Colombia — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:18 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:18 pm, 15th July 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osborne on bringing this debate to Parliament today. In a very powerful opening speech, she told us that the peace agreement in Colombia was not working. I am sure that every hon. Member present would certainly agree with that. She also said that recent events have been condemned across the world. That is absolutely true. Every day, I receive emails and messages from other countries and from other activists, saying that the peace agreement is not working and that the violence must be condemned. My hon. Friend made a very important point that this Government—the Government of our country—cannot support trade deals with Colombia without condemning the appalling violence that we have all seen on our television screens. The police response, she said, was as if there was a war between the police and their own population—the human rights activists and the people demonstrating against the breakdown of the peace deal and the murder and violence. It was a very powerful opening speech, and I thank her for this debate.

My close friend, my hon. Friend Jon Trickett, who is not in his place at the moment, then made his contribution, talking about the prolonged crisis in Colombia, with the economy in freefall and the Government wanting to raise taxes from the poorest members of the population. He gave us a startling statistic: the richest 10% of Colombians own 40% of the economy, which is quite extraordinary. He said that citizen activity was seen by the state as a threat to the Government, and that the Colombian criminal justice system, which should be there to defend those who are innocent, is actually used as a weapon against the demonstrators.

We also heard from my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd, with whom I work closely on Colombian issues. He said that demonstrations have been peaceful, yet the Defence Minister was calling them dangerous. He said that the Colombian police have engaged in a great deal of violence against their own population, and that 278 members of FARC have been murdered since the peace accord was signed. That is a startling figure, yet FARC is still committed to the peace accord.

Patrick Grady made a powerful contribution, which Alyn Smith mentioned several times. The hon. Member for Glasgow North visited Colombia in 2018, and he mentioned that tax rises were one of the factors leading to street demonstrations.

My hon. Friend Ian Lavery talked about the Colombian Government repeatedly failing to condemn police violence. He said we must ensure that the paramilitaries are dismantled immediately, and he is absolutely right about that.

We also heard from Anum Qaisar-Javed, who is new to the House. She made a powerful contribution and talked about increasing inequality in Colombia. She said that 220 social and community leaders were killed in 2020, as were 133 human rights defenders. Those are statistics that any Government or nation should be deeply ashamed of.

My hon. Friend Ian Byrne talked about individual cases that he wanted the Minister to respond to. He reeled off some horrifying facts about the assault and killing of those individuals, and he asked whether the Minister would condemn the violence. I will obviously let her speak for herself shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro -Addy) talked about her experience with young Colombians living in her constituency. She spoke about the police brutality and the assaults on women and LGBT activists, and the effect that this has on the mental health not only of victims and their families, but of people living safely in the United Kingdom, which is something that we often forget.

Claudia Webbe talked about the failure of the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, the unacceptable state violence—a theme that ran through the debate—and the aggression towards journalists. She talked about gas cannisters being fired in people’s faces. Can you imagine that, Mrs Miller? It is absolutely horrifying.

My hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy talked about the right to protest being a basic human right, and she mentioned the role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its guidelines, which are clearly being breached.

We also heard from one of my old friends, Jim Shannon. In his typically generous fashion, he sent his condolences to all the victims of violence in Colombia and their families. Pertinently, he asked what the United Kingdom can do to help defend human rights in Colombia.

We also heard my right hon. Friend John McDonnell, who was previously one of our most senior Front Benchers and who has a long and proud record of protecting and defending journalists all over the world. Again, he talked about the targeting of journalists and the undermining of press freedom. A basic tenet of democracy is press freedom, yet the politicians and leaders of the current Colombian Government are stigmatising journalists and undermining the press freedom that is so important to guaranteeing democracy.

The violence that we have seen across Colombia over the past few months has run completely out of control. The country’s police and security forces have used unnecessary violence to contain widespread protests, which has put the historic 2016 peace agreement at severe risk.

Between 28 April and the end of June, at least 73 civilians, including many trade unionists, human rights activists and indigenous people, have been killed in the protests, with hundreds more injured. Colombian human rights NGO Temblores says that 44 of those killings were allegedly carried out by the police, which is extremely disturbing, and many hon. Members have mentioned that this afternoon. Alongside the killings Temblores registered 4,687 cases of police violence, 2,005 arbitrary arrests and 82 victims of eye injuries principally caused by police projectiles.

Since the protests began, videos posted to social media have shown police shooting live ammunition at crowds, firing gas canisters into people’s faces, beating isolated protesters, making arbitrary arrests, indiscriminately using high-grade weaponry, and launching tear gas into enclosed spaces. Such behaviour, we all agree, is entirely and completely unacceptable. We must be clear. The protests were largely peaceful; the violence was by the Colombian police and security forces.

So far, all that the British Government have done is to sign a trade deal with Colombia in which both parties guarantee to respect democracy and human rights. Worryingly, despite that, two years on from signing the deal, the UK Government have not directly criticised the violence committed by the Colombian police. I urge the Minister to take this chance to condemn it fully today.

Not to embrace our role as the penholder and not to use our considerable influence could lead to further violence and further needless loss of life in Colombia. I urge the Minister, therefore, alongside condemning the violence, to commit to starting a review of any training support given to the Colombian police, and to call on the Colombian Government to ensure full disciplinary and legal investigations against all perpetrators of violence, especially considering the lack of advancement in cases from 2019 to 2020, when 2020 was the bloodiest year on record since the peace agreement was signed.

I also urge the Minister to call on the Colombian Government to listen to the proposals set out by the national strike committee. Finally, will she tell us what representations she or the United Kingdom Government have made, if any, to the Colombian ambassador to London and her counterparts in the Colombian Government, in particular with regard to increasing the Colombian Government’s efforts to implement the 2016 peace agreement?