British MPs debate Colombia peace process

On Wednesday 12 September, MPs in the British parliament held a debate on the current situation in Colombia around the state of implementation of the 2016 peace agreement and the broader issue of human rights in the country. The debate was attended by MPs from different parties and focused on the main challenges facing the peace process.

Below is an edited selection of some of the key interventions made by MPs in attendance.

(You can watch video of the full debate here or read the full transcript here.)

Catherine West MP (Labour, Hornsey & Wood Green)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that part of the terrible human loss has come from the targeting of trade union leaders and human rights defenders? Just this year, 123 leaders and human rights defenders have already lost their lives as a result of assassinations.

Chris Bryant MP (Chair, Finance Committee, Commons)

I think that the figure of 123 is just for the first six months of the year. One difficulty, which I will come to later, is that it is very difficult to get precise numbers. The mixture of different military and paramilitary organisations engaged in the conflict over the 50 years has meant that very often the Government, or people sponsored by the Government, have effectively been killing human rights defenders.

Jo Stevens MP (Labour, Cardiff Central)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate. Does he agree that there are some areas where the FARC were previously in control and have been moved out as part of reincorporation, so there is now a space for these dissident groups to fill and that is creating the sort of dangers and the climate whereby criminality and the number of murders are rapidly rising? There seems to be no Government control or police control over those areas.

Chris Bryant MP

The issue of land ownership, which I will come to, is a really important part of trying to resolve the long-term issues from the conflict, because where the space is theoretically owned by nobody, it is almost certain that somebody, normally with criminal or paramilitary intent, or both, will step in to fill the vacuum.

The single biggest element of the conflict, which makes it so different from others, is the massive consolidation of land ownership that has occurred. It is not just that, as a result of the colonial past, lots of people have big farms—far from it. Some 1% of the largest farms have 81% of the land, and the 0.1% of farms that are over 2,000 hectares have 60% of the land. That is a phenomenal consolidation. It is considerably worse now than it was even in the 1960s. In 1960, 29% of farms were over 500 hectares; in 2002, 46% were over 500 hectares; and in 2017, 66% of farms were over 500 hectares. One factor behind that extraordinary consolidation is that British-funded agribusinesses want to plant vast acres of oil palms, which often leads to significant deforestation and the taking of lands that had previously been used by campesino and indigenous peoples.

Jo Stevens MP

As we have heard today, Colombia is a country of contrasts. It is the most beautiful of countries, but it is also a country scarred by decades of civil war, during which hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared, murdered or tortured, including—in fact, predominantly—trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders, and Colombia still is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.

That is why the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 was such a moment of hope for Colombia, for those of us in Westminster Hall today and indeed for everyone around the world who has a specific interest in the country. It was an agreement to end the armed conflict through a ceasefire, with disarmament by the FARC; a new special jurisdiction, courts and a truth commissioner; political participation by the FARC as a legal political party with seats in the Congress and the House of Representatives; land reform, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda talked about; and the substitution of illegal crops with legal ones, with time-limited subsidies to peasant farmers. Overseeing all of that would be a United Nations verification mission.

Nearly two years on from the signing of that historic agreement, and nine years after I first went to Colombia, I went back there last month with colleagues from Parliament, trade union leaders, lawyers and one of the Northern Ireland human rights commissioners, as part of JFC’s peace monitoring delegation. I know the Minister is very aware of the work of JFC, and I place on the record today my admiration for the incredible work it has done since it was set up by the trade union movement in 2002.

JFC has supported Colombian civil society in defence of human rights, labour rights, peace and social justice. Over the last few years, it has seen the involvement of the Irish trade union movement and politicians from the entirety of the island of Ireland. Those politicians have shared their experiences of the Good Friday agreement, including how they negotiated that agreement and dealt with its implementation, which has been of considerable benefit to the Colombian Government and FARC as they learn how to construct and deliver a peace agreement.

Louise Haigh MP (Shadow Minister for Policing)

I visited Colombia nearly two years ago … My trip was sponsored by Justice for Colombia … Many of the people we met also described their fear—their absolute belief—that the paramilitaries were an arm of the state security services, and were deliberately being employed to undermine the peace process. As has been mentioned, during the peace process there was a huge increase in the number of murders of human rights leaders and social and community leaders. We met with the army after hearing many of those testimonies, and expressed the concern that the paramilitaries were just another wing of the state security services. Obviously, we met flat denial on that point; but also, shockingly, we met flat denial that the paramilitaries even existed in Colombia.

I have given those examples because I want to raise two concerns with the Minister. What progress can he report on the system of justice, truth, reparation and non-repetition and on the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised—the establishment of a body to examine and dismantle the paramilitaries? I fully accept that the UK Government cannot take responsibility for the matter, and cannot make change happen; but the Colombian people need to understand that the international community remains foursquare behind the peace process and the measures and agreements that came from it, and that the UK will use all its influence, through trade, diplomacy and the membership of any international organisation, to drive change and help the Colombian people move towards peace.

Clive Efford MP (Labour, Eltham)

Everyone has highlighted the number of murders of community leaders, trade unionists and human rights activists. Disturbingly, many of those murders happen in rural areas where people are trying to diversify away from the growing of the coca plant. Clearly, there are people, whether paramilitaries or the armed wings of narcotics traffickers, who are trying to maintain the drug trade and the trafficking of drugs from Colombia. That has an impact on our streets, and in America.

As I pointed out in an intervention on my hon. Friend Jo Stevens, there is an issue for the Americans, to do with their foreign policy and the way they apply it in Colombia—and particularly the way law courts in Colombia use the threat of extradition. People who have been mainstays of the peace process—movers and shakers—have been targeted. I draw attention to the plight of Simón Trinidad, who is held in confinement in America. He has been extradited. There has been no court case or proven case against him, but he has spent several years incarcerated underground in a US prison. I urge the Minister to make representations on his behalf.

Patrick Grady MP (Scottish National Party Chief Whip)

It was a privilege to have the opportunity to travel to Colombia this year.

We heard about the impact on human rights defenders and the threats that they are under, and one in three murders of human rights defenders around the world over the past year or so took place in Colombia. Collectively, global human rights defenders have been nominated this year for a Nobel peace prize, and I hope to see that progress. As has been said, we as citizens and consumers have a role to play because our demand for precious minerals, palm oil, and rubber is driving the monocropping, and we should also consider our own practices.

The young people, campesinos and indigenous groups who we met are not looking for a static or historical existence; they want to produce for their country and the wider world. They want commercialisation of their crops, but it does not have to be one size fits all. Production can be sustainable and co-operative. People can produce for themselves and their communities and sell to the wider world, with the right kind of institutional backing and infrastructure.

Helen Goodman MP (Shadow Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Those chapters of the peace process that cover crop substitution for the campesinos, land redistribution and special courts to try former FARC fighters are extremely important. It is worrying that in his campaign to become President of Colombia, Iván Duque rejected some aspects of the deal, particularly the special jurisdiction for peace and the participation of former FARC members in politics.

When the Colombians were seeking to secure the peace process, they deliberately went to the international community to get its backing. That strengthened the Colombians’ hand and enabled them to present to both sides a degree of neutrality and authority that they would not otherwise have had. One question I have for the Minister is whether the British Government, in their continuing engagement with the process, are drawing on our experience in Northern Ireland. What are we doing in practical terms on that front?

The British Government have a continuous dialogue, I am sure, but what representations has the Minister been able to make to the new President about the importance of sticking with the peace process?

Alan Duncan (Minister of State)

It has been less than two years since the signing of the historic peace agreement between the Government and the FARC. What has been achieved? Perhaps most significantly, the FARC are no longer an armed group, but are now a legitimate political party with members in the Congress. Earlier this year, they took part in elections for the first time. As far as peace processes go, that is a significant achievement in a very short time. With regard to the agreement itself, 353 of the 578 commitments made by both parties in the final deal are now in different stages of implementation, including important changes to Colombia’s legislation. The constitution has been amended to allow FARC political participation and to set up the legal structures of the special jurisdiction for peace.

It is perhaps the more practical elements of the commitments, affecting ordinary Colombians, where progress has been rather more uneven. More than 13,000 former FARC combatants and militia have formally registered for reintegration into civilian life, but slow progress on training, fear of reprisals and simply the time spent waiting for reintegration has seen more than 1,500 of them slip away to join dissident groups and criminal elements. That risks undermining improvements in security. Colombia has seen its lowest numbers of recorded homicides for more than 40 years, which is at least something to be welcomed.

Those who speak out for the rights of local communities are also often singled out for attack. The UN reports that at least 121 human rights defenders and community leaders were killed last year, and Amnesty says that Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. I have discussed with my Colombian counterparts our concerns about violence against human rights defenders, and the steps that are needed to protect them. During Colombia’s universal periodic review of human rights, which took place in May, the UK stressed the need for new protection measures for human rights defenders and support for victims of conflict-related sexual violence. I am pleased to say that all the UK’s recommendations were accepted by the Colombian Government, but more work remains to ensure that human rights are prioritised by the new Administration.

The quotes contained in this article represent a selection of key points made during the Westminster debate on Colombia’s peace process on 12 September 2018. For the full debate, visit the Westminter website