchange about whether that number is 49, 39, 17 or nine, but the fact is that trade unionists are being killed because they are trade unionists, and that must stop. We must make that absolutely clear, as I have done regularly.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

The case of Liliana Obando has already been raised with the Minister this afternoon. As he is aware, a large number of trade unionists have been, and are being, held in custody in Colombia. Will he make representations to the Colombian authorities about that woman?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have already made representations about Liliana Obando. We first did that on 27 April 2009 when we sent two letters from the British embassy: one to Carlos Franco, director of Human Rights First and director of the presidential programme for international humanitarian law; and the other to the director of international affairs from the prosecutor general's office. On 25 June we received information from the prosecutor general's office. The Colombian Foreign Secretary is in London tonight and tomorrow for the conference on Afghanistan. I shall be seeing him this evening, and I will raise that case specifically with him. It is not something we will let go over the days to come.

When I visited Colombia before Christmas, I raised with all the people I met, including President Uribe, the need for Colombia to seize the issue of human rights abuses. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how in the end it can be the closest partner with the EU, which we would really like to see. Furthermore, a couple of weeks ago the Colombian Deputy Foreign Minister, Adriana Mejia, was here in London. I raised a series of human rights issues with her then, and I intend to write to her about the case that my hon. Friend has just raised.

I mentioned earlier the issue of impunity, which is still one of the biggest problems. In many parts of Latin America the prison systems are simply unable to cope and the criminal justice systems are unable to deal with cases fast enough. Therefore, the perpetrators of extra-judicial killings, whether paramilitaries, members of the military or whoever they are, simply go by without any justice at all. We would not accept that in this country, and we should not accept it for the people of Colombia either. That is why we work particularly hard to try to tackle the issues of corruption that exist in the criminal justice system in Colombia.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I know that my hon. Friend is doing his best to move the agenda on, but with regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan about the use of technology by DAS to identify potential human rights activists, would he commit to investigating whether it is British technology that is used and report back to the House on that, given that we are moving into an era of struggle for information freedom, as Hillary Clinton says?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

My hon. Friend might not be a member of the glitterati of the left, but he is certainly a member of the glitterati of the blogosphere, so he is much more technically competent than I am. I am happy to look into that matter, but I am slightly hesitant about what I might be able to say in public, because traditionally, as I think all hon. Members accept, we do not want to talk publicly about the specifics of our counter-intelligence work. As a former Minister in the Ministry of Defence, he will understand that.

Another problem, which I have raised with the deputy Minister for human rights in Colombia, relates to the law on rebellion, or rebeldía. Intrinsically, at face value, that certainly does not seem like a law that respects human rights. One might think that it allows someone to rebel-I see several hon. Members on whom the Whips might have more of an effect if we had a law on rebellion in the UK. The serious point is that it is absolutely clear, as my hon. Friend Colin Burgon said, that Colombia needs to do considerably more to abide by conventions of the International Labour Organisation and the UN. Recent reporting and monitoring of changes in the law suggest that it is moving in the right direction on those issues. Consequently, I am keen to encourage the Colombian authorities to move further.

We have touched on the issue of the drugs trade, and undoubtedly that is one of the single biggest causes of death, violence, criminality and corruption within the whole of Colombian society. It is one area where I think we British have a shared responsibility with Colombia. That is why we do not provide military aid to the country. We have stopped providing human rights training to the military because we do not want to provide aid to the military. Instead, we try to tackle the drugs trade.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. We must move on to the next debate.