British House of Lords raises new concerns over human rights abuses in Colombia

On 19 January, the British Parliament’s House of Lords held a debate to address issues of peace and human rights in Colombia. Several members raised concerns over the high levels of human rights abuses which continue to impact Colombian society, including state violence towards protesters and killings of trade unionists and environmental defenders.

(Watch an edited recording of the debate above)

Killings and other abuses committed by Colombian police against protesters, in September 2020 and April-May 2021, once again came under the spotlight. Baroness Blower (Labour) asked the British government if it had made representations to its Colombian counterpart on the issue and whether, following the murder of yet another teacher trade unionist last November, the UK would consider retracting its invitation to Colombia to join the UK-Andean trade pact until human rights abuses were properly addressed.

In a similar vein, Lord Browne of Ladyton (Labour) suggested that the UK’s longstanding training programme with Colombian police should be suspended over abuses. MPs from different parties have previously called for the UK’s trade and security arrangements with Colombia to be urgently reviewed.

Lord Browne also highlighted the apparent police practice of deliberately targeting protesters’ eyes, with over 100 permanent eye injuries caused by police projectiles. Baroness Cousins (independent) addressed the appalling levels of sexual violence reportedly committed by Colombian police against protesters, with the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner having documented over 60 cases.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Labour) drew attention to the Colombia’s new security bill, approved in December and which has drawn strong criticism from opposition congress members in the country who warn that it ‘will further criminalise protests and weaken human rights protections.’ Rather than hold state agents to account over human rights violations, by enacting the bill Colombia’s government has consolidated its authoritarian approach to the democratic principle of peaceful protest.

Lord Davies of Brixton (Labour) asked whether the UK government would condemn paramilitary death threats recently sent to Colombian opposition senators including Iván Cepeda, Victoria Sandino and Maria José Pizarro, all of whom are strong government critics and supporters of the peace process. There was further focus on the 2016 peace agreement, with Lord Monks (Labour) asking if the government would meet with peers to discuss strategies for advancing its implementation in regions of Colombia where this has yet to properly occur.

You can read a full transcript of the House of Lords debate below.

Baroness Blower (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Colombia about investigating human rights abuses, including killings, by police during the protests in that country in September 2020 and May 2021.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

UK Ministers and senior officials regularly raise human rights issues as well as specific cases of concern with the Colombian Government. Most recently, on a visit to Colombia last November, the former UK Minister for Europe and the Americas, Wendy Morton, spoke to Vice-President Ramírez regarding the human rights situation. We look to the Colombian authorities to investigate fully any reports of excessive use of force against protesters and to take appropriate action against those responsible.

Baroness Blower (Labour)

I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, despite that engagement between the UK and Colombia, human rights abuses continue, including in November last year with the abduction and murder of a teacher trade unionist. Does the Minister agree that it would be proportionate to suspend the invitation to Colombia to join the UK-Andean trade agreement – a call made by the TUC – until police abuses and impunity are properly addressed? Will the Minister meet me, other concerned noble Lords and the TUC to discuss this matter?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I commend the noble Baroness for her efforts on the subject of Colombia –  I know that she is very involved in it – and of course we would condemn any further abuses. Perhaps I may give a slightly longer answer on what the Colombian Government are doing – obviously, we are pushing them on this. The national police have opened 231 internal investigations against members of their own institution for alleged excessive use of force during the 2021 protests. Currently, 111 inquiries remain open and the rest are being closed. Six police officers have been sanctioned and two have been dismissed from the institution. The prosecutor’s office confirmed that it had opened 200 inquiries for the alleged excessive use of force by the national police during the 2021 protests. Ninety-four disciplinary processes are currently under way and three officers have been prosecuted. It is fair to say that the Colombian Government are taking this seriously.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord said to my noble friend in respect of the actions of the police. Is he aware that members of the Colombian senate have warned that a new security law will further criminalise protests and weaken human rights protections? What discussions have the noble Lord’s Government had with other Ministers in the Colombian Government on a new security law?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I cannot answer the noble Lord on that specific issue, but I can tell him that in the last three months there have been a number of high-level discussions between the UK Government and the Colombian Government. That includes a meeting in September last year between the Prime Minister and President Duque. I have already referred to the visit to Colombia by the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas, Wendy Morton. As I say, there were a number of other recent interactions – I  think there were about 10 between September and December. It is very much an open channel.

Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, Global Witness reports that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental activist – 65 people were killed in 2020. Given that the FCDO oversees the climate fund, will the Government review environmental funding to Colombia to ensure that protecting environmental and indigenous activists is a key priority?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, Colombia is one of our strongest partners on climate and the environment, with a leading regional influence and an ambitious nationally determined contribution of 51%. The UK-Colombia Partnership for Sustainable Growth, which was signed in June 2019, formalises the relationship between the two countries on clean growth and climate change. The reason I mention all that is because Colombia is a COP 26 priority country, and the UK has committed over £240 million of international climate finance in Colombia since 2011. We believe that the promotion of sustainable economic opportunities will help tackle some of the root causes of ongoing violence.

Baroness Coussins (Independent)

My Lords, during the 2021 protests, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights received over 60 reports of sexual violations allegedly perpetrated by the Colombian police, many in the context of arbitrary arrests. Given Her Majesty’s Government’s commendable lead on the prevention of conflict sexual violence and the forthcoming conference I believe we will be hosting on this topic, have the Government raised these reports with the Colombian Government and if so, what has been their response?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question, but I go back to my earlier answer. The Colombian police and Government are investigating a large number of various allegations of poor behaviour and I will certainly take back the question and ask my colleagues.

Lord Davies of Brixton (Labour)

My Lords, I am sure the Minister agrees that full implementation of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace agreement remains crucial but advocates for peace continue to face violence and intimidation. In December, a group calling itself the Black Eagles issued death threats against Colombian senators Iván Cepeda, Victoria Sandino and Maria José Pizarro and a number of civil society activists. Will the Minister condemn these threats and make representations to the Colombian Government over the safety of the named individuals?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

We should all condemn all threats to individuals in a functioning democracy. The UK has, as I said earlier, been a leading international advocate of Colombia’s peace process which, as the noble Lord rightly points out, is five years old – indeed, Wendy Morton went to Colombia to celebrate the fifth anniversary. We commend the Colombian Government on their commitment to implement the 2016 peace accords and we have contributed more than £68 million in support through the UK’s Conflict, Security and Stability Fund. We are the second largest donor to the UN trust fund for Colombia and, of course, we continue to raise these issues.

Lord Purvis of Tweed (Liberal Democrats), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, political activism is one of the clearest examples of personal freedom. The BBC has reported that 145 activists were killed last year in Colombia. The Foreign Secretary says that British policies for trade and diplomacy are now combined to support personal freedom. Now that we have an independent trade agreement with Colombia, what discussions have we had with regards to the human rights and trade policy with that country to protect personal freedom?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He may remember that my noble friend Lord Ahmad discussed this issue at length during a virtual visit to Colombia last year, including with the Government and members of civil society. We are taking forward their suggestions of further assistance that the UK could provide.

Regarding the trade relationship, I am sure the noble Lord is aware that we are on a bridging agreement at the moment. The Colombian Government – actually, it is the Colombian courts, not the Government – have not yet ratified the agreement. Continuity for the framework governing UK-Colombia trade is provided by this bridging arrangement but, of course, those matters are enshrined in the agreement for when it is signed.

Lord Browne of Ladyton (Labour)

My Lords, the UK has a long-standing £2.1 million training programme with the Colombian police. Not only did the December UN report into the April/May 2021 strike protest conclude that there was an ‘unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by police officers,’ but Amnesty International’s November report into the protests found that the Colombian security forces, particularly the mobile anti-riot squad, inflicted more than 100 eye injuries with non-lethal projectiles in a pattern of deliberate behaviour that it concluded was intended to punish victims for ‘exercising their legitimate right to social protest.’ After lots of requests for this, is it not time for a formal review of our continued support for the police training programme?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, obviously we are aware of those reports of eye injuries. As I said earlier, all these things are being investigated. We have made representations to the Colombian Government as regards police activities but, in terms of our activities with the police, I assure noble Lords that everything that we are doing there is intended to support the development of civil society. I think it probably makes sense for us to continue to do that.

Lord Monks (Labour)

My Lords, the UK played a noble and honourable role in promoting the peace agreement. I want to return to the question posed by my noble friend Lady Blower. Will the Government agree to a cross-party meeting with interested Peers and others about what can be done now to make sure that the writ of the agreement runs in parts of Colombia where it currently does not?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord for that reminder; I apologise for not answering the noble Baroness’s question earlier. I am happy to take that back and try to facilitate such a meeting.

Read the full transcript on the They Work for You website