Human Rights (Colombia)

– in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 22nd November 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North 10:59 am, 22nd November 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and may I express my appreciation to Mr Speaker for having selected this important debate?

The conflict in Colombia is one of the oldest on the planet and it spans some 50 years. Technically, the fighting is between Colombian Government official armed forces and various guerrilla groups such as the ELN—the national liberation army—and FARC. The situation, however, is more complicated because of the large number of right-wing paramilitaries, who operate with almost complete impunity, systematically murdering the ordinary people of Colombia in droves, and an army that clearly colludes and co-operates with them. I requested this debate because we need to send the Colombian Government a clear message.

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

I have with me a statement on Colombia issued jointly by the Governments of Colombia and of the United Kingdom, and I understand that an important visit took place yesterday. The statement contains, however, no reference whatever to the trade unions, or—as far as I can see on a quick reading—to any of the Churches. Does my hon. Friend find that somewhat interesting?

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

My right hon. Friend raises an important point; he has a proud track record of looking at situations in terms of human rights. I hope that the Minister will take his comments on board and perhaps clarify that point.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate at this early stage. I have just hosted a meeting in the Foreign Office that was held by the President of Colombia and at which a range of non-governmental organisations, including representatives from trade unions and Christian organisations, had the opportunity to make those points directly to him as part of a wider conversation.

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

I thank the Minister for that clarification. I do not want to sound negative, but the all-party British-Latin America group arranged a meeting with President Santos for yesterday and, unfortunately, not much notice was given to the rest of us, so we heard about a meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon only on Monday morning. Speaking personally, it was almost impossible to get to that meeting, but had we known about it earlier, even more trade unionists and similar people would have attended.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Labour, Bradford South

We hear the Minister’s comments, but if we as a country attack those in the middle east who kill their own people—in particular, I highlight Syria and other countries where there have been problems—should we not do the same with Colombia? Many MPs have tried over many years to raise the issue of Colombia and highlight the fact that many innocent people, mainly trade unionists, are being killed. Should our Government not send a clear message to the Colombian Government that we will not tolerate that, and that we want to highlight things that are taking place on a daily basis?

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

That is the objective of this debate: we are sending a clear message to the Colombian Government that what they are doing is simply unacceptable. We have sent clear messages to Syria and other countries on exactly the same issue.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

My hon. Friend is more fortunate than me, as my invitation to yesterday’s meeting is yet to arrive. I believe, however, that we, as parliamentarians, should send an important message to President Santos: in addition to the points raised this morning, we want to congratulate him on the courageous stand he is making to challenge the system that results in the prohibition of drugs throughout the world. We wholeheartedly support him on that.

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

I am more than happy to concur with my hon. Friend, but, although I do not wish to be cynical, we have heard those words before. We are now at the stage where rhetoric is no longer acceptable and we are looking for deeds.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. We know about the history of Colombia and the human rights abuses, and that it is probably the capital of drug barons. Furthermore, UN figures and the research papers cite 26,500 cases of presumed forced disappearance, and there are major concerns that Colombia is a network for people trafficking. Organisations such as the A21 campaign, and other groups in England, are greatly concerned. Does he agree that it is possible that people are being trafficked around the world?

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

The hon. Gentleman is right—human trafficking in Colombia is an extremely important issue that I hope we will address seriously.

The international community will not remain silent while human rights abuses continue, and we must make clear our support for a proper peace process in Colombia. The conflict will end only with a peace process between the Government and the guerrilla groups, and the UK Government should do everything in their power to encourage all parties in the conflict to enter into serious negotiations. We must support civil society’s efforts for peace.

The authorities, and particularly the armed forces, readily label any ordinary Colombian, especially rural peasants or any Colombian they like—or, more accurately, do not like—a terrorist. They then kill or butcher them, or at best arrest them and lock them in jail without proper charges or trial. Until recently, the army offered holiday bonuses or promotions to personnel who captured or killed a FARC guerrilla, so it is hardly surprising that innocent people were being rounded up, shot and dressed as terrorists.

Two years ago, I visited Colombia together with some colleagues, and I met with mothers who told me how their sons had been murdered. The authorities said that the boys were FARC guerrillas, and the army had even set up false employment recruitment agencies to offer those poor boys jobs in the countryside before simply executing them. Boys as young as 16 met that fate. Other mothers told us of sons who were killed and then dressed in guerrilla uniforms. When the mothers went to see the bodies, their sons were wearing FARC uniforms that the mothers had never seen before, despite their sons having lived at home. Remarkably, although the bodies had bullet holes, the uniforms they were wearing did not. The killing of a FARC terrorist earned the soldiers extra holiday. Killing an innocent boy and stuffing the body in a FARC uniform was—and still is—common practice.

The Colombian human rights movement calls such actions false positives. Thousands of people have been killed in that way, many while President Santos was Defence Minister. When I visited Colombia in 2009, the United Nations stated that the number of killings carried out by the Colombian army could constitute a crime against humanity. It also said that the figure for such killings that have not resulted in any conviction stands at 98%, and according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, impunity for crimes committed by the army or paramilitaries stands at 99%—a shocking situation.

The current Government under Juan Manuel Santos—who I am happy to say is visiting London today; he is very welcome—have pledged that many things will change, and the international community is watching closely. Nevertheless, the number of ordinary Colombian civilians being killed is as high as before. Since President Santos came to power, 110 social activists have been killed, and 29 human rights defenders were killed in the first half of this year. No one has been brought to trial for any of those murders.

Sadly, just two weeks ago, the highly respected NGO, the Centre for Investigation and Popular Education, reported that under President Santos the army has continued to carry out extrajudicial executions—nine so far—and to report murdered civilians as guerrillas killed in combat. Amnesty International states:

“The security forces’ counter-insurgency strategy is largely based on the premise that those living in conflict areas are part of the enemy”.

Let me give some examples. Just last month, on 13 October, a student, Yan Lugo, was killed by a bomb thrown into a student demonstration in Cali. He was nearly blown in half. Ten other students were severely wounded. The police accused him of being blown up by a bomb that he was carrying. All the students deny that, but—surprise, surprise—no investigation has taken place, as far as we know.

An even more brutal story appeared earlier this year when three women from one family were massacred—butchered to death—by paramilitaries, in addition to two farm workers being shot. Those people were killed with machetes. The youngest, five-year-old Sorith Roa, had her hands chopped off. That happened on the same day that 1,000 local peasants organised an event to give testimony of army abuses in the region. It happened in an area controlled by the army, which, it seems, did nothing whatever about it and let it happen. Why were those women murdered? Was five-year-old Sorith a FARC guerrilla?

Those are just two examples of what continues to go on in Colombia today, and still no one is brought to justice.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West

I, too, took part in the visit to Colombia in 2009. Like me, my hon. Friend will be aware that people are murdered—shot to death, their bodies riddled with bullets. Then a camouflage uniform is put on them, but there are no bullet holes in the uniform, so there is no investigation. Does he agree that that is outrageous?

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

That is a classic example of how the Colombian authorities carry out their business. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He was with me, and we spoke to the mothers of the poor young men who were assassinated—massacred—in exactly the way he describes.

To return to the question of people being brought to justice, 98% of the crimes that we are discussing were carried out under the army’s nose. I fully appreciate that President Santos has promised widespread reform and “democratic prosperity”. One of his announcements was that he would disband the Colombian security police force, known as the DAS, which was notorious for its widespread links with paramilitaries. He has also set up an investigation into the links between DAS police and the paramilitaries. However, the 6,000 DAS staff are simply to be divided up among a new intelligence agency, the Office of the Attorney General, which is charged with investigating crimes, and the Office of the Prosecutor General. Therefore, that so-called reform, rather than purging one institution of its links to paramilitarism and crime, will place its members within the institutions charged with investigating those links. You could not make it up, Mr Williams.

Furthermore, the national security doctrine that governed the DAS will remain unchanged, which means that the new intelligence agency is likely to continue to view the political opposition and social movements as allies of subversion.

Under President Uribe, Colombia pushed through a justice and peace law that allegedly saw paramilitary forces demobilise. From that moment on, the Government have said that paramilitaries no longer exist. The growth of abuses by successor groups has forced the Government to recognise the violence, and they now call them “criminal bands”. However, that does not recognise the political and economic control that paramilitaries continue to exert in vast regions of the country, and it reduces the murders that they commit to random acts of violence, rather than classing them as politically motivated crimes.

Furthermore, the complicity and co-operation of Government forces with the groups continues. In the Casa Zinc massacre in Montecristo at 7 pm on 17 August, paramilitaries tortured and killed three peasants. Army troops were stationed nearby, but did not intervene. On 12 October, the San José peace community denounced army and paramilitary co-operation in the region, cataloguing a series of abuses, including threats, illegal searches and recruitment of minors. On 16 August, Rafael Andres Gonzalez Garnica, a peasant trade unionist, was assassinated in Cartagena del Chaira, Caqueta, an operational centre for the army, only a block from a police checkpoint.

An independent report by the New Rainbow Corporation states that, in some areas in Colombia, paramilitary forces follow once the army establishes control and that in others

“some members of the military forces seem to be one” with paramilitary groups. That helps to explain why many human rights abuses occur in areas that the army controls.

I fully appreciate that President Santos has introduced, as the flagship of his approach, the land and victims law, the stated intention of which is to return land to the peasants from whom it has been stolen since 1991 and to compensate people who have been the victims of human rights abuses since 1986. However, the reality is that even if the web of quasi-legal documents that now tie that land to big business or even multinationals is untangled and even if, as is unlikely, peasants can win a claim to some land, they are likely to suffer the same fate as Ana Fabricia Cordoba—a community leader killed on 7 June this year. She had repeatedly told authorities that she was receiving death threats, but nothing was done to provide her with protection. She had led the community’s demand for their stolen land to be returned. She fled her home region in 2001, after her husband was murdered. She was killed 11 months after her son was also murdered—a crime allegedly carried out by the police.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West

Last week, Aidee Moreno—a Colombian trade unionist—visited Parliament. Her entire family has been targeted because of her trade union activities. Her brother, husband and mother have been brutally murdered by paramilitaries. Her niece has disappeared, never to be seen again. Under the provisions of the land and victims law, Aidee Moreno would be due some financial compensation. However, she does not seek compensation, because she says that it

“doesn’t compensate for all those years of suffering and injustice.”

Will my hon. Friend join me in sending best wishes and regards to Aidee Moreno?

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

I, too, had the privilege and pleasure of meeting that brave young woman, who has put her life on the line for people in her community. I have to say, unfortunately, that time will tell whether her bravery is rewarded or whether she is found dead—killed—as well. We complain about the problems in relation to workers’ rights and trade unions in this country; it is a humbling experience then to see what happens to people in Colombia who stand up for their basic human rights.

The reality is that paramilitaries still control large regions of Colombia and that, while the army continues to collude with them, nothing will change. Until the Government acknowledge that paramilitarism still exists as a major force, despite Uribe’s justice and peace law and the supposed demobilisation, and unless they recognise the political motivation behind the abuses committed by those groups, nothing will change.

The land and victims law would be workable in a truly post-conflict situation, but this is not a post-conflict situation and illegal armed groups are everywhere. Additionally, peasant farmers continue to be displaced and those new victims will not be recognised. It is also disturbing that the victims, if they are to be recompensed in any way under the land and victims law, are forced to waive the right to seek justice for the crime that has been committed against them. They literally have to sign a document saying that they will not seek an investigation into the murder or their mother, father or husband. How can that possibly provide people with any dignity or peace of mind?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the fact that the supposed aim of victims law 1448 is to offer victims restitution, but will not victims be unable meaningfully to pursue restitution when they are still at risk in circumstances of ongoing conflict? Does the law not fail to protect victims in many respects? Does it not offer protection to the victim makers? Is there not also the question of how indigenous people are meant to gain access to their lands when so many mining rights have been granted over huge areas?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is almost impossible for indigenous people in Colombia to reclaim their land, not simply because of the fear of death, but because of the behaviour of some large multinational companies, many of which are based in this country. Their behaviour in clearing peasants’ land is unforgiveable, and that must also be challenged.

In addition to buying people off and failing to provide any security to those trying to return to their land, the state has not put in place sufficient organisation to deal with the millions of claims, and it still will not recognise any state responsibility for abuses.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The hon. Gentleman said that British companies, or at least companies based in Britain, were driving indigenous people off their land in Colombia. I should be grateful if he named them, because I would wish to take up his concerns directly with those companies. If he could name them now, that would be very helpful.

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

I am absolutely delighted that the Minister will take up that case on our behalf, and I will send him the list of companies that we are investigating. I am happy to provide him with that evidence. He can then clearly tell us what actions he, as a Minister, will take.

The land and victims law has arbitrarily established different cut-off points for recompense. The cut-off point is 1991 for victims of displacement and 1986 for victims of human rights abuses, thus denying recompense to those who were made victims before those dates. The land and victims law also arbitrarily sets 2005 as the end date for claims of victimhood. Victims must prove the political nature of crimes committed against them after that date, because the paramilitaries are considered to have demobilised after 2005, despite masses of evidence to the contrary.

The land and victims law effectively legalises displacement in cases where it is established that returning land would affect a region’s economic interests. It fails to recognise the phenomenon of urban displacement. Furthermore, the health and education benefits assigned to victims are not a form of recompense; rather, it is the duty of the state to provide such things to all Colombian citizens.

Worse still is the fact that, under the country’s new national development plan, priority will be given to industries such as mining and oil extraction. That rules out returning any lands that fall into those categories where it is claimed that doing so would affect a region’s economic interests. Ever more people are being displaced as a means of gaining access to land that is rich in resources. In the Meta department, 2,500 families are due to be pushed off their land by the armed forces. The military has accused them of being FARC families, putting their lives in grave danger. Is it purely coincidental that coltan—a highly valuable mineral—has been discovered in the area, which is also highly likely to contain oil?

The land and victims law effectively divides the victims movement, recognising some victims and rejecting others, depending on when the abuse occurred. It also divides victims into those who think a little compensation is better than justice, therefore playing on the desperation of the usually poor victims. For those who try to go home, the continuing existence of paramilitary groups makes doing so a deadly proposition.

Although the President should be given credit for finally recognising the existence of victims, the land and victims law has done more for the Government’s political reputation than for victims themselves. Alongside this law, reforms are being made to the judiciary. That includes returning cases involving crimes committed by soldiers to military courts, opening the way for continued impunity, with no one being brought to justice for the thousands of civilian executions that soldiers carried out in cold blood.

To return to the ongoing extra-judicial executions and the general human rights carnage, it is terribly sad that the Colombian Government refuse to acknowledge that politically motivated paramilitaries continue to exist, that their own forces are responsible for extensive killings and that, despite efforts to the contrary, no progress has been made on impunity.

Trade union activists in Colombia risk their lives in their attempt to bargain collectively for better pay and conditions. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. In 2001, a British trade union delegation travelled to Colombia to meet colleagues there. Its members were so horrified by what they encountered—the lack of basic human rights and a general free hand to kill trade unionists—that they came back to Britain and, with other unions here, established the excellent NGO, Justice for Colombia, which belongs to every major UK trade union, such is the strength of feeling among unions here about the basic right to pursue collectivism to improve working conditions.

Some 2,908 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1986, and 23 have been killed this year alone. Before anyone else mentions this, I should point out that the Vice-President is a former trade union leader. The embassy seems to think that that will convince us that things have changed, but in reality, it has changed nothing for trade union activists.

At 10 pm on 16 August, trade union activist Rafael Andres Gonzalez Garnica was murdered while having dinner with friends in a restaurant. He was shot dead just yards from a police checkpoint in the department of Caqueta, which locals suspect was being manned by police and paramilitaries. On 22 August, trade union activist Alfonso Diaz Villa was assassinated near his home. He was a regional leader of the university workers union, SINTRAUNICOL, and he had been receiving death threats since 2005. Despite the danger in which the union’s leaders find themselves, the Colombian Government have suspended the protection scheme for them, belying the regime’s claims that trade unionists are given adequate protection. As usual, the murderers are not brought to justice. According to Human Rights Watch, people have been brought to justice in only 10% of cases, although almost 3,000 people have been killed.

The British unions and their NGO, Justice for Colombia, formed a parliamentary group of MPs and lords. Together, we will continue to fight for the safety, well-being and rights of our friends in the Colombian trade union movement and of others fighting for justice in Colombia. Our main priority is to help to encourage the parties to the Colombian conflict to engage in a proper peace process that achieves real social justice, because the conflict will not end without it. A colleague will come on to this issue in more detail later, but I want to highlight early-day motion 2276, which we have tabled to that end. I call on the UK Government to use their influence to support that aim.

Justice for Colombia and the MPs and peers in its parliamentary group are often the subject of underhand slurs and insinuations, but we understand that that is par for the course, and we will not be deterred. Meanwhile, I hope President Santos’s words will soon be translated into actions. For too long, our intelligence has been insulted by the Colombian Government, who think that we will be convinced by flowery speeches and well-meaning words. The Colombian people have suffered enough—it is time to see action.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham 11:29 am, 22nd November 2011

I welcome the debate. It is timely that Jim Sheridan has obtained it to coincide with the visit to this country of President Santos. The account that the hon. Gentleman gave of the violence and abuse being meted out to individuals and whole communities in Colombia was very moving and disturbing. While I expect the Government will want to emphasise trade and positive co-operation on such things as climate finance during the visit—those things are extremely positive—it is right that human rights should play a prominent part in the debates surrounding the visit, and in the Government’s specific discussions with President Santos.

The record is still very poor. The ABColombia group of British NGOs working in Colombia reported in recent documentation that the total number of people assumed —even by the Colombian Attorney-General’s office—to have disappeared for political reasons in Colombia is 27,000. That is an astonishing number. The Catholic Fund for Overseas Development reports that attacks on human rights defenders and community leaders have, if anything, escalated in recent years, despite the positive statements that President Santos made when he came into office. In fact, it says that 54 human rights defenders or community leaders have been killed in the first year of the President’s term of office. A local NGO reported 174 different acts of aggression or violence against human rights defenders.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North is right to highlight the position of trade unionists in Colombia, which seems uniquely vulnerable. An International Confederation of Free Trade Unions survey this year reported that 49 trade unionists had been killed in Colombia—more than ICFTU reported killed in the whole of the rest of the world. Even the country’s Government admit that 37 people have been killed simply for their trade union activities. Amnesty International tried to get to the source of the killings of trade unionists, and its analysis suggested that roughly half were paramilitary groups completely outside the control of state agencies and that a very small fraction were guerrilla movements such as FARC; but Amnesty reckoned that more than 40% were connected to state forces. That is an extremely troubling statistic in any country that aspires to democracy and the rule of law, as Colombia clearly does. It has ratified international human rights conventions, and International Labour Organisation conventions on the rights of trade unionists; yet until last year, it had been on the ILO trade unionist rights blacklist for 21 years in succession. That is a pretty appalling record.

The Foreign Office has recognised the seriousness of the human rights situation in Colombia, and I have many times praised and welcomed last year’s human rights report by the Department and the Secretary of State, which highlighted issues about Colombia. It also highlighted another issue dear to my heart, since as well as being an occasional Liberal Democrat spokesman, I chair the all-party group on tribal peoples. The Government’s report sets out very well the vulnerability of indigenous peoples. It is not only illegal armed groups but commercial interests—in mining, rubber and palm oil—that are effectively involved in land grabs and some of the worst violence against any communities in Colombia. Twelve people were killed in the worst massacre, in 2009, of the Awa people, including a three-year-old child and an eight-month-old baby. That is the level of violence and abuse. As always, tribal people’s rights are connected to land rights.

The present Government must be given some credit. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North talked about the victims law; ABColombia highlighted that and, indeed, many of its weaknesses and the interaction with the economic situation. They nevertheless described it as

“an important step forward in recognising the need to restore land to Colombia’s victims.”

There is a slight danger that if we criticise every aspect of progress we shall end up discrediting every attempt to make progress. President Santos has made positive statements. He has talked about the “firm and unavoidable commitment” to the defence of human rights.

My hon. Friend the Minister has been active in positively promoting human rights in Colombia, seeking an active role for the embassy in co-ordinating with civil society and the Government in recognising the importance of human rights and their defenders. On his August visit he met a variety of Colombian Ministers, including, I notice, the Minister of Defence. Are we planning any co-operation with the Colombian Government on military-to-military links, to try to re-emphasise the role of the military in a democratic society? That role is difficult for some military establishments in new and fragile democracies. We see it played out in Egypt, where the military are reluctant to submit to full scrutiny and to full exposure of abuses that have been going on for years. They are reluctant to step back from a role of assumed oversight of the welfare of the country. However, that is what the military must do: they must be forced to step back and tackle the abuses in their own organisation, and the connections, indeed, to some paramilitaries, which still clearly exist in Colombia. Are the British Government actively promoting such change in the Colombian military?

Apparently 298 members of the military have been convicted of human rights abuses, which is a positive development. When President Santos was Minister of Defence he sacked 27 military officers, including three generals, and as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, he disbanded the DAS organisation; so positive steps are being taken.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right; they were sacked—but none of them was prosecuted.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

That emphasises the importance of seeing such commitments through, and taking a thorough approach to transparency and accountability among the military. I was going to say that although 298 convictions sound like a huge number, the total number of outstanding cases under investigation as of September 2011 was 1,486. The figure of 298 is a fairly small percentage.

I shall not take more time, because other hon. Members want to speak. I recognise the positive work that the Minister is doing to promote human rights in Colombia, and it is welcome, but my fundamental question to him is about the concrete steps he has managed to discuss with the Colombian Government, to try to make a difference to the underlying violence and abuse that are clearly still present in Colombian society. What steps are we taking to collaborate with and support the Government in taking those concrete, definable steps?

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 11:38 am, 22nd November 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan on securing the debate. It is timely not only because of the visit of President Santos: it is important that the House should constantly remind itself of the human rights problems in Colombia and, for that matter, other countries in Latin America. One of the sadnesses for many hon. Members who have had dealings with Latin America is the fact that it is still one of the continents most plagued by violence of many kinds, and that it is also plagued by phenomenal poverty and extraordinary wealth. Many of us hope that it will be a continent where the wealth of the land is more evenly distributed between everyone.

My hon. Friend has already outlined some specific problems of Colombia, which include the fact that 5.2 million people have been displaced, more than in any other country, and despite the fact that the population is not enormous compared with many others. The process of displacement goes on. In 2010, according to many NGOs, another 280,000 people were displaced from their land.

There is a hideous degree of corruption in many parts of the state in Colombia, including the judiciary. That is one of the problems that has led to a significant degree of impunity, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North alluded, particularly for paramilitary groups of many different shapes, sizes and kinds. Indeed, Vice President Angelino Garzon said in November 2010 that

“the immense majority of crimes [against] trade unionists remain in impunity…there have been advances in the investigations…but we still have not”—

I apologise for the American English that I am about to use—

“gotten to 200 court rulings, and there are thousands of workers and union leaders killed and disappeared.”

That is absolutely true.

There are many reasons for that impunity. In particular, under previous dispensations, it was in part because the Government did not want to deal with it or punish the people responsible. In some cases, that was, as I said, due to corruption in parts of the judiciary, but in other cases, it was due to intimidation of the judiciary.

I think that the Attorney-General’s office would admit that although the sub-unit that has been dealing with specific issues regarding trade unionists since 2007 has had some success, a large amount of that success has been because of the confessions that some people made under the justice and peace process that was started back then. In fact, since 2007, there have been only six convictions in 195 cases regarding trade unionists. Lest people think that the situation is markedly better today, in 2010, within everyone’s accepted definition, there were at least 51 cases of trade unionists being murdered, and so far, only one case has been opened by the Attorney-General’s office. The process of impunity continues, not least because often, while the actual murderers may be prosecuted, the authors—those who have started, promoted and enabled the process and allowed it to continue—have rarely been touched by the Attorney-General’s sub-unit. That is a major issue that needs to be addressed. Many candidates were killed in the run-up to last year’s local elections, and still we see complete impunity regarding those cases.

When I was the Minister who had responsibility for this area, I spoke clearly to the then Attorney-General, to various Ministers in the Uribe Government and to President Uribe himself and outlined one of my concerns, regarding the nature of the law of rebellion. If we had a law against rebellion in the United Kingdom, I think my hon. Friend Paul Flynn would be permanently in jail. The way that law is used in Colombia in many cases brings its criminal justice system into disrepute. Many people will say, “But it is just an additional law. Someone must already have been found guilty of another criminal offence”, but that is one area in Colombia’s statute book that needs reform.

I have met President Santos on several occasions. He spoke fine words in his inauguration speech and I think he intends them, but the question is whether he can see them through to a conclusion. It is great that one of the first things he did was to achieve some kind of resolution on the relationship with Venezuela. The Uribe-Chavez mutual hatred appreciation society did no favours for either Venezuela or Colombia, in particular for the poorest people living on the border between the two countries.

I am delighted at the change in the mood music, especially regarding human rights defenders and workers. However, in the first six months of 2011, there was a 129% increase on the previous year in the number of attacks on human rights defenders. While I wholeheartedly support President Santos’s declared intentions, I want to see them pursued in reality.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West

Martin Horwood seemed to be saying that President Santos’s visit is primarily about trade, industry and the economy, and that human rights may possibly be discussed. Does my hon. Friend agree that human rights should be very high on the agenda, rather than an aside or an afterthought?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend predicts what I am going to say. Yes, I have always believed that UK foreign policy needs to be pursued on parallel tracks. Of course we want to promote greater trade, but that trade must be based on fairness and freedom. It cannot be based just on our freedom to trade with people; it must be based on the freedom of people to live their lives with dignity and liberty. In Colombia, that has been difficult to achieve in many cases.

That is why I want to raise the issue of the European Union free trade agreement. Originally, the agreement was meant to be with several central American countries, but some wanted to pull out. Now, it is envisaged as just being with Colombia and Peru. I passionately believe that the agreement has to be a mixed one. It should not just be about trade, and so should not just be the sole responsibility of the European Commission. It is vital that when Europe pursues FTAs, they include human rights issues and issues about weapons of mass destruction—not because I think Colombia has a WMD, but because we cannot have one form of FTA in one part of the world and a completely different form in another part. It is therefore important that the Commission does not deal with the issue on its own, and that the agreement is ratified in the Parliaments of each EU member state.

For instance, in our Parliament, we could have a united position to say, “Yes, we want greater and better trade with Colombia.” I know that the Scotch whisky industry has long been keen to have an improved relationship with Colombia and, for that matter, Peru, but it cannot ignore the human rights abuses that are self-evident in Colombia and, increasingly, in Peru. I hope that the Minister will reply that that is the process we are going to adopt, although I note that the Commission keeps trying to squirm its way out, so that it ends up in a position where it decides just on its own.

I want to pay a little tribute to the British ambassador and his staff in Colombia. I will spare his blushes, but Mr John Dew is, I think, one of the finest diplomats employed by the Foreign Office. Colombia is a phenomenally difficult environment to work in, where difficult security measures have to be adopted, but he has carried that off with aplomb. I also pay tribute to the many other British people who have worked in extremely difficult circumstances in our embassy in Colombia.

I very much hope that we will not say that our foreign policy is just about trying to sell more things to foreigners. It also has to be about trying to achieve a fair world, not least because British businesses cannot do business in other countries if the rights of indigenous people are trampled on, if violence is a daily transaction that people have to make to survive, and if people do not have enough to live on.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 11:48 am, 22nd November 2011

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan for securing the debate and for his persistent campaigning. He clearly feels deeply about the tragedies that are taking place, and have been for decades now, in Colombia. He is absolutely right to continue to draw them to the attention of the House.

A low point was when we saw a British Foreign Office Minister posing and smiling among a group—

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Not my hon. Friend. That Minister was smiling with an army unit that was notorious for murdering trade unionists. We have a record of plenty of indignation and horror at the atrocities that are going on, but little practical progress that we can see.

I agree with those who say that we should seize the opportunity offered by the words of Santos and give him the benefit of the doubt—there are many reasons for doubting his sincerity, due to his past. However, he is now speaking a language that no one else has spoken for a long time in Colombia. The President of Mexico has made a similar plea to the one made by Santos the other day—Mexico has lost 40,000 people in the past five years due to drug trafficking and the drug wars—to address the core of the problem, which started not last year or 10 years ago, but in 1961, when the world decided, through the United Nations, that all illegal drug use throughout the world should be eliminated. It was a simple matter: we had only to increase the punishments and the surveillance and, within a decade or two, there would be no use of illegal drugs. In Britain, we passed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We had fewer than 1,000 people addicted to heroin and cocaine then; now we have 320,000. That pattern has gone on throughout the world. Santos is right to say that the divisions in his country, the armies that are funded entirely by money from drugs and the chaos that exists in many other South American countries are problems that we in the west, and particularly in the United Kingdom, have created.

Last week, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published a report that identified the United Kingdom as the second largest consumer of cocaine in our continent. The other countries that use drugs in similar record amounts are the United States and Spain. The reason for the chaos in South American countries is the demand that is coming from this country. We have mistaken the use of coca and cocaine. Coca has been used for centuries, particularly in Bolivia, as an appetite suppressant and to guard against altitude sickness. The way it was ingested ensured that there was no narcotic effect. In the west, however, cocaine is ingested in a manner that produces the narcotic effect. To a great extent, therefore, the problem is ours. If we are looking for some way to reduce this, we should listen to what Santos is saying now. He is bravely calling for a new look at drugs, perhaps including the legalisation of the use of cocaine and other drugs. He realises that he is taking a great risk and that he will be mocked and denounced, particularly by the United States.

Sir Keith Morris, former British ambassador to Colombia, said:

“Those of us who have campaigned for serious debate on the issue have been frustrated by the number of senior politicians who have agreed with us but said they could not take a public stand for fear of committing political suicide due to a hostile reaction from the US administration or public opinion or, in the UK, from the Daily Mail.”

How true that is. When we talk to one another and discuss these things—[Interruption.] Does Richard Graham want me to give way? He does not. We know from private discussions among consenting MPs that there is general agreement that the drug laws are disastrous and that prohibition is increasing the problem. We must take a fresh look at the problem, which is what Santos is calling for. Sir Keith Morris went on :

“The fact that the president of Colombia, the country that has paid the highest price and fought hardest in the war on drugs, should have been prepared to speak out so courageously should inspire the many in American and European political circles who share his view about the failure of the war on drugs at last to make their voices heard.”

The problem and the bloodshed in Colombia would be best undermined if there was an act of courage by European and world politicians. We must face up to the awful fact that it is the result of prohibition that is killing people in South America and on the streets of our cities.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 11:53 am, 22nd November 2011

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have been to Colombia on two occasions. My first visit was some 10 years ago. I went to the rain forest and met a community of Afro-Colombians who had been displaced from their homes. It was an experience that I will never forget. No one in this Chamber today has anything but the best wishes and best intentions for Colombia and for the Colombian people. We should recognise where progress has been made and the rhetoric has certainly changed with the new president, but, as we have heard quite graphically, the rhetoric does not necessarily match up to the reality. Human Rights Watch has said that there has been virtually no progress in bringing to justice the killers of trade unionists. We want progress now. Fine words have been said far too often in the past.

I want to concentrate on the situation that faces political prisoners in Colombia. Two years ago, I went to the country with my colleagues from Justice for Colombia. I saw the horrors faced by trade unionists, members of the opposition, community leaders and human rights activists. One of my most tragic and heart-wrenching experiences was visiting the women’s prison in Bogota. We visited patio 6, which is where trade unionists and other critics of the regime are locked up simply for defending the rights that we hold dear, including the right to protest, the right to organise and the right to freedom of expression.

Basic human rights are constantly denied and that is repeated in prisons all over the country. Leading activists are arrested and accused of “rebellion”, which is a catch-all charge used to imprison critical voices. They are accused of being guerrilla collaborators simply for exercising their right to criticise and organise. Thousands of political prisoners live a precarious existence in which they are often held for months or years without trial. They are denied due process, medical care and their freedom. Others are simply peasants who have committed the grave crime of living in a region where there is a guerrilla presence. As such, they are rounded up and imprisoned.

Examples of recent detentions include the arrest on 22 August of four members of FENSUAGRO, the Colombian agricultural workers’ union, who were detained in Putumayo. Two more of their colleagues from the region were detained, on 30 June and 7 August. All are accused of “rebellion” and continue to be held in Mocoa prison, Putumayo.

On 2 October, eight social leaders, including trade unionists, human rights defenders, teachers and students, were detained in Neiva and Caqueta. On 16 October, more peasant farmers were detained arbitrarily in the municipality of La Uribe, Meta.

When I visited the prison, I met Liliany Obando, who left a lasting impression on us. She is an academic and trade unionist who, like many MPs and union leaders, was imprisoned for highlighting the killings of trade unionists. Liliany is accused of “rebellion” and has been detained since 8 August 2008 without being convicted of any crime. Her legal process is marred by severe irregularities and arbitrary delays. The supposed evidence against her has been used in numerous cases against members of the opposition and has been ruled “inadmissible” in one of those separate cases. Her defence continues to be denied full access to this “evidence”. Her lawyers have submitted 16 appeals against what were considered unfounded legal decisions, yet all were denied, with no legitimate reason provided.

In June, Liliany was moved to a patio that she now shares with paramilitaries, and she is allowed outside for only one hour per week. The Colombian Government, through their embassy in the UK, have claimed that that action was taken for Liliany’s own safety. She has faced physical abuse from prison guards and been denied many visits in recent months. When I met her she said that

“even though we are imprisoned, we don’t give up our struggle, we retain our principles and our morals. We are women who can change things.”

Those words have been lodged in my memory ever since.

Another example is Professor Miguel Angel Beltran, who is a member of the academics’ trade union and a well known critical thinker. He was accused of “rebellion” and imprisoned from 23 May 2009 until 7 June 2011, when he was finally absolved in respect of the charges against him. Just one day after Miguel’s arrest, the then President, Uribe, publicly accused him of being one of the most dangerous terrorists of the FARC. Of course, President Uribe was famous for describing as a terrorist anyone who suits him. He used a few fine words against me and some of my colleagues during our visit to Colombia.

Despite the fact that Dr Beltran was absolved of any crime, the Office of the Inspector General opened a new disciplinary procedure against him, based on the evidence that has already been disproved at his trial. If Dr Beltran is wrongly convicted, that will yet again prevent him from working and teaching as an academic. Ministers and the mainstream Colombian media have also continued to describe him as a terrorist. For example, in an interview with El Tiempo on 27 June 2011, the Minister of the Interior referred to Dr Beltran as “Cienfuegos”, which is his supposed terrorist alias. That was particularly concerning given that, on paper, that Minister had agreed to provide Dr Beltran with a security scheme because of concerns about his security and threats against his life. That promise is yet to be fulfilled. Instead, since his release Dr Beltran has faced threats and phone interceptions, a USB has been robbed from his apartment and he has learned of plans for his assassination, which state that it will be carried out by either forced disappearance or faked accident.

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

Those are just a few examples of the many political prisoners in Colombia, whose existence the Colombian Government deny. In meetings held with the Colombian ambassador to the UK, that issue causes the most anger. The ambassador vehemently denies that any political prisoners exist in Colombia. The Colombian Government’s argument is that the judiciary and executive branches of government are separate, and that the Government have no political influence over the judiciary. That is blatantly untrue. Time and again, we have seen instances of political bias in legal cases, impunity for the killers and legal set-ups of the victims. We know that, although Santos does not attack the judiciary as Uribe did, there continues to be a paramilitary influence in many cases.

Colombia’s political prisoners are not mentioned in the international media, unlike political prisoners in Burma or Zimbabwe. The majority of the British public do not know of the tragic scenarios being played out around Colombia, where trade unionists, academics and human rights activists are subjected to indefinite periods of imprisonment. They are kept away from their children and held in terrible conditions.

We do not hear of the beatings of prisoners, the mass hunger strikes or the lack of water. On 2 December last year, a prisoner died after being beaten by prison guards. Earlier this year, hunger strikers in Valledupar prison sewed their mouths up after being denied proper access to water. The response of the authorities was to attack the prisoners.

I will never forget the experience of seeing single mothers and babies being locked up over the mothers’ trade union activities. As we condemn that practice in other countries, so too must we condemn it in Colombia. This is a systematic pattern of action being used to silence critical voices and it shows that, on the ground, Colombia is very far from being the democracy that its leaders claim it is.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Liberal Democrat, Mid Dorset and North Poole

Order. I remind hon. Members that the winding-up speeches will begin at 12.10 pm. I call Jim Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport) 12:02 pm, 22nd November 2011

I congratulate Jim Sheridan on securing this debate and on bringing this matter to the House. I want to highlight an issue that perhaps has not been touched upon, which is the human rights of Christians in Colombia.

The Church that I belong to and that I suspect some others in this Chamber belong to, and that many people outside of this Chamber belong to, supports missionaries in many parts of the world and it specifically supports Christians in Colombia. I just want to highlight some of the issues that concern that Church.

We are all very aware of the deadly FARC extremists who are trying to hold sway in Colombia; they are the longest-operating left-wing guerrilla group in Latin America. I want to focus on the human rights abuses and the violence in Colombia that deliberately target churches and their leaders for standing up to the guerrillas and their armed rebellion.

In the time that I have today, I just want to highlight some of those abuses; I am conscious of the issues, but I will not dwell on them too long. There is a catalogue of examples of how the FARC guerrillas have deliberately targeted churches and the work that they do. The guerrillas have tried to close the churches and stop the prayer meetings and gatherings of the people who attend them. By and large, however, the churches have managed to stand up to the guerrillas, and it is good that they have done so.

There is not only human rights abuses against Christians by the FARC extremists, but diminution of human rights and Christian activity by the Colombian state, and I wanted to highlight some examples of that state activity. The Indigenous Municipal Council has suffered a number of violations, including violations against 3,000 indigenous Christians in the province of Cauca. Sandra Osborne said she had some difficulty with some of these Colombian words and so have I. As an Ulster Scot with a very distinct Ulster accent, it is sometimes difficult to get my tongue around some of these words. The governor of Cauca ordered property to be removed from some people in the province. On 17 December last year, a council man was murdered because he was a Christian. On 3 February this year, a Christian family were forced out of their burning home. The leaders of the Indigenous Municipal Council and 20 Christian families were also forcibly moved. A pastor, his nine-year-old daughter and a woman from the pastor’s church were killed because they stood up to the abuse of Christians. Another pastor’s wife was killed, and other people have been imprisoned. Clearly, there has been a catalogue of discrimination and brutal attacks on members of the Christian community.

There have also been political attacks on people. In many villages in Colombia, especially on the western coast, the guerrillas are writing threatening messages on walls and deliberately targeting people in the villages to get them to vote for the candidates that the guerrillas support in elections.

I also want to comment on the issue of religious freedom and on the restrictions that exist in Colombia. In 1991, the Colombian constitution respected religious freedom and practice, and it also mandated the separation of church and state, which is a principle I support. However, the Catholic Church retains a de facto privilege and status in Colombia. Also, the state recognises as legally binding only those religious marriages celebrated by the Catholic Church. Members of the 13 non-Catholic religious organisations, which are not signatories to the constitutional agreement, must marry in a civil ceremony. So I again highlight the fact that there is clear human rights abuse and discrimination against those people. Also, the Treasury Department in Colombia imposes a 4% tax on all tithes, offerings and charitable contributions to certain churches. I contribute to much missionary work—I know that other people do as well—and in Colombia there is also a 17% tax on all financial assistance received from abroad.

Those are the points that I want the Minister to respond to. I am sorry that I do not have time to develop them more, but I look forward to hearing his response.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Liberal Democrat, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I call Mr Andy Love to speak. I am afraid that you have only three minutes.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton 12:07 pm, 22nd November 2011

Thank you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me to speak.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan on securing this debate and on securing it in the week that President Santos is in the UK. One hopes that not only the Minister but President Santos himself will hear the concerns that are being expressed today.

I will speak briefly about trade unionists. My hon. Friend and indeed all Members who have spoken in the debate have touched upon the habitual abuses committed against trade unionists in Colombia. During the past 25 years, 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered, often in front of their families. I will come back to that issue in a moment, but before I do so it is important that we discuss the current Colombian Government’s approach to trade union rights.

For some time, Colombia has been seeking to reach a free trade agreement with the European Union—that was touched upon by my hon. Friend—and with the United States, Canada and other countries. President Obama was deeply unhappy about the human rights situation in Colombia and talked about it in his campaign speeches. As one means of going some way to addressing the situation facing any organised labour in Colombia—workers need that help in Colombia, where people work in the most basic of conditions in a mineral-rich country, earning a pittance while making millions for multinationals—the Colombian Government agreed, under pressure, to what was called a labour action plan. That was stipulated by the Americans as a condition of their entering into a free trade agreement with Colombia. Some of the measures included in that plan held out promise of improving labour and human rights, and they were widely trumpeted as if they would resolve the labour rights situation.

Now, more than seven months since that action plan was signed, all three federations of the Colombian labour movement and the highly respected ENS trade union school have said that they were not consulted in the drawing-up of the action plan and that the Colombian Government have failed to implement the measures outlined in that plan, because:

“the State as a whole is not committed to the Action Plan related to Labour rights”.

The ENS trade union school has said:

“the new labor agenda is not a reality, since business owners and public servants continue to broadly violate labor and union rights.”

Since the action plan was signed, 16 trade unionists have been assassinated. In normal circumstances, I would have gone on in much greater detail about the problems faced by trade unions, but they have been well documented today. However, I ask the Minister: did he take these concerns up with President Santos in his meeting earlier today, and what further action does he propose the British Government take to address all the trade union and human rights violations, in the context of the trade agreement that is likely to come forward at a European level?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:10 pm, 22nd November 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan on securing the debate. The number of Members wanting to speak, intervene and listen shows the strength of feeling about the issue. The debate is very timely, coinciding as it does with President Santos’s visit.

My hon. Friend provided us, as did a number of other speakers, with compelling accounts of human rights abuses in Colombia, in particular concerns about comrades in the Colombian trade union movement. He said that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, with 2,908 of them killed since 1986 and 23 so far this year. He expressed his deep concern about impunity, about the lack of prosecution of those responsible for the killings. He also expressed some scepticism about whether the warm words and rhetoric of President Santos, who was elected last year, would be matched by action, and about the how the land and victims law will work in practice. I shall come to that.

My hon. Friend Chris Bryant talked about the EU free trade agreement, and he is right that it should not be just about trade. When we enter into such negotiations, it is important to use the leverage that they give us to put human rights issues on the table as well. He said that foreign policy should not just be about selling more to foreigners, and I entirely agree.

My hon. Friend Paul Flynn raised the important issue of the impact of the drugs trade and consumption in the west on communities in Colombia and Mexico. He said that the UK, the US and Spain are the largest consumers of cocaine. It is said that a line of coke snorted here results in a death back in Colombia—a compelling image. When President Santos addressed the all-party British-Latin America group yesterday, he was asked about that and he said that it is not just the link between cocaine consumption here and the violence in Colombia but the really serious issue of deforestation and land grabbing. We ought to factor in the significant environmental impact of consuming cocaine in the west.

We of course welcome President Santos on his visit to the UK. It is a very important opportunity for dialogue, not just on human rights but on other issues of great importance to the relationship between our nations, such as trade, the environment and working together on technology transfer. Yesterday, the President was particularly keen to flag up education, and whether Colombia can learn from and adapt our approach to training and skills in the UK, which is somewhat ironic given that the trade union movement has been so involved in pushing that agenda here. As today’s debate has shown however, the human rights situation in Colombia continues to be our gravest concern. I appreciate the President’s willingness to address that issue in a full and frank manner with the all-party group yesterday, and also at the meeting I attended with the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary straight afterwards, when we discussed in depth concerns about the continued violence in Colombia and impunity, in particular attacks on human rights defenders and trade unionists.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I am sorry that I missed the early part of the debate; I was in a Select Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a collective failure by the European Union, the International Labour Organisation and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that none of the human rights elements in the trade and other international agreements that Colombia has signed up to has been enforced at local level, and that therefore the disappearances of very brave human rights defenders and the abuse of their human rights continue?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I agree that past attempts to put pressure on Colombian Governments have not been effective. Impunity, at 98% or thereabouts, is a shocking statistic. It is important, and I will ask the Minister about this in a moment, that we use any leverage we have, anything within our power, to try to push that agenda along to ensure that it is not just warm words about human rights but that action is taken on the ground to protect them. President Santos was prepared to meet the non-governmental organisations today. I was not aware yesterday that trade unions would be involved in that meeting, and it is very important that they were. Anything the Minister can do to ensure better dialogue between the people from the trade union movement who have visited Colombia and the Colombian regime is an important step forward.

Anyone who has met human rights campaigners from Colombia cannot fail to be moved by their stories. A week or two ago I met some women who were talking about the shocking rise in gender-based violence and the use of rape in the conflict. President Santos was not able to explain why there has been such a dramatic increase over the past year or two, and the assessments that have been made seem to indicate that the violence is being carried out by the guerrilla movement, paramilitaries in particular, and the security forces, and that women are being targeted across the board. I hope that issue is very much on the Minister’s radar.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk

Does my hon. Friend agree that we tend to conflate the issues of drugs and human rights in Colombia but that human rights problems existed long before the country was effectively the centre of the world as far as cocaine production was concerned? Any solution, therefore, must not simply involve killing the likes of Alfonso Cano but have social justice at its core.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I agree. It is a complex situation, involving drug wars, the political situation, the role of FARC, the land grab and commercial interests. I am not suggesting that there is one solution. It is an incredibly complex situation to unravel, but President Santos’s rhetoric is very welcome. Recently, there has been significant progress in tackling some of the violence that has plagued the country over the past 50 years. FARC’s activities have been curtailed, but there is genuine concern that a more fragmented organisation is less likely to come to the negotiating table.

Does the Minister see a particular role for the UK? It has been flagged up a number of times that given our history of negotiating with groups, particularly in Northern Ireland, and given the recent decision by ETA, there might be lessons to be learnt that could help the Colombian Government in their discussions with FARC. President Santos has indicated that he is very willing to pursue such negotiations.

President Santos’s announcement in the past month about disbanding DAS, the administrative department of security, is a very welcome step given the allegations of collusion with paramilitaries, illegal surveillance, corruption and harassment of judges, journalists and politicians. The President has said:

“The country knows why we have decided to take this step,” and that is, I think, both a tacit admission that the allegations against DAS were well founded, and an important signal that the President wants to restore the integrity of his country’s intelligence services.

Nevertheless, there are understandably still concerns about the human rights situation. In the first year of the Santos Administration 54 human rights defenders were killed, there has been a significant increase in gender-based violence, and there are concerns about the future of indigenous peoples—campesinos and Afro-Colombians—who have been displaced from their land to make way for drug and palm oil plantations and cattle ranching, which the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing. It is not up there with the human rights abuses involving killings, but displacement is important, as is the question whether the new land and victims law will provide reparation and restitution for those people. What role does the Minister feel Britain has to play, particularly when British commercial interests are involved in such land grabs? How does he think that we can resolve the issue and return land to people?

I know that the Minister has visited Colombia twice and that he met President Santos in Peru as well as this week. He has had a lot of time to get a feel for the new regime. Does he feel that the agenda is moving forward and that we are making progress in pushing Colombia on human rights abuses? In particular, what has he learned from this week’s visit?

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 12:20 pm, 22nd November 2011

Thank you, Mrs Brooke, for giving me this first opportunity to serve under your chairmanship. I pay tribute to Jim Sheridan for securing the debate and for his ongoing interest in the subject.

We all agree that we want to do whatever we can to reduce human rights abuses in Colombia. I do not think that I have ever met anybody who believes that British foreign policy should solely be about selling things to foreigners, so let us start with the assumption that we all have greater ambitions than that. The question is how to achieve them.

In his Canning House lecture a year ago, the Foreign Secretary set out his vision for a step change in our engagement with Latin America, and we are working to broaden and deepen our relationship with Colombia in a range of areas, including human rights, trade, education, science, innovation and environmental growth. In our bilateral co-operation, respect for human rights remains a core value. I have raised the issue on numerous occasions with the President of Colombia and many Colombian Ministers. Although, inevitably, our meeting was not as long as many would have liked, it is important that the President was willing to have discussions in the Foreign Office this morning with non-governmental organisations, members of which are attending this debate.

The debate has highlighted some of the human rights problems in Colombia, but it is important to remember the historical context. In the 1990s, Colombia was a country on the brink of complete disintegration. Guerrillas, paramilitary groups and the armed forces were all responsible for widespread abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. Improvements have been made since that time. My hon. Friend Martin Horwood asked how we have tried to contribute in terms of the military. We have programmes specifically designed to use our expertise and insight to normalise and modernise the Colombian military’s behaviour and conduct, but that is inevitably a process. Progress is being made, and a new Colombia is emerging.

Drugs are clearly a problem. I respect Paul Flynn; he made a point about parliamentarians in Britain not daring to raise the issue. I remember the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election. Given the behaviour of the Labour party, he might choose to reflect why Labour did not wish to raise the issue after that election.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister lets himself down by those last comments. He referred to co-operation between the British military and the Colombian military. Exactly what shape does that take? It is a new policy under his Government. How much is it costing?

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It is not a new policy. We are completely committed to strong human rights in Colombia. We want a normalised military that observes and protects human rights rather than risking or, on occasion, abusing them. We are trying to ensure that the Colombian military has the characteristics that we recognise in our own military rather than those that we do not wish it to have. It is as simple as that. I stand by my previous point. I am in favour of mature debate about drug consumption in the west, but all politicians and all parties must approach that debate with equal maturity.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I do not want to mislead the House. The words that I quoted on the cowardice of British politicians were those of a former ambassador. Does the Minister agree with President Santos’s call for a new look at prohibition?

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The point I am making is that that was an example of a politician trying to make a broader point about the consumption and legal status of drugs in Britain. I suspect that the way that the politician was attacked in that election provided a disincentive for others to take the same approach.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I will not, because many points have been made.

There have been improvements in Colombia. Cocaine production has decreased significantly, murder and kidnap rates have declined and Colombia is safer as a result, but more still needs to be done. As Members have said, many candidates were murdered during last month’s local elections, and attacks on human rights defenders increased in 2011. The situation is serious. President Santos has set an ambitious reform and modernisation agenda, including a policy of zero tolerance of human rights abuses. In my meetings with him and other Ministers, he emphasised that powerfully.

The passage of the victims and land restitution law is one of the President’s most important achievements to date and has been commended by the UN. It aims to return land to huge numbers of displaced people and to compensate victims, and we attach great importance to it. The Santos Government have made it clear that civic society has a key role to play in addressing human rights concerns in Colombia. The British Government share that view. To respond to the hon. Member for Shannon, our ambassadors and others are here today, and I will ask our ambassador to raise our concerns directly.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I am the hon. Member for Strangford. Shannon is down south; I am up in the north.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sorry. I do not know whether I am the first person to have made that mistake, but I apologise unreservedly.

To respond to Kerry McCarthy, I have met Afro-Colombian groups and raised their concerns, as well as those of indigenous people, directly with President Santos and senior members of Government. I hope that they are fully versed in the British Government’s position.

In March 2011, the Foreign Office’s human rights Command Paper identified a chronic lack of capacity and resources in the judicial system as a key barrier to the enjoyment of human rights in Colombia. It remains a significant concern, but progress has been made. The number of prosecutions for extra-judicial killings has risen sharply, and in September, the former head of the state intelligence agency—DAS—was found guilty of criminal conspiracy for providing right-wing militias with lists of left-wing activists and trade union leaders, some of whom were subsequently imprisoned or killed. I agree completely with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North that the problem is far from being resolved. The Colombian Attorney-General’s office is currently investigating 1,486 human rights violations allegedly committed by members of the armed forces.

Concerns have been raised about British businesses. I want to make it completely clear that our approach is to ensure that British businesses operating in Colombia and elsewhere maintain the highest standards of conduct. I repeat my offer to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North: if he has examples of specific violations, I hope that he will bring them to my attention.

A point was made about free trade agreements by my predecessor, Chris Bryant, among others. We support free trade agreements, but for the avoidance of doubt, our view is that the proposed free trade agreement between Colombia and the European Union should be, in the jargon, a mixed competence agreement. In other words, it should include the concerns that have been raised. However, as Members have said, there is a Colombian-American free trade agreement, so I hope that we will make progress, with the conditions that I mentioned.

I believe that Colombia offers great potential. It is the second most populous country in South America, and it has worked closely with Britain on numerous issues of joint concern that I am sure are shared by Ministers and Members as well. However, we take the point that a normalised, strong, healthy relationship with the Colombians requires marked improvements on human rights. That process has been ongoing, and we recognise the progress made, but we wish to work closely with the Colombian Government to ensure that dramatic further progress is made soon.