Colombia — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:35 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 3:35 pm, 15th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate Kate Osborne on securing the debate. It is the first we have had on Colombia since 2019 in Westminster Hall, and timely to have it before the recess and while the situation in Colombia is deteriorating so seriously. It is unfortunate that the Minister is all by herself on the Conservative Benches. It would be nice to see some Government Back Benchers show an interest in this, and perhaps they might reflect on whether they have any activists or, indeed, expat Colombians in their constituencies whose voices should be heard.

Some of those voices are communicated to us through organisations such as Justice for Colombia, and ABColombia and its partner organisations, Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Christian Aid and others. I thank them for their support in helping us prepare. For many years, I heard about Colombia and met people from Colombia through SCIAF, and in 2018 I finally had the privilege of visiting the country. Such a lush, beautiful country, rich in its diversity of peoples as well as natural resources and rich in the potential to be a model of sustainable development and conflict resolution. However, it is also at risk of the exact opposite: backsliding from the progress that has been made and falling into the hands of those who would exploit and strip the country of its bounty, oppress its people and destroy their cultures. We are hearing about that in the debate today.

The context caused by the pandemic and the tax rises to pay for economic support are leading to dreadful outbreaks of violence, and we have heard some of the statistics. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reckons that at least 56 people—54 civilians and two police officers—were killed up to 16 June. In recent meetings by the all-party parliamentary group for Colombia and Justice for Colombia, we have heard first-hand testimony from people caught up in that violence in the country. That simply demonstrates what we have heard already: that it is one of the most dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist or any kind of human rights actor or defender.

As Jon Trickett said, some of the ongoing frustrations among the population, particularly among younger generations, are very deep rooted. When constitutional rights and processes exist on paper but are not followed in practice, it is perhaps not surprising that this leads to increased frustration, which ultimately expresses itself in violence. That sense of powerlessness when communities see the land that their ancestors have worked for generations given over to mining or monocropping, and especially for indigenous communities, for whom the land has important religious or spiritual significance. We can understand how a sense of desperation leads to the lure of the quick buck that can come from coca production, and the country is now sadly producing more cocaine than it did in the 1990s—a very serious challenge for all of us.

The country is moving into the ranks of developed countries, yet there is massive inequalities. There is lively downtown Bogotá, all built up, and then there is the Chocó region, which is one of the poorest in the world, let alone in Latin America. That tension becomes palpable, but where there is risk, there can also be reward. That is why there is a need for action and support for all sides of the disputes.

I support the proposals that have been put forward by CAFOD, ABColombia and others that the UK should be looking to activate the democratic clause in the UK-Andean free trade agreement, that it should be pushing for civil society participation in the implementation of the peace accord, and the points about police reform, which have already been made.

This is the opportunity to prove what a soft power superpower is like. This is the opportunity to prove the worth of the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that so many of us were concerned about. Yes, step up diplomatic efforts, but also support crop diversification, supporting education, and tax and regulate multilaterals and hold them to account, especially if they are based in the UK or listed on our stock exchanges. Peace is possible and the rewards could be great, but equally, if the scales tip the other way, the results would be devastating. As others have said, the UK has a special responsibility as the UN penholder on Colombia. It should live up to that responsibility.