Colombia — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:13 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 4:13 pm, 15th July 2021

I always make my speeches short. Nobody ever criticises a speech for being too brief, so I always try to be succinct. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and to wind up for the SNP in a very constructive and consensual debate. I congratulate Kate Osborne on bringing the matter forward, on her contribution and on the timing of this debate. It is a very opportune moment to consider the situation in Colombia. I was also struck by the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed).

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North stressed what is at stake if we get this right: the sustainable development potential for Colombia to be a world leader in all sorts of positive societal changes. He also noted, of course, that coca production is now greater than it was in the 1990s. That has immediate consequences domestically for Colombia, but also for us here and in the wider world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts stressed, very correctly, how dangerous Colombia is for journalists and activists and the deterioration in their lives in recent months and years.

The SNP stands four-square with the people of Colombia. We are not pro-Government or pro-protester; we want a durable peace for everybody. We acknowledge that we do not have all the answers from this part of the world, but this is an important moment. We need to recognise that the already fragile peace process has been almost overwhelmed by covid. Of course, covid has brought concomitant disasters in the form of health and economic consequences, exacerbating an already very fragile domestic situation.

We are glad that the—to my mind—rather cack-handed tax reform proposals that were the trigger for the recent protests have been shelved for the moment, but we also acknowledge that there remains a financial crisis within Colombian public finances that risks chaos and further deteriorations. We acknowledge the problems facing the Colombian Government, but we firmly state that the response of the Colombian Government to the protests must be condemned and the right to protest must be defended. That is a crucial point to make, because the figures are very stark. In 2020 alone, as we have heard, 220 community and social leaders were killed. Twenty-two trade unionists were killed, and according to the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, at least 133 human rights defenders were killed. Thousands more are currently in jail or suffering harassment.

The UK is in a position to do more on this. As we have heard, the UK is the penholder in the UN on the Colombian peace process, and there are more things that we can do. I hope that today we can make some concrete suggestions to spur more activity. There have been several concrete suggestions, and I have much respect for the Minister; I hope she engages with the constructive nature of this debate. There are a lot of good ideas from all points of the political compass in the House.

In terms of the macroeconomic crisis that Colombia is suffering, if there is not direct assistance, what capacity do we have to offer advice to stabilise the current economic crisis and to help its people through that process? There is also the issue of support in dealing with the covid disaster. It is one that we are all suffering, but perhaps we can assist with theirs. We have heard concerns about the training of the security services and the policing of public order. What consideration have we given to whether that has been misused or abused? With regard to Magnitsky sanctions—we really should have called that something easier—what consideration has been given to targeting individuals within the Colombian regime or elsewhere who have acted poorly? We would like to see greater financial and practical assistance for human rights defender organisations. They are doing a power of work and need more support. We want to see more facilitation of dialogue with FARC and pressure to implement the 2016 peace agreement more actively from the Government. Of course, there is more than one party to that discussion, but the UK could play a greater role.

There are no easy answers to or quick fixes for Colombia’s problems, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said, this is a test for the UK’s new and, we are told, improved—merged—foreign and development policy at a crucial time for Colombia and for a number of other partners in the region as well. The progress made in 2016 could be lost, and that would be a disaster not just for the people of Colombia but elsewhere. If the Minister and the Government are serious about protecting that, I will just say that there have been a number of constructive suggestions this afternoon. If the Minister is serious about taking those forward, she will continue to have SNP support.