Colombia — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:27 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:27 pm, 15th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller.

I am grateful to Kate Osborne for securing this debate. Peace and human rights in Colombia is an issue that means a great deal to her, as it does to me, and judging by this afternoon’s debate and the correspondence that I receive as a Minister, it means a great deal to hon. Members throughout the House. I am grateful for the contributions of all Members today. I will do my best to respond to as many of the points as I can.

Let me start by saying that the UK is a key supporter of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace agreement. We are proud to lead on the issue at the United Nations Security Council. Colombia is also a human rights priority country for this Government and an important partner to the UK in Latin America. Members may read our assessment of the current state of human rights in Colombia in the annual human rights report that was published by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office last week, on 8 July.

This debate is set against a backdrop of worrying protest, which has spread across Colombia. Starting on 28 April a national strike, accompanied by widespread demonstrations, was carried out with the support of a broad range of civil society actors. The strike was mostly characterised by peaceful protests, with demands revolving around a range of issues. However, the protests also led to violent clashes between the public security forces and protesters, the deliberate destruction of public infrastructure, lengthy road blockades and alleged abuses by public security forces.

From 28 April to 16 June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights registered allegations of 56 deaths—54 civilians and two police officers—in the context of the protests, and hundreds were injured. The British Government understand the deep concern about the reports of human rights violations in relation to the protests, and we engaged with the Colombian Government at an early stage of the protests to raise our concerns. On 14 May I spoke to the then acting Foreign Minister, Adriana Mejía, to express our concerns and to welcome Colombia’s commitment to transparent investigations into allegations of excessive use of force by the police.

On Monday this week, I spoke to the Colombian ambassador to the UK for an update on the investigations and was pleased to learn that more than 200 investigations into alleged misconduct by police are now open. We have made it clear that we look to the Colombian authorities to fully investigate any reports of excessive use of force, and to take appropriate action against those responsible. We firmly support the right of all Colombians to protest peacefully, and the Colombian Government know that we look to them to guarantee respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and association. I reiterated that message publicly on 6 May, and in doing so mirrored the messaging from our embassy in Bogotá on 4, 5 and 7 May.

Some hon. Members asked about police training. The UK’s engagement goes beyond ministerial and official discussions. We work closely with the UN verification mission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, as well as the wider international community, in support of their efforts to reduce tensions and to promote dialogue. We are firmly committed to our programmes to help implement the peace agreement, to support peace, stability and security and to build a more prosperous Colombian society. President Duque’s promise of police reform, including increased oversight of officers, is an important step in response to the protests. One of our programmes supports the modernisation of the Colombian national police and is being implemented through the International Organisation for Migration, with strategic support and advice from Police Scotland. Like all our training of overseas law enforcement officers, the project is supported by the cross-governmental International Police Assistance Board and received an overseas security and justice assistance assessment to gauge and mitigate any human rights risks that arise from providing training to specific forces. We are not aware of any police units in Colombia that had received UK training support being involved in human rights violations.

One of our top priorities for Colombia is to support the Government to implement the 2016 peace accords. Since 2015, the UK has spent more than £63 million in support of peace, stability and security in Colombia. As hon. Members have highlighted, we lead on the issue at the UN Security Council, and we are the largest donor to the UN trust fund supporting the implementation of the peace agreement.

We recognise the important progress that has been achieved so far. Security conditions in much of the country are considerably better than over the past five years, and strides have been made towards the reintegration of former combatants. Our work at the United Nations in New York as penholder on Colombia’s peace process is making a real difference. In May, the Security Council unanimously adopted a UK-drafted resolution to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. This is a significant step, tasking the mission with verifying compliance with the transitional justice sentences of the special jurisdiction for peace.

On transitional justice specifically, which was raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow and others, the UK has always supported the vital work of the transitional justice elements of the peace accords, and we are extremely pleased that those institutions have been able to continue their work despite the challenges posed by covid-19. The UK Government have contributed over £26 million towards transitional justice mechanisms and victims of the conflict in Colombia since 2016, which includes supporting the truth commission’s work to gather testimony from Colombians—both in Colombia and abroad, including here in the UK—as well as working to enhance the investigatory capacity of the special jurisdiction for peace, Colombia’s post-conflict special court.

The transitional justice institutions established by the peace agreement are now reaching a critical phase in their work, with the special jurisdiction for peace due to hand down its first sentences, and the truth commission due to issue its final report, later this year.

Colleagues have also raised the issue of human rights defenders, so let me just say a few words on that issue, because despite what I have said and despite the fantastic progress that has been made, the situation in Colombia remains challenging and fragile. The country is in the grip of a prolonged third wave of covid-19. During 2020, Colombia saw a 6.8 percentage point increase in poverty levels and 7.4 million people, which is 15% of the population, now live in extreme poverty.

The continued presence of illegal armed groups in Colombia, and the impact that their violence and intimidation have on the vulnerable population, is a serious concern. In 2020, the UN confirmed that 133 human rights defenders had been killed. Since the signing of the peace deal with FARC in 2016, over 275 community leaders and former FARC members have been killed.

The UK has funded programmes to help Colombia tackle the conditions that make people susceptible to recruitment by armed groups, and that foster the persistent level of violence towards human rights defenders, social leaders, former FARC-EP combatants, trade unionists and others.