Colombia — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:06 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:06 pm, 15th July 2021

I congratulate Kate Osborne on setting the scene and giving us all the chance to participate in this debate.

Recent protests have brought international attention once again on the human rights situation in Colombia. There is considerable concern internationally about the response of the police to protesters and reports of several protesters being killed. The actions of the riot police are particularly alarming—I want to put that on record. I send my condolences to all the victims and their families. I hope that there will be a full and exhaustive investigation, and that those responsible will be held accountable.

My right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson has a particular interest in Colombia, and so have I. Over many years, I have had a number of invitations to visit Colombia, but I have never had the chance to go due to other commitments. I hope someday that I will have the opportunity to get there.

After a visit to Colombia, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, said that the Colombian police had used “disproportionate” force, that there was gender-based and racial violence and that there were reports of people being disappeared. Concerns were also expressed about the use of the military during the protests.

One of the commission’s recommendations was to echo the demands of Colombian human rights organisations to move the jurisdiction of the police away from the Ministry of National Defence into a civilian department, such as the Ministry of the Interior. Does the Minister think that can be pursued? I believe it is a necessary step in the context of the ongoing peace process.

I want to speak about the situation for human rights defenders in Colombia. I congratulate them on the great work they have been doing to defend human rights. It is essential that they do not have to put their lives at risk to carry out their work. According to Colombian organisation Somos Defensores, 2020 was the most dangerous year to be a human rights defender in Colombia for more than a decade, with 199 people murdered. According to the organisation Indepaz, over 300 social activists were killed. What can this Government—my Government—do to ensure human rights defenders are more protected in Colombia? We must not drop our focus and commitment to international support to ensure that the Colombian peace agreement is fully implemented.

The recent advances in the transitional justice system are welcome and must be supported, as are the reports of almost 50% of former FARC combatants who have been able to initiate economic projects. However, it is concerning that so many former FARC combatants are still waiting to initiate projects. What has been done to help them? I understand that there needs to be rapid action to ensure they access land to accelerate the process. I have always been supportive of making land available so let us make sure that happens.

Equally, the distribution of land to small-scale farmers, as stipulated in the agreement, has so far unfortunately not advanced fast enough. All advances in the peace process will benefit the work to improve the human rights situation and, conversely, all the work focused on improving the human rights situation and tackling the illegal armed groups that still exist will massively assist efforts to implement the peace agreement.

Coming from Northern Ireland, as I do, let me say that if anyone knows how important peace talks are, it is us in Northern Ireland. I urge the Minister to grasp the opportunity for peace on behalf of those in Colombia, and I sincerely hope we can do something for them.