Colombia Peace Process — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 12th September 2018.

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[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 2:30 pm, 12th September 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the peace process in Colombia.

Although my visit to Colombia earlier this year was sponsored by ABColombia, I have not yet been able to register the fact, because I do not yet have the figures. It is not the case the case that ABColombia wants me to say something on its behalf—I am not lobbying on its behalf—but it certainly paid for me to visit. I went with Patrick Grady, and we had a very productive visit, but I want to make the position clear from the outset.

As I think all hon. Members will know, the conflict in Colombia has been one of the most disturbing of the past 100 years. It is not much commented on, particularly in the British press or on British television, but it is a simple fact. It has gone on for 50 years. There have been 220,000 casualties; 177,000 civilians have been killed, more or less; and 25,000 others have disappeared—nobody knows where they have gone. Some 45,000 children have been killed in the conflict.

Perhaps one of the most shocking statistics is that between 5 million and 6 million people have been displaced. In a population of 50 million or 55 million, a phenomenal number of people have had to leave their lands. They have been forced off their lands and moved to other places. Often they have been forced into complete and abject poverty. Having lived on land where they were able to achieve subsistence by growing crops and looking after animals, they have suddenly found themselves in urban populations with no means of making a living and without a home, so they rely on begging.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. The tragedy of Colombia is that half of the 7 million or so refugees have been forced to go and live in slums in cities, which has just increased the problem, both for the Colombian Government and for the rest of the world.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

Indeed. We were in La Primavera, a small town in one of the more remote districts in the north-east of Colombia, and it was striking that a lot of the campesino population, who 10 or 15 years ago would have had a few hectares per family on which to grow crops and have their livelihood, had suddenly found themselves begging on the streets in La Primavera. Of course, the urban townsfolk and the local authorities get quite racist about this, frankly—that was the impression we got. People being forced into poverty when they had a richness in the way they lived previously is one of the most distressing elements of what we are talking about.

The massive exodus that we are seeing from Venezuela at the moment is also an enormous problem for Colombia. In the past I have been very critical of President Uribe, who I think sometimes used the ideological confrontation with Venezuela as a means of bolstering his own political support inside Colombia. Indeed, President Santos’s first and most successful job was to restore proper relations between the two countries. However, the fact that between 1.5 million and 2.5 million Venezuelans are leaving Venezuela because of the extraordinary problems in that country and their fear for the future is causing a real problem for Colombia. The Spanish President was in Colombia a couple of weeks ago and commented on the fact that it is an extraordinary success that Colombia has managed to accommodate so many people. But inevitably, with so many people who are in effect economic refugees, there are enormous dangers.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that part of the terrible human loss has come from the targeting of trade union leaders and human rights defenders? Just this year, 123 leaders and human rights defenders have already lost their lives as a result of assassinations.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I think that the figure of 123 is just for the first six months of the year. One difficulty, which I will come to later, is that it is very difficult to get precise numbers. The mixture of different military and paramilitary organisations engaged in the conflict over the 50 years has meant that very often the Government, or people sponsored by the Government, have effectively been killing human rights defenders. Sometimes it is a genuine mistake but, I think, very rarely. This is often referred to as false positives by the Colombian authorities, but I think that actually, in many cases, we could see that sometimes a presidential decree, certainly under previous Presidents, or somebody being referred to as a political undesirable, would mean that somebody would take it into their mind a few weeks later simply to bump them off. The number of incidents is still growing. This year there have been very significant numbers, and it shows no sign of stopping. I will refer later to some of the things that I think could be done.

One problem is this. Everybody knows about the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, but there are many other groups, such as the ELN—Ejército de Liberación Nacional—and the paramilitary groups that have collapsed into dissent. Some of them are much less co-ordinated and structured. The fact that many of them resorted to the illegal cocaine trade to fund their military activities has meant that they have become addicted to that trade. In the end, in many cases, there is very little difference between the criminal—the pure criminal—and these paramilitary organisations. In particular, in the most difficult-to-reach parts of the country, such as in Chocó, there are still significant numbers of these groups, such as the Black Eagles and the AUC, which are still quite clearly engaging in intimidation, assassination, torture and murder.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate. Does he agree that there are some areas where the FARC were previously in control and have been moved out as part of reincorporation, so there is now a space for these dissident groups to fill and that is creating the sort of dangers and the climate whereby criminality and the number of murders are rapidly rising? There seems to be no Government control or police control over those areas.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The issue of land ownership, which I will come to, is a really important part of trying to resolve the long-term issues from the conflict, because where the space is theoretically owned by nobody, it is almost certain that somebody, normally with criminal or paramilitary intent, or both, will step in to fill the vacuum.

Let me give just some characteristics of the conflict. Obviously, there has been the murder of human rights defenders and trade union activists, which has already been referred to by my hon. Friend Catherine West, and I have referred to the stand-off with Venezuela. The corruption of judges has meant that it has been very difficult to secure convictions of those who have been involved in all this. I am enormously grateful to the British Government for all the work that they have done to try to restore, or help to restore, the criminal justice system in Colombia to a more secure form of justice. I very much hope that will continue. If more money needs to be put into it, it should be. I note that the European Union is putting in €35 million for a fund to help Venezuelans acting as refugees in Colombia. It would be good to know whether the UK will be contributing anything towards that. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question later.

The single biggest element of the conflict, which makes it so different from others, is the massive consolidation of land ownership that has occurred. It is not just that, as a result of the colonial past, lots of people have big farms—far from it. Some 1% of the largest farms have 81% of the land, and the 0.1% of farms that are over 2,000 hectares have 60% of the land. That is a phenomenal consolidation. It is considerably worse now than it was even in the 1960s. In 1960, 29% of farms were over 500 hectares; in 2002, 46% were over 500 hectares; and in 2017, 66% of farms were over 500 hectares. One factor behind that extraordinary consolidation is that British-funded agribusinesses want to plant vast acres of oil palms, which often leads to significant deforestation and the taking of lands that had previously been used by campesino and indigenous peoples.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am very impressed by my hon. Friend’s speech. Does he know which British corporations are doing this? It would be extremely helpful to the House if he could name them.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I might need a bit more notice to answer that question, if that is all right. There is a point here for all of us, whether we run a big industry or not. If we want to rely on palm oil, and if there is an enormous demand for palm oil in British supermarkets, the temptation will be to cover all of Colombia with oil palms. It is good that some supermarkets have said they will not use palm oil products at all. I hope we move further down that route.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North and I flew over large chunks of Colombia. At one point we were in a heavy thunderstorm, which was quite frightening—the aeroplane, which was only a six-seater, was wobbling all over the place. I was quite nervous, until I looked at the pilot, who was on WhatsApp on his phone throughout the whole flight, which sort of reassured me. The most extraordinary thing, having flown over Colombia and seen all the acres devoted to palm oil, was to learn that Colombia can no longer feed itself, yet it has some of the richest agricultural lands in South America. We think that we know what an avocado is, but there are 50 different types of avocado in Colombia. In the past, people grew to eat, but increasingly they grow to provide for an external market. I understand why Colombia wants to earn a living in the world, but it is crazy that such a country is unable to feed itself. Of the 43 million hectares devoted to agriculture in Colombia, 34.4 million are devoted to cows and only 8.6 million to crops. That means that 1 million campesino families have less land to live on than a single cow.

I pay tribute to a succession of wonderful Colombian ambassadors to the United Kingdom, who have sometimes had to pick their way through very difficult subjects. In my experience, they have all been impeccable. I am not sure whether Néstor is leaving soon, but if he is I hope that anybody here who knows him will send him our best regards.

If I could say one thing to the Colombian Government, it would be that we in the United Kingdom want to do everything we can to help in the process of land reform, because that is the essential element of the peace accord. It is good that everyone sits around the table and all the rest of it, but clause 1 of the peace accord refers to land reform. In La Primavera and El Porvenir we met a variety of different communities, including the Sikuani indigenous people, and we met campesino families in Cajamarca. Their biggest concern is that they do not have land to live on. If they do not get secure title, they will simple move in ever greater numbers into the big cities, which will exacerbate all the problems of poverty.

We visited the Sikuani, who were wonderful. I think they trained themselves in Spanish to be able to talk to us better, as it was not their first language. They were thrown off the lands they used to occupy by the FARC and then by other paramilitaries. They have tried to get the land back, but they need legal title to feel secure on that land. Only a few months ago, some people—it is difficult to know exactly who they were—accompanied by Colombian police officers, who were photographed, came to try to throw them off their lands again and destroyed some of their sacred grounds.

Clearly, across Colombia, but particularly in the more remote areas, there is a deliberate intention, sometimes sponsored by members of the police and the armed forces, to try to intimidate campesino and indigenous people off their lands. That can be changed only through the much faster acceleration of the process of restitution of land, the declaration of title and the granting of baldios. The word “baldio” in Spanish usually means wasteland, but it also refers to the large amount of land in Colombia that does not have proper legal title, which the Government theoretically own. The peace process was meant to deliver to every campesino family enough baldio land to live off, and that is the most secure path towards peace. That has been limited to certain areas of Colombia, and I hope the Colombian Government will consider looking at other areas as well in the next phase of the peace process. They have tried to put a time limit on the process, which I think is a mistake. The process is still remarkably slow, and many indigenous and campesino people simply do not have access to their land.

There has been a peace accord with the FARC, as I mentioned. We met some members of the FARC, who have handed in their guns and turned to peace. They are desperate to ensure that the peace process is fulfilled. It was a difficult process to arrive at. One element of the peace process is incomplete: a deal with the ELN. The Spanish President was trying to encourage the new Government of President Iván Duque to sit around the table with the ELN. The ELN is not as co-ordinated, structured or—some might say—principled as the FARC. There is not a single organisational structure in the ELN. Thus far, it has not been part of the peace accord. I note that the day by which Duque said that the ELN had to surrender its last 17 hostages has now passed. I do not know whether anything has happened today, but yesterday Colombian Government Ministers were saying that they will not sit down at the table until those hostages have been surrendered, and the ELN was saying that it cannot surrender those hostages, because of Government military activity in the areas where they are.

We all know from our experience in Northern Ireland that politicians sometimes have to say one thing in public and scurry away into the background to do something completely different. Mrs Thatcher—or the British Government at the time—was having conversations with terrorist organisations, just as John Major did long before it was publicly known. In the same way, a former Colombian ambassador to this country, Mauricio Rodríguez, was deployed by President Santos to have initially secret conversations with the ELN. I hope that the same is happening at the moment. Some of the attacks on human rights defenders and others in Chocó and other parts of the country are undoubtedly being committed by dissident groups alongside the ELN. If there is to be peace, in the end, everybody will have to sit round the table.

On the issue of human rights defenders, we had a productive meeting, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North will agree, with the people from the National Protection Unit. They genuinely want to protect everybody who comes under threat and intimidation, but I still do not think that they have the resources to do the job properly. We heard about one woman who had full protection measures up to the point she got out of the car and walked half a mile down the drive to her house, which was obviously the most dangerous place. Those issues are really important. Women, in particular, are being attacked and need much greater protection.

Colombia is a great country of phenomenal riches. In Cajamarca, we saw La Colosa, which is a mountain that a British-registered company wants to turn into a gold mine. The people of Cajamarca, some 18,000 of them, organised a plebiscite—a public consultation, as they call it—under state provision, and more than 93% of people came out against the mine. As a representative of a former mining constituency, I am not opposed to all extractive industries—I am quite in favour of mining—but for people to get a chunk of gold out of the place they are talking about, they would have to take half the mountain away. It is right at the top of a series of valleys, and two wetlands come together at the top, so all the water for large numbers of communities down the river could be damaged and become impossible to drink. I am not an expert, but it seemed to the hon. Member for Glasgow North and me that whoever came up with the idea of taking away a mountain and the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Colombians did not have any real idea of how to go about business.

I very much hope that we have an opportunity to meet the company, AngloGold Ashanti, and say that that mine is not going to happen. The people of Cajamarca have a right to have their consultation honoured. I am not a fan of referendums—they can go terribly wrong—but when the people have spoken with a definitive result of 93%, that has to be honoured.

Over the last 200 years, our country has been closely related to Colombia, and we want to continue to do an enormous amount of trade in the future. For many politicians in this country, it would be a joy to see the proper fulfilment of the whole peace accord in Colombia. There is a famous book, “Open Veins of Latin America”, and this feels like one of the last remaining open veins in Latin America. It would be good to sew up that wound.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire 2:54 pm, 12th September 2018

This is a hugely interesting debate on a subject that has increasingly become part of my intense interest in politics. I congratulate Chris Bryant on securing the debate and on raising issues that have stimulated that interest. I need to know a lot more about land ownership and land reform in Colombia, and I shall be going away to find out exactly what has happened.

My interest in the issue started with my family: my son married a Colombian girl. I did not know much about Colombia, so I simply wanted to know, and I suddenly realised that so much about this wonderful country is not known to the British population at all. I wanted to try to change that in different ways.

My knowledge has greatly increased, because I spent most of August in Colombia. I spent a week in the capital, Bogotá, and almost a week in the second city, Medellín. I also spent time in the rural area of Boyacá, where my family originate from and where some of them still live, and I had a few days of relaxation in Anapoima. I now have greater knowledge of the country, but it is so huge that there is still much to learn. That is why I welcome today’s debate.

My trip coincided with the inauguration of the new president, which signalled a substantial change in the country. There was also the attempted assassination of the president of next-door Venezuela, which also had a huge impact. When I was driving around, I saw so many Venezuelans walking along the road, on the backs of lorries, or thumbing lifts—just leaving the country and moving into Colombia in very large numbers.

The most relevant part of my visit for today’s debate was the five days that I spent in Medellín, the second city, and not because a flower festival was taking place—probably the best flower festival in the world—but because of the way in which that city has dealt with a history of violence. I was grateful to the Mayor of Medellín for organising a day for me to understand exactly what has happened in the city. Throughout the 1990s, it was the murder capital of the world, with 25,000 murders in 1992 and 27,000 in 1993, but when I was there, I could not believe that that had been the case. In my Sunday newspaper about two weeks ago, I read that it had dropped out of the 30 most murderous cities in the world. What astonished me was that the people had decided that they wanted an end to the scale of the violence—it was done through people power. The level of forgiveness that was needed in the population to deliver that result is truly astonishing.

I will touch on two issues of inevitable concern. First, the rumoured approach and direction of the new president, Iván Duque. The hon. Member for Rhondda, and others in interventions, have mentioned the continuing murder of human rights defenders, which is quite shocking. As has been outlined, Colombia experienced serious internal conflict from 1964 to 2016 when the peace accord was agreed and signed by Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC. The whole world celebrated the accord and thought it was wonderful, so there was inevitably some concern—which I shared because of my developing interest—during the election campaign, when the favourite to win suggested that the agreement needed to be changed in certain ways. The worry was that that might produce some negatives. However, the new President has now been in place for five weeks and most of what I have managed to glean from the comments that have been made so far seems to me to be incredibly encouraging.

The first issue was who was appointed to the various positions, but the appointments have been generally welcomed. They have shown a streak of independence. One of the concerns was that it was thought the new President would be too influenced by Álvaro Uribe, a previous President, who really was not a great supporter of the peace agreement or of the FARC coming into Government. The independence shown by that is important and, as I say, the appointments seem to have been welcomed.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I am afraid I make a rather different reading of all of this. I have met President Uribe—in 2010, I think—and he was very opposed to the peace process and the peace accord, and I think that it is still to be seen whether President Duque will decide to go his own course and be an independent man. However, with some of Duque’s Ministers, including in some of the key departments, the strings are undoubtedly being pulled by Uribe.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

That is not the impression that I have been receiving, but it is a perfectly valid point and I certainly think that that is how Uribe is seen. Nevertheless, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is welcome if the new President is seen as having a degree of independence and being his own man, because he was sponsored, or at least supported, by Uribe in the election; we should welcome that independence.

The inauguration was only five weeks ago. I have written down one or two things that I have gleaned since then. Duque has reiterated a commitment to the peace process, which is good; everybody will think that is to be welcomed. There is an open invitation, and a public open invitation, to FARC combatants to continue their involvement in the reintegration process. There is a reassurance that committees established in the peace process will continue. There have been no modifications at all to the terms of the peace agreement; it had been feared there would be. Who knows what may happen in the future? As of now, however, there certainly have not been any modifications. There is a new high commissioner for peace, a new presidential councillor for stabilisation, and a commitment to work with the international community, including with the UN, the US and indeed the UK, which are also to be welcomed.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that commitments are all very well but until the Government get on top of the paramilitary situation we will still see assassinations of human rights defenders, trade unionists and others who are really trying to represent the working people and the average citizen in Colombia?

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and I do agree; indeed, that is the point I will now come to. Clearly, the new President faces some real issues that cause concern, and that concern is shared by everybody in the rest of the world who has a regard or a love for Colombia.

One big issue is the control of the drug trade, and there is also the murder of human rights defenders in increasing numbers. What has been happening is completely unacceptable to the whole world and it is a huge challenge for the new President. I think he will want to satisfy the world community that he is looking at the situation in Colombia and taking seriously the need to defend the human rights defenders. As I say, that is a challenge, but a measure of his success as President will be that he reduces the number of murders; one murder is too many and there are clearly far too many murders in Colombia.

Most of the murders in Colombia are probably drug-related. Those who dominate the drug trade are seeking to prevent people interfering with that trade. The drug trade certainly caused all the murders in Medellín in the 1990s and it is probably a significant reason why we are seeing human rights defenders being murdered, which no civilised person could possibly agree with.

The new President faces some massive challenges and I cannot imagine anybody in this Chamber not wishing him well. Clearly, the development of the drugs business and the export of drugs to the rest of the world is a huge issue. The amount of cocaine coming out of Colombia is probably increasing. The President has got to stop that; the high number of murders has got to be reduced; and the peace process has got to continue. At this stage, however, I think we can be encouraged by the President’s first five weeks. Let us hope that at the end of his four years in office we can look back and say that they were a very successful four years. I am still hopeful that they will be.

Colombia is a wonderful country. Anybody from Britain who spends time there realises that it is very different from what we are used to. It is a truly spectacular and wonderful country, I think it has a wonderful future and I rather hope that, at a personal level, I can play some part in helping that process. And we, as a British Government, should play an important part in that process as well.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central 3:05 pm, 12th September 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Bryant on securing this debate at a really important time. I do not think that I can emulate his Spanish accent, but his speech really was excellent.

I should say that I visited Colombia last month alongside Justice for Colombia, which paid for my visit—I, too, am waiting for final details to update my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It is good to see the Minister for Europe and the Americas in his place today. I thank him again for meeting me just before the summer recess and for his offer last week of a further meeting following my visit to Colombia.

As we have heard today, Colombia is a country of contrasts. It is the most beautiful of countries, but it is also a country scarred by decades of civil war, during which hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared, murdered or tortured, including—in fact, predominantly—trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders, and Colombia still is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.

That is why the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 was such a moment of hope for Colombia, for those of us in Westminster Hall today and indeed for everyone around the world who has a specific interest in the country. It was an agreement to end the armed conflict through a ceasefire, with disarmament by the FARC; a new special jurisdiction, courts and a truth commissioner; political participation by the FARC as a legal political party with seats in the Congress and the House of Representatives; land reform, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda talked about; and the substitution of illegal crops with legal ones, with time-limited subsidies to peasant farmers. Overseeing all of that would be a United Nations verification mission.

Nearly two years on from the signing of that historic agreement, and nine years after I first went to Colombia, I went back there last month with colleagues from Parliament, trade union leaders, lawyers and one of the Northern Ireland human rights commissioners, as part of JFC’s peace monitoring delegation. I know the Minister is very aware of the work of JFC, and I place on the record today my admiration for the incredible work it has done since it was set up by the trade union movement in 2002.

JFC has supported Colombian civil society in defence of human rights, labour rights, peace and social justice. Over the last few years, it has seen the involvement of the Irish trade union movement and politicians from the entirety of the island of Ireland. Those politicians have shared their experiences of the Good Friday agreement, including how they negotiated that agreement and dealt with its implementation, which has been of considerable benefit to the Colombian Government and FARC as they learn how to construct and deliver a peace agreement.

When I first went to Colombia, I was a trade union lawyer, and I was struck by the fact that doing that job in Colombia would have put my life at risk; even now, as an Opposition MP, I would probably still be in the same situation. The people I met in Colombia in 2009 sparked my long-standing interest in the country, which is why I was really desperate to return this year. In particular, I wanted to see how the peace agreement is progressing.

I arrived in Bogotá the day after President Duque was inaugurated. He ran his election campaign on a promise to dismantle parts of the peace agreement. I hope that that promise will not be seen through by his Government—I suspect he will have more problems delivering that dismantling element of his manifesto than he originally thought. The agreement is fragile, and the progress of its implementation is slow—based on what I saw in my time-limited visit, I am sorry to say that some of it is non-existent.

In addition to meeting members of all the opposition parties, the UN, diplomats and trade union leaders in Bogotá, our delegation travelled to meet people in rural regions in the north and the north-east of the country, on the border with Venezuela. In the oil-rich region of Arauca, we visited one of the 26 zones in which former FARC combatants and their families are being reintegrated into civil society. In Colombia they call it “reincorporation”.

On the journey we took from Bogotá to Filipinas, we went on a plane—not as little as the one that the hon. Member for Rhondda went on—and then on a bus. What we saw during that journey, and what we heard and saw when we got there, was a clear demonstration of how what was promised and agreed in the peace agreement had not materialised, because of the failure to provide the basic resources necessary for reincorporation to succeed.

One reaches Filipinas by a dirt and rubble track that is strewn with huge craters and that becomes impassable in the frequent heavy rain. It took us five hours to travel 70 miles. People in Filipinas cannot access education, and some have died trying to get out of what is essentially a camp to get medical treatment. The small amounts of fresh produce that people can grow simply will not survive the journey along the track from the camp to the nearest town—by the time it gets there, the crop is destroyed.

One former FARC combatant explained to me that they managed to build some homes, but that, because of the rain, the homes flood. So they have water pouring in from the roofs of their homes, but they do not have any water in the toilets, because there is no mains water.

The lack of access to education and the inability to make a living not only make life very difficult but create an area of criminality, which is the only option for some people because they cannot survive through legal means.

The camp in Filipinas was only partially constructed. People there explained to me that they have the skills to build and complete the houses and infrastructure, but that because of the bureaucracy involved in getting the funds from central Government to local authorities and approved contractors to carry out the work, and because of the endemic corruption in Colombia, very little of the funding gets through. That is why infrastructure is not getting built. Will the Minister consider discussing with his colleagues in Department for International Development whether the UK Government could provide specific funding or assistance that could be ring-fenced to target things such as building a 70-mile road that would make a transformational difference to communities?

Likewise in Tibú, just 12 km from the Venezuelan border, I met many campesinos—peasant farmers—and social leaders. We repeatedly heard evidence about how the voluntary crop substitution programme is not working. Many families have signed up for the programme, but, again, the funds are not coming through and the implementation of productive projects is not happening. I met the head of the chocolate farmers’ co-operative, who said that hundreds of families had signed up to the crop substitution programme because there is huge internal demand for chocolate in Colombia—I have tasted it, and it is the most fantastic chocolate. Never mind the internal demand, they want to be able to export that fantastic product and grow the industry, but they cannot do that because of the lack of implementation of the agreement.

In both the rural regions I went to, the challenges created by the arrival of people fleeing from Venezuela, which has already been touched on, are a huge concern. I travelled through Cúcuta, the main entry point into Colombia from Venezuela, which more than a million people have passed through, either staying in Colombia or moving on to other Latin American countries. Many of those people are second-generation Colombians who fled Colombia because of the dangers to them, but who are now returning as economic refugees from Venezuela. People in Arauca said to me, “We want to welcome them back. We want to help them. We have shared our food with them, but we have no money. We have so little food, we can barely feed all the people in our zone, never mind helping those who are arriving.” That naturally creates tensions, so I am really concerned. Of all the problems Colombia has had, and still has, in implementing the peace agreement, the problem with Venezuela and the arrival of more than a million people is the one that could, on its own, scupper it.

Colleagues have already talked about the murders, and I will not repeat what has been said, but I want to make the point that, there was a real spike in assassinations during the two-stage presidential elections. In the first month of President Duque’s Administration, 33 social leaders have been murdered, and more than 80 FARC members or family members have been killed since the start of the peace process. After a peace agreement, there is always a really dangerous period initially and an expectation that there will be problems, but the situation is tragic, and we really need to help Colombia all we can to prevent such problems.

I have mentioned the dissident guerrilla groups moving into previously FARC-controlled zones, where there is, effectively, no policing. The army cannot operate there, so there is no protection for the people who live there. During my visit I asked the police, the army and the UN about the numbers of prosecutions and convictions that have taken place since 2016, based on the hundreds of murders. I was not told about a single conviction since that date. The Minister is aware of the long-standing problems created by the culture of impunity in Colombia. I hope he will address in his response what steps the Government are taking to impress on the Colombian Government, and particularly the Fiscalía, that impunity must stop if there is to be any chance of the agreement succeeding.

I want to turn now to one of the most important elements of the peace agreement: political participation. As part of the agreement, the FARC has 10 seats in Congress for the two electoral periods starting this year. When Congress opened in July, only eight of the 10 Congress men and women-elect were able to take up their positions. Two of them, Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, could not. Jesus Santrich has received his official accreditation as a member of Congress, but has been unable to take up his seat, because he has been held in prison since April under threat of extradition to the United States. Ivan Marquez, who was the head negotiator for the FARC during the peace talks, left Bogotá in the aftermath of Santrich’s arrest because of his concerns about the lack of guarantees that he will not be subjected to political and legal persecution.

On 17 August, I visited Jesus Santrich in his maximum security prison, La Picota, in Bogotá. After a couple of hours going through the various checks, fingerprinting and questions, we arrived in a wing in a very large, noisy prison, where he is kept in isolation. He has a small cell with a bed, a light, a toilet and nothing else. He is a former FARC leader who was involved in the drafting and negotiation of the peace agreement with the Colombian Government negotiators. He is the subject of a US extradition threat based on an allegation that he conspired to smuggle 10 tonnes of cocaine out of Colombia on an aeroplane. He categorically denies the allegation.

Jesus is blind. He suffers from a degenerative eye condition that has become so severe that his sight is almost non-existent. He has other major health problems. No evidence has been presented to him, his lawyers or any court in Colombia to back up the allegation. He is essentially in administrative detention, prevented by the Colombian Attorney General from swearing in as a member of Congress, despite a constitutional right to do so.

Jesus has been denied any equipment to help him cope with his disability in prison—no Braille pen, no audiobooks, no voice recorder. He cannot have anyone read to him. He cannot have a radio or a television, unlike all the other prisoners, who can also have a visitor on a Wednesday to bring them some food. He is not allowed any contact with other prisoners. He has been on a 41-day hunger strike to protest against his treatment. He is very frail, still losing weight and obviously showing the strains of nearly five months’ incarceration. Previously he had been locked in his cell for 24 hours a day. Shortly before we visited, that regime was changed to allow him out for one hour every 24 hours.

Jesus is entitled to have his case considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, known as the JEP, established under the agreement. On the day I was there, he had been told that there had been a decision by the constitutional court that the JEP must be allowed to review any evidence against him. However, there are widespread concerns, which have already been alluded to, about the court’s ability to operate free from Government interference. It is worrying that one of Jesús Santrich’s lawyers for the transitional justice process, Enrique Santiago, has on two occasions been denied entry to the prison to speak to him. Enrique hopes to visit him on 17 September, and I shall follow that up to ensure that due process, and Jesús’s fundamental right to access to his lawyer, are respected.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I have not been to Colombia, which is something I hope to put right in the near future. Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I am, that American extradition is used as a threat against people who are part of the peace process? Would she, through the Minister, appeal to the Americans to review the use of extradition as a threat to people who have played an active role in bringing the peace process to the point it is at today?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Order. There are two further Members who want to speak, and I want to start the Front-Bench speeches at 3.30.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Thank you, Mr Robertson. I will wrap up with a few questions to the Minister. I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Minister will address it. It was one of the things I was going to ask him about.

I have three questions. Will the Minister make representations to the Colombian Government about the conditions in which Jesús Santrich is being held, and particularly about the lack of access to disability aids? Will he also impress on them the absolute right of lawyers to visit, to prepare a case for the JEP? I take on board the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham. Finally, Senator Victoria Sandino, another FARC senator, is visiting the UK at the end of the month. She led on gender and equality aspects of the peace agreement. A request has been made to the Minister’s office for him to meet Senator Sandino. If he could say something positive on that, it would be welcome.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing) 3:22 pm, 12th September 2018

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

I visited Colombia nearly two years ago, with my hon. Friend Catherine West. My trip was sponsored by Justice for Colombia, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I must admit that, given that we had gone there for the ratification of the peace deal through the Colombian Congress, perhaps naively I expected to encounter hope and excitement about the peace deal as it made its way through, and the consequent agreements and measures. However, we found a situation far from hopefulness. We saw and encountered the consequences of a sharp uptick in paramilitary activity. We visited many of the areas mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), where we heard testimonies from people whose families had been tortured, kidnapped or murdered. Many of those people lived in areas that had previously been controlled by the FARC; after it moved out, paramilitaries moved in.

Many of the people we met also described their fear—their absolute belief—that the paramilitaries were an arm of the state security services, and were deliberately being employed to undermine the peace process. As has been mentioned, during the peace process there was a huge increase in the number of murders of human rights leaders and social and community leaders. We met with the army after hearing many of those testimonies, and expressed the concern that the paramilitaries were just another wing of the state security services. Obviously, we met flat denial on that point; but also, shockingly, we met flat denial that the paramilitaries even existed in Colombia. We were told that the paramilitaries had not existed since the ’90s and that all the killings were in fact the doing of the ELN, under the name of the paramilitaries, to undermine the army and the Government. To my mind, that underscored and reinforced the concerns we already had about their being linked to state security forces. Those we spoke to were in complete denial about the reality on the ground.

We also met ex-FARC combatants, FARC political prisoners, and people living in FARC-controlled territories. We heard concerns about the zones—my hon. Friends also expressed such concerns—in relation to what would happen after the peace process, with the FARC surrendering its weapons and moving into those zones. They were promised accommodation, education, food and water and democratic participation in those zones. They worried that they risked everything in committing themselves to the peace deal, and that the promises would be broken. Going by visits that have been made, and the testimony of some of my hon. Friends today, those promises have been broken.

I am sure that the story of the Mothers of Soacha is familiar to many Members. The story they tell is about the consequences of a presidential declaration by President Uribe when he was in power. He told members of the army in the armed conflict that they would be given time off, and extra holiday and pay, for presenting dead guerrillas. That declaration led directly to the army, posing as recruitment agencies, advertising work in poor rural areas. Young men in those areas came forward to apply for the work, and the army tortured, kidnapped and murdered them, dressing them up in guerrilla combats and presenting them to their senior officers in return for pay and extra holiday. We met the mothers of those young men who had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and who have been slandered as having been guerrillas in the armed conflict. Some of those involved have been convicted and imprisoned, but the sentences were pitiful. I mention that because there are serious concerns that civilians who committed crimes as part of the armed conflict—those who were truly behind those heinous crimes—will not come before the transitional justice courts, and that there will be reliance on the criminal justice courts, which, as we have heard, have not been sufficient in delivering justice.

I have given those examples because I want to raise two concerns with the Minister. What progress can he report on the system of justice, truth, reparation and non-repetition and on the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised—the establishment of a body to examine and dismantle the paramilitaries? I fully accept that the UK Government cannot take responsibility for the matter, and cannot make change happen; but the Colombian people need to understand that the international community remains foursquare behind the peace process and the measures and agreements that came from it, and that the UK will use all its influence, through trade, diplomacy and the membership of any international organisation, to drive change and help the Colombian people move towards peace.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 3:28 pm, 12th September 2018

I was not going to speak, Mr Robertson, but there are a few minutes before the Front-Bench speakers begin. I wanted to make one appeal. Everyone has highlighted the number of murders of community leaders, trade unionists and human rights activists. Disturbingly, many of those murders happen in rural areas where people are trying to diversify away from the growing of the coca plant. Clearly, there are people, whether paramilitaries or the armed wings of narcotics traffickers, who are trying to maintain the drug trade and the trafficking of drugs from Colombia. That has an impact on our streets, and in America.

As I pointed out in an intervention on my hon. Friend Jo Stevens, there is an issue for the Americans, to do with their foreign policy and the way they apply it in Colombia—and particularly the way law courts in Colombia use the threat of extradition. People who have been mainstays of the peace process—movers and shakers—have been targeted. I draw attention to the plight of Simón Trinidad, who is held in confinement in America. He has been extradited. There has been no court case or proven case against him, but he has spent several years incarcerated underground in a US prison. I urge the Minister to make representations on his behalf.

In this short speech, I wish to stress to the Minister the issue of US foreign policy towards Colombia. People have spoken highly of his dedication to that issue and his understanding of the peace process in Colombia, so will he use his good offices to draw to the attention of the United States the implications of some of the actions that it has taken in undermining the peace process, and thereby facilitating drugs trafficking from Colombia?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Order. I would like to leave two minutes at the end for Mr Bryant to wind up the debate.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip 3:30 pm, 12th September 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson—it is something of a rare pleasure for me to be in Westminster Hall these days. I declare the same interest as that of Chris Bryant, because I took part in the ABColombia visit, which I will register in due course. I had some familiarity with Colombia even before then because I worked for the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which is one of the funders of ABColombia, and I had therefore had the immense privilege of meeting many visitors and human rights campaigners who had travelled from Colombia to Scotland and the United Kingdom. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to travel to Colombia this year—it seems that the British embassy has been kept pretty busy with visiting UK parliamentarians, but it has been on a cross-party basis, even if from a kind of Celtic fringe.

What I saw, and what has been described in the debate, is a country in transition that stands on the brink of two potential futures. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, Colombia is lush, verdant and fertile. We ate fruits that do not have names in English because they are so exotic, and they were incredibly tasty. At the same time, as Members have said, the legacy of the conflict is visible everywhere, with burnt-out houses, the risk of land mines, and the displacement that we have heard described.

Glyn Davies was right to talk about the progress that has been made, but one thing that was said to us—perhaps these were words that we put into people’s mouths—was the idea that things in Colombia are better than they were 10 years ago, but not necessarily better than they were five years ago. That, in a way, sums up a lot of what I came away with, and this debate has brought out the overall sense of contradictions and clashes between what the reality on the ground ought to be, what the rules, agreement and constitution state it should be, and how that reality is actually experienced. That could involve a clash of constitutional rights. We heard about a potential mine in Cajamarca where, even though a local plebiscite has made it explicitly clear that the local population do not want it, plans continue, applications are lodged and concessions granted. We hear that constitutional rights exist for indigenous people and campesinos to reclaim their territory and get those land titles, but at the same time the Government declare that land to be a zone for special economic development that they are prepared to hand over to multinational companies for monocropping.

We heard powerful testimony from Jo Stevens about Jesús Santrich. He has the right to be sworn in as a member of Congress, yet he is also being kept in administrative detention by that same Government. We heard from Louise Haigh that in some cases officials are completely in denial about the very existence of paramilitary groups, so there seems to be a real tension and contradiction in terms.

We heard about the human rights defender who was dropped off from her bullet-proof car and left to walk the last, most dangerous, half mile in the dark. Again, there is a right on paper and alleged institutional support, yet it does not seem to be being fulfilled. When we met young campaigners—I was struck by how young many of the human rights campaigners we met were—we could understand that sense of frustration. They had begun to question things. They said that they were trying to use all legal routes available to them, and to defend the rights written into the constitution and international agreements, yet they got nowhere. That is where the sense of frustration comes through, and that is where the risk of backsliding, even inadvertently, into violence raises its head. The Colombian Government and their institutions must respond to that challenge.

There is also a challenge for the international actors, which for our purposes starts with the UK Government. I am grateful to the UK embassy which hosted us, and which has presumably hosted many delegations over the years. A lot of work is clearly going on, and I have lodged written questions—and will continue to do so—to get a sense of the kind of work going on. Members have asked what more the Department for International Development can do, but it has withdrawn from Latin America, which is slightly disappointing. I wonder whether at the very least expertise could be shared, or whether there is a way to leverage some of the skills and knowledge that DFID has built up to find ways to re-engage with Latin America, and Colombia would be a good place to start.

As we have heard, there is a responsibility on multinational companies, many of which are headquartered, operate out of, or are listed on the stock market in the UK. AngloGold Ashanti is just one of those—a mine called La Colosa cannot possibly be a small-scale artisanal project. It threatens vast communities, yet those companies are signed up to the Ruggie principles—the UN’s guiding principles for business and human rights—which must be adhered to. Such environmental degradation and further displacement of the population by multinational companies will only add to instability.

We heard about the impact on human rights defenders and the threats that they are under, and one in three murders of human rights defenders around the world over the past year or so took place in Colombia. Collectively, global human rights defenders have been nominated this year for a Nobel peace prize, and I hope to see that progress. As has been said, we as citizens and consumers have a role to play because our demand for precious minerals, palm oil, and rubber is driving the monocropping, and we should also consider our own practices.

The young people, campesinos and indigenous groups who we met are not looking for a static or historical existence; they want to produce for their country and the wider world. They want commercialisation of their crops, but it does not have to be one size fits all. Production can be sustainable and co-operative. People can produce for themselves and their communities and sell to the wider world, with the right kind of institutional backing and infrastructure. Today is Back British Farming Day, but perhaps we should also back sustainable and sensible Colombian farming. Gold can be taken out of the ground only once—once the top comes off a mountain, that is it, but if land is sustained and cultivated, it can produce for generations to come.

We went to a conference for pastoral and social care bishops in Colombia, and it was Pope Paul VI who once said:

“If you want peace, work for justice”.

The key to peace is stability and prosperity, and Colombia is a country of vast potential. That was my first visit—I hope it is not my last—and I look forward to hearing how the Minister will respond to all the different questions and recommendations that have been made to ensure that Colombia and its people can reach their full peaceful potential.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:38 pm, 12th September 2018

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Bryant on securing the debate and on his excellent introduction and thorough understanding of the situation. He detailed the long conflict, the deaths and displacement caused, and the recent further destabilisation caused by large numbers of refugees from Venezuela, as well as the inter-relationship with the drug trade and the fundamental injustice of landownership in Colombia, which, as he pointed out, has been getting worse over the past 50 years. He pointed to the role that we as consumers can play in the UK, and we should pay more attention to that. He also pointed out how well represented Colombia has been in this country. Indeed, His Excellency Néstor Osorio Londoño recently made a great visit to Durham to talk about the peace process and consider the connections between the UK and Colombia.

Glyn Davies spoke about his visit to Medellín and his worries about the violence. I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend Jo Stevens for her long-standing commitment to the issue, for the speech she gave today and for her bravery in going into that prison to meet the key people suffering in the peace process. That is extremely important and vital work, and I salute her for what she has done. I thank my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, who pointed to the horrific trail of violence and the emotional legacy that leaves for people. It is not enough to say that the Uribe Government were in power some time ago, because people have to live with the consequences.

My hon. Friend Clive Efford spoke about the problem of drug trafficking. Some 30 tonnes of cocaine come into this country every year, and the volume doubled in 2015 and 2016. It is a problem that we need—pardon the pun—to crack. We have an interest in doing that, but our overriding concern is that the people of Colombia live in a more peaceful situation. The spokesman for the Scottish National party, Patrick Grady pointed out that the country is in transition and that if the provisions of the peace process are not adhered to, there will be frustration, backsliding and a risk of even greater violence.

With all that in mind, I want to point out a couple of further issues and ask the Minister a few questions. Those chapters of the peace process that cover crop substitution for the campesinos, land redistribution and special courts to try former FARC fighters are extremely important. It is worrying that in his campaign to become President of Colombia, Iván Duque rejected some aspects of the deal, particularly the special jurisdiction for peace and the participation of former FARC members in politics.

When the Colombians were seeking to secure the peace process, they deliberately went to the international community to get its backing. That strengthened the Colombians’ hand and enabled them to present to both sides a degree of neutrality and authority that they would not otherwise have had. One question I have for the Minister is whether the British Government, in their continuing engagement with the process, are drawing on our experience in Northern Ireland. What are we doing in practical terms on that front?

My colleagues asked a question about the support that we have been giving through EU funding programmes, which I repeat. They also raised the issue of DFID funding. I know that the Government are doing some work to try to improve good governance in Colombia. I had a meeting recently with the person who had been seconded from the National Crime Agency to help the Colombian police improve their anti-drugs work, but what are we doing to support reform of the criminal justice system? A properly independent criminal justice system is extremely important in this process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham spoke about the role of the Americans. What representation has the Minister made, not only to the Colombians but to the Americans, about the powerful role that they can play for good or ill? To what extent are the requests for extradition well-founded? It would be a matter of extreme concern if those extraditions are politically motivated. If the people being threatened with extradition are not seeing the evidence for why they are being threatened with extradition, that puts a big question mark over the process.

The British Government have a continuous dialogue, I am sure, but what representations has the Minister been able to make to the new President about the importance of sticking with the peace process? There was a very interesting editorial in the Financial Times recently, and I want to read a paragraph from it. It states:

“Mr Duque has said he will be outspoken about Caracas’s egregious failings… Venezuela is a genuine threat to international stability, too often ignored by too many for too long, and Colombia is on the frontline. But responding to it requires a multilateral effort that Mr Duque needs to cultivate by extending, rather than overturning, the international goodwill built up by his predecessor.”

That speaks directly to our role in supporting the international peace process. The Minister knows that the Government are the penholder for Colombia in the Security Council. What initiatives has he taken? What initiatives has he asked our representative in New York to take in that role?

Everybody in this House is keen to support the Colombian peace process. We know that the contribution we can make from this country is small, but it may none the less be significant. I urge the Minister to continue on a positive path.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Minister of State 3:46 pm, 12th September 2018

I congratulate Chris Bryant on initiating the debate and thank him for sharing with us his insights from his recent visit. If this were the BBC’s “Mastermind”, it would be his specialist subject. I appreciate the input from Members here today, who have enthusiastically developed exceptional knowledge of the situation. It is one of those areas where once someone gets stuck into it, they get very emotionally involved and just want to stick at it. I commend the efforts people are making. Their enthusiasm is shared by all parts of the House. I do not think there is any difference between us in what we are trying to achieve.

I want to give our assessment of the direction of the peace process and what we know about President Duque’s Government, which is only four or five weeks’ old. I would also like to say something about the impact on human rights, which I know many Members follow closely. I will also respond to some of the specific questions that have been raised, particularly on land reform, Jesús Santrich and DFID. I will come to that in a minute.

It has been less than two years since the signing of the historic peace agreement between the Government and the FARC. What has been achieved? Perhaps most significantly, the FARC are no longer an armed group, but are now a legitimate political party with members in the Congress. Earlier this year, they took part in elections for the first time. As far as peace processes go, that is a significant achievement in a very short time. With regard to the agreement itself, 353 of the 578 commitments made by both parties in the final deal are now in different stages of implementation, including important changes to Colombia’s legislation. The constitution has been amended to allow FARC political participation and to set up the legal structures of the special jurisdiction for peace.

It is perhaps the more practical elements of the commitments, affecting ordinary Colombians, where progress has been rather more uneven. More than 13,000 former FARC combatants and militia have formally registered for reintegration into civilian life, but slow progress on training, fear of reprisals and simply the time spent waiting for reintegration has seen more than 1,500 of them slip away to join dissident groups and criminal elements. That risks undermining improvements in security. Colombia has seen its lowest numbers of recorded homicides for more than 40 years, which is at least something to be welcomed.

In terms of security, this year’s elections have been called the safest for decades, with record numbers of people voting. That was no doubt aided by the end of FARC’s military campaign, and by temporary ceasefires announced by the National Liberation Army, or ELN. The ELN, which was not party to the 2016 peace agreement, has continued its campaign of violence since the end of a temporary ceasefire in January that was agreed with former President Santos. Just this week, the ELN rejected President Duque’s new conditions for a return to talks in Havana.

The ELN and criminal gangs, so-called BACRIM—bandas criminales—have embarked on a campaign of violence and intimidation in communities where the FARC have withdrawn. That is largely aimed at controlling the underlying and continuing problems that we know about, such as the record levels of coca production, extortion more generally, and illegal mining. In 2017, fighting between those groups caused 61 major displacements, forcing at least 12,000 people from their homes. The British ambassador recently discussed with the new Defence Minister our specific concerns about new cycles of violence in the Pacific coast region, with its largely Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

Those who speak out for the rights of local communities are also often singled out for attack. The UN reports that at least 121 human rights defenders and community leaders were killed last year, and Amnesty says that Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. I have discussed with my Colombian counterparts our concerns about violence against human rights defenders, and the steps that are needed to protect them. During Colombia’s universal periodic review of human rights, which took place in May, the UK stressed the need for new protection measures for human rights defenders and support for victims of conflict-related sexual violence. I am pleased to say that all the UK’s recommendations were accepted by the Colombian Government, but more work remains to ensure that human rights are prioritised by the new Administration.

Turning to that new Government, President Duque was inaugurated on 7 August. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to discuss the incoming Administration’s policies for peace and security, and all sorts of issues that we have been discussing today. During the election campaign, the President shared an insight to his ideas about the peace process. We know that he wishes to change some aspects, and we understand that he will do so only through the proper congressional and legislative procedures. It is also worth noting that in recent weeks President Duque’s position appears to have softened in contrast to his earlier statements, and he has said that he wishes to work for unity, not polarisation, in the future of the peace process.

We are working with the new Government to understand their priorities at this early stage. The Prime Minister spoke to President Duque in August, shortly after his inauguration, and said that he could count on the UK’s continued support for the peace process. The Foreign Secretary also spoke to the new Foreign Minister, Carlos Holmes, in New York a few weeks ago, and shared our pride in the UK’s role as penholder for the peace process at the UN Security Council. Indeed, we will help to renew the mandate for the UN special political mission in the coming weeks.

We of course provide support for the peace process, including through our £34 million conflict, security and stabilisation fund. UK-funded projects are strengthening the rule of law in post-conflict areas. They are rehabilitating former child combatants and reforming the Colombian police. Other programmes are helping to record and investigate cases of conflict-related sexual violence, and provide training to victims in how to access justice. The UK is also the largest donor to the UN trust fund, which is supporting the implementation of the peace agreement. We have also provided financial support to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Organisation of American States peace monitoring mission.

I will turn quickly to some of the specific issues that were raised. A very big—perhaps the biggest—issue is land reform, which is very complicated. We have vigorously supported land reform, and raised it with the former Government continually. It is very much at the heart of the peace agreement and must remain a top priority for the Colombian Government. Over the last two years the Colombian Government have formalised 1.6 million hectares of land for farmers—pretty well the size of Northern Ireland. The former Government started a pilot for registering land in rural communities. The legislation is still to be passed, but it is an important step that needs to be taken.

Progress has been made, but there is more to do, because only four in 10 campesinos have legal titles. One Government agency, Fondo de Tierras—my pronunciation is not as good as that of the hon. Member for Rhondda, but he can give me lessons—which was set up under President Santos, aims to give 3 million hectares of redistributed land to campesinos within 12 years.

The question about the Department for International Development I can answer only in respect of my experience as DFID Minister a few years ago. Hon. Members are right that DFID pretty well withdrew from Latin America. It focused on the most impoverished countries in the world. Although my understanding is that Colombia is eligible for official development assistance, there are no direct programmes there. However, there will be programmes that benefit from contributions that we have made to multilateral organisations. As a rule, DFID does not do much infrastructure directly; it supports large infrastructure projects through multilateral organisations—although when I was Minister I was pleased to open a bridge across a ravine in Nepal. That was an example of an infrastructure project that DFID had sponsored; they benefited from my very effective ministerial decisions. However, I have to say that the question of DFID involvement in the continent is thrown into stark relief by the growing collapse of Venezuela next door.

On the arrest of the FARC leader Jesús Santrich, there is always a conflict between wanting to re-embrace FARC leaders and bearing down on any continuation in drug smuggling. When the two collide, as they appear to have done at least in the optics of the arrest, there is obviously a dilemma. It is the first case of its kind to be considered by the transitional justice mechanisms set up by the peace agreement. It is essential that due process is followed. I must also say that I, too, admire Jo Stevens for making that prison visit.

I would say a bit more about our general bilateral relations, but I have run out of time. We should all commend Colombia for the progress it has made over the past two years. We recognise that more needs to be done, and we look forward to working with the Colombians as a reliable partner, and ensuring that the UK does everything it can to support the continued success of the peace agreement.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 3:58 pm, 12th September 2018

I am grateful to all hon. Members. There is clear concern across all political parties that the peace process should not now founder, and we want justice for all the people of Colombia.

I am enormously grateful, as I think is Patrick Grady, to Louise Winstanley, who organised our trip to Colombia—although she is a very hard taskmaster, because we were getting up at ludicrous times in the morning. Colombia often listens to the international community. I was struck that one of the hotels we stayed in was called the Hotel Lusitania. It is unusual for a hotel to be named after a ship that was sunk. The links between the United Kingdom and Colombia are very strong. Of course, some of those links are quite dangerous, not least in relation to the cocaine trade and, I would argue, to palm oil as well.

We are engaged and involved in the situation in Colombia. It is very early days in the presidency of Iván Duque, and we wish him well. I note what the Minister said about the softening of the tone. It may well be that he does exactly what President Santos did, which was to get elected under the Uribe umbrella but then storm off in an entirely independent direction. I very much hope that is what happens.

I will end with the most sobering comment that I heard from one campesino family. They said that their grandfather had been told by the paramilitaries, “Either you will give us your land, or your widow will.” That is the injustice that still has to be put right.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the peace process in Colombia.