Since April, Colombia has been experiencing huge, popular citizen mobilisation against unfair tax reform, poverty, corruption, the murder of social justice activists and the failed implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. These mass protests have included many young people, people from poor urban neighbourhoods and other marginalised groups, and of course the organisation of civil society through the national strike committee.
These demonstrations have been met with unacceptable state violence. According to Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom, there were 257 cases of aggression towards journalists covering the protests, with the majority committed by state agents. Since protests began, we across the world have witnessed images and videos of police shooting live ammunition at crowds, firing gas canisters at people’s faces and beating isolated protesters, as well as arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate use of high-grade weaponry, and the launching of tear gas into enclosed spaces. Several videos have shown people in civilian clothing shooting protesters, often while standing alongside police, including an incident that left 10 indigenous protesters injured.
Colombia remains, as others have said, the world’s most dangerous country for environmental defenders: in 2019, 64 environmental activists were murdered. Colombia has also once again been confirmed as the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists, with 22 killed so far in 2021, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. Community activists also continue to face extremely high levels of violence.
The attempts by the Colombian Government to engage with protesters have been criticised for being so cosmetic, unsubstantial and, in some cases, dishonest. There has been widespread international condemnation of the Colombian Government’s response to the protests, from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, the American embassy and others. It is therefore shameful that the UK Government have not condemned the unacceptable violence perpetrated by the Colombian police and Government.
The UK embassy in Colombia and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have said that they are “saddened” by the violence. That neutral, passive language does very little justice to the suffering of the Colombian people at the hands of their own Government. I urge the Minister to rectify that by unequivocally condemning the Colombian state for its deadly and violent treatment of peaceful protesters. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to call on the Colombian Government to engage properly with the proposals of the national strike committee.
It is also essential that the UK uses its diplomatic strength to encourage the Colombian Government to uphold the 2016 peace agreement. It is vital that the UK Government immediately review any aid or training support to the Colombian police and suspend any element linked to human rights abuses. We must immediately cease the sale of weapons, including water cannon, tear gas and batons, that could be used against protesters in Colombia. Just as it was morally reprehensible for the UK and other countries to export to America riot equipment that was used against Black Lives Matter protesters following the murder of George Floyd, it is wrong for peaceful Colombian protesters to be brutalised by equipment sold by Britain.
Ultimately, the UK must use its diplomatic might to protect Colombian protesters, who are exercising their democratic rights and making their voices heard.