James Cleverly, Minister of State for Europe and North America, responds to a debate on human rights in Colombia and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing this debate. I join the chorus of support, echoed by a number of speakers today, for an important speech, brought to this House at an important time. She delivered her concerns about the situation and her desire for improvement in the country most eloquently and passionately.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) is the Minister with responsibility for our relationships with Latin America, and therefore with Colombia. She is travelling on Government business, but it is a pleasure to stand in her stead and have the opportunity to respond to hon. Members’ points. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for being so assiduous in highlighting the contribution of each Member who has spoken today; I echo his thanks for their thoughtful contributions.
As has been said by almost everyone today, the situation in Colombia has been terrible over several decades. From the 1960s until 2016, Colombia endured what became the longest-running conflict in the western hemisphere. State forces, paramilitary groups, left-wing guerrillas and criminal gangs all fought, with more than 220,000 people losing their lives and over 5 million people forced to flee their homes. Last November, Colombia marked five years since the signing of the peace agreement, and remarkable progress has been made in that time. There are still challenges, however, and I will address those later on.
Security conditions in much of the country are considerably improved and thousands of ex-combatants have rejoined civilian life. Colombia’s transitional justice system, formalised in the peace agreement, continues to put victims at the heart of the truth and reconciliation process. This year will be another turning point on that path for the Colombian people. We look forward to seeing the final report from the truth commission in June this year. We also expect the first sentences to be handed down by Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Last month’s election of 16 victims into special peace seats in the House of Representatives is another major step in the right direction, giving those affected by conflict a voice at the highest levels.
Let there be no doubt that full implementation of the peace agreement is a major task and, as Members have mentioned, requires constant effort. Its provisions go to the heart of some of the most challenging issues facing Colombia, including social inequality and land ownership reform. It is clear that the agreement cannot immediately solve issues that have plagued Colombia for decades. The Government still have no permanent presence in a number of strategic areas formerly occupied by FARC. Armed groups continue to fight for control of cocoa cultivation, drug trafficking, illegal mining and other illicit activities, with devastating consequences for communities, who face threats, violence and sadly, as has been highlighted, murder. The covid-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Venezuela have added additional pressures.
That is why the British Government continue to support Colombia to overcome those challenges. We are the second-largest donor to the UN trust fund supporting the implementation of the peace agreement. Since 2015, we have spent more than £69 million through the conflict, stability and security fund to support development, reintegration, and justice. The fund also supports the truth commission’s work to gather testimony from Colombians, both at home and overseas. Meanwhile, our leading role at the UN Security Council, where we support Colombia, continues to make a positive difference. Last year, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a UK-drafted resolution to expand the mandate of the UN verification mission.
As I and others have mentioned, communities continue to face appalling threats and brutal violence. Among the worst affected are former combatants, social leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian leaders.
The Minister mentioned indigenous peoples, whom I referred to in my speech. Within the constitution, they are second-class citizens because of their religious views. While I am mindful that this area is not the Minister’s responsibility, I ask him again: what discussions have been had with the Colombian Government on this issue? Could he come back to me and other hon. Members? We all wish to hear the answer.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and for the passion he displays for the rights of people of all faiths and none. I will touch upon our engagement with the Colombian Government in just a moment.
Because of the ongoing violence, we designate Colombia as a human rights priority country, placing addressing human rights at the heart of our diplomatic engagement. We regularly raise human rights issues, as well as specific cases of concern, directly with the Colombian Government.
Just last week, my noble Friend, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon met President Duque to discuss peace, security and human rights ahead of the latest UN Security Council briefing on Colombia. Last February, the Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean discussed human rights issues with Vice-President Ramírez. I will seek to obtain the details about support and protection for indigenous peoples following those meetings.
We consistently call on the Colombian Government to strengthen the institutions that investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of human rights abuses. We also engage with stakeholders and affected communities.
UK aid has supported a network of sexual violence survivors to document 1,200 cases that are now being considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative also plays an important role, alongside our international partners. Over the past year, the UK has funded three projects in Colombia helping to strengthen justice and accountability for survivors. The projects have enabled survivors to access legal aid and monitor the cases they have brought through the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. UK funding has also enabled male survivors of sexual violence, who face specific barriers to accessing justice, to bring their cases forward.
As Colombia begins its recovery from the pandemic, the UK also supports opportunities for its citizens. Since 2011, we have provided more than £240 million of climate finance to Colombia to halt deforestation and promote greener supply chains, which not only helps tackle some of the root causes of violence, but also helps protect the country’s beautiful environment.
Our Andean free trade agreement also has an important role to play in advancing human rights. The agreement includes provisions that ensure we can directly raise issues with partner countries where we believe there have been violations of workers’ rights or environmental commitments. I assure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) we will make sure those are enforced.
As Colombia looks ahead to the presidential elections next month, we call on all stakeholders to ensure that they are peaceful and inclusive and that the elected parties maintain their commitment to the peace agreement. Colombia’s success over the past five years serves as an important reminder that the resolution of differences must only be done through peaceful dialogue. Finally, I assure Members of our continued commitment to supporting peace and human rights in Colombia.