Irish MPs express concern over human rights crisis and peace in Colombia

On Tuesday 18 June, Irish MPs discussed the Colombian peace process in the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament. Seán Crowe of the Sinn Fein party and the Tánaiste Simon Coveney expressed concern over the murders of hundreds of social activists since the peace agreement was signed in November 2016. Other issues addressed included the importance of fully implementing the agreement and Ireland’s ongoing support for the peace process.

You can read the full transcript of the discussion below.


Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on increased attacks and the killing of community and political activists in Colombia; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that since 2016 more than 500 political and community activists have been assassinated and include Afro-Colombian activists, indigenous leaders, human rights defenders and former FARC guerrillas among others; if his attention has been further drawn to the fact that these attacks are damaging the peace process in Colombia; and if he has discussed the increased attacks on community and political activists with his Colombian counterpart.

I tabled this question because I am deeply concerned about the killing of community and political activists in Colombia. Civil society activists who speak up for the protection of their communities and against the interests of big business are being threatened, attacked, and in some cases murdered. The UN recently condemned the killings of reintegrated former FARC fighters. Considering our own history and increased links with Colombia what are we doing on this issue?

Deputy Simon Coveney

I thank Deputy Crowe for raising this issue. I know he has an interest in Colombia, as do I. I am aware of the difficult situation that exists for human rights defenders, social leaders and former combatants in Colombia, and of the worrying levels of violence, threats and intimidation carried out against these groups.

Our new resident embassy in Bogotá has been engaging with civil society, EU and multilateral partners on the human rights situation in the country, since it opened at the beginning of the year. We also regularly raise this issue in our exchanges with the Colombian Government. Ireland has a long-standing commitment to peace and security in Colombia. The Taoiseach underlined Ireland’s continuing support for the Colombian peace process in his meeting with President Duque en marge of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2018.

The peace process is fundamental to improving the human rights situation in the country and Ireland has contributed more than €14 million in support of that since 2007, mainly channelled through the United Nations, and Colombian and international NGOs focusing on human rights, conflict prevention, peace-building and supporting livelihoods for rural populations.

As well as financial support, Ireland has also provided ongoing support in the form of lesson-sharing based on our own experience of peace-building and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. Most recently, this month my Department shared lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process with Colombia, facilitating a series of discussions with the government around the implementation of the peace accords. Great strides have been made in the implementation of the peace accords in Colombia since they were signed in November 2016. However, significant challenges remain, including in the areas of rural reform, reincorporation of former combatants and the protection of human rights defenders, civil society activists and social leaders.

Not least among the lessons we have learned in 20 years of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is how long it takes to build a sustainable peace and that it is not a linear process. Ireland will remain a committed supporter of Colombia and its efforts to secure long-lasting peace and security for its people. We will also continue to ask the important questions from a human rights defenders perspective.

Deputy Seán Crowe

The UN has documented that 172 human rights defenders were murdered in Colombia last year and in the first four months of this year 51 were murdered. In addition, 139 former FARC members have been killed since the signing of a peace deal in 2016. The UN has described the killings as “a risk to the peace process” and “a violation of the guarantees made by Colombia”.

Right wing paramilitaries are carrying out these murders with impunity and sometimes the Colombian army is involved. Last month The New York Times revealed new orders instructing top army commanders to “double the results” of their military missions and to lower the standard under which they launched them. That is basically an order to encourage human rights abuses.

Is the Tánaiste aware that a member of the Wayúu indigenous community in the north east of Colombia who visited Ireland received death threats when she returned to Colombia? Jakeline Romero visited Leinster House for an informal meeting with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. She delivered a moving presentation detailing the reality of life in her community, how the community has been damaged by the Cerrejón mine, and the daily harassment she faces. I believe the threats against her are real and credible. She is now at a heightened risk of being seriously injured or killed. I have been informed that the Colombian Government has responded by saying that Ms Romero’s security risk assessment remains “ordinary” and is not deserving of increased security. I believe Ireland must insist on increased protection being provided.

Deputy Simon Coveney

Two and a half years after the signing of the Colombian peace agreement between the government and FARC, substantial progress has been achieved and it is important to recognise that. Colombia has had the most peaceful elections in decades, the demobilisation of FARC and the beginning of its transition to a political party. That is saving many lives.

According to a recent independent review on the implementation of the peace agreement, the vast majority of the commitments – 400 of the 578 – in the peace agreement are under way. The commitment of the president and his government to implementation of the peace accords has been continuously reaffirmed, but it is important to recognise that serious challenges to peace persist, in particular in rural areas, including political polarisation, increased illicit crop cultivation, lack of evidence of peace dividends, insecurity, leading to the killing of human rights defenders and social leaders, lack of progress on rural reform, a safe and enabling space for civil society and stagnation in negotiations for peace with the other remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, following a car bomb attack on the police academy in Bogotá in January. There is still much work to do here. If there are individual cases the Deputy should share them with me and I will send the information to our embassy in Bogotá.

Deputy Seán Crowe

Ms Romero attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. She is one of the activists involved in the Cerrejón mine controversy. The mine is one of the largest in Latin America and it has destroyed the traditional lands of 35 indigenous communities, like Ms Romero’s.

The mine has destroyed the natural environment and cut off communities. We are worried about the latest threat. I understand a legal case against the mine is being prepared by lawyers who are going to submit it to the International Criminal Court. I do not know if the Minister is aware of that. As we speak here today, Ms Romero and other members of her community are under threat. I call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to do anything he can to assist with the case, the details of which I will pass on to the Department.

Considering that the Tánaiste launched the Government’s business and human rights policy, which includes a commitment to semi-State companies respecting human rights in supply chains and given that the coal for the ESB’s Moneypoint plant comes from the area in question, will he discuss its importing of this blood coal and will he call for an urgent end the practice? It appears to be a contradiction that, on the one hand, we are launching this policy, while, on the other, we are importing coal from a region such as this.

Deputy Simon Coveney

Perhaps the Deputy will send me the details relating to Ms Romero. I did not hear her evidence to the committee but if the Deputy shares that evidence and any other information he has with me, we will seek to raise it through our new embassy in Bogotá, which I hope to be able to visit before the end of the year.

The Deputy has raised the Cerrejón mine previously. I am aware of the situation. The ESB does not come under my Department’s remit. Given that I am Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, however, I should make it my business if it is an issue. I have indicated to the Deputy that I will raise the matter with the ESB.

Read the transcript on the Oireachtas website