The right to protest is a fundamental right that must always be respected. It is therefore extremely alarming that Colombian security forces continue to use lethal force against unarmed protesters. Although we have witnessed widespread human rights violations since April this year, violent repression of public protest has been a constant theme under the Government of Iván Duque. Security forces have regularly attacked and killed protesters, but there have been few visible attempts to curtail their actions, and most abuses remain unpunished.
Last week’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report found that there was disproportionate use of force by the public security forces. The commission had warned in 2019 that the use of force must be guided by
“legality, strict necessity and proportionality.”
Yet just four days later, ESMAD riot police killed 16-year-old Dilan Cruz as he ran from their attacks.
It is so worrying that the Colombian Government have already said that they will not implement the latest recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on how to improve the policing of protests. Will the Minister tell us what assessment the British Government have made of that report and of the disproportionate force used during the recent protests?
In September last year, police killed up to 13 unarmed people during protests following the killing of a man in police custody. Shortly afterwards, the Colombian Supreme Court referenced those killings and others when it was declared that the ESMAD riot police systematically violate citizens’ democratic right to peaceful protest, due process and freedom of expression.
The army has also been responsible for the deaths of unarmed civilians in protests. In March 2020, 20-year-old peasant farmer Alejandro Carvajal was killed during protests over the army forcibly removing coca crops in operations that appear to contravene the 2016 peace agreement’s prioritisation of mutually agreed substitution. Several other peasant farmers have been killed in recent years while protesting against military operations in their communities.
In 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Colombian state to stop using the military in situations of public protest, while recommending an in-depth transformation of the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios riot police and independent investigations into its conduct towards public protest. Sadly, these recommendations are far from being met.
Instead, Colombia’s inspector general recently opened investigations against Opposition Congress Members over their attempts to protect citizens from police violence, after they had criticised the Duque Government’s response to the protest. Last year, Transparency International warned of a concentration of power across Colombian institutions that blurred the separation of powers and threatened the democratic process. Can the Minister say what the British Government will do to promote greater respect for the rights of people to protest in Colombia?
Finally, I am concerned about the continuing targeting of trade unionists and environmental defenders. Historically, Colombia has been the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, with 3,200 killed since the 1970s. Since the peace deal was signed, 35 members of FENSUAGRO—the Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria—the agricultural workers’ union, have been killed. We must start to see justice for those crimes. Rather than seeking to crush protests, silence the demands around human rights and peace, and target critical politicians, the Colombian Government should respect their citizens’ rights to mobilise and protest peacefully.