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27 Jan 2010 : Column 286WH—continued

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman's intervention is extremely timely, because I was moving on to reassure the House that the money we give Kenya is channelled
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through reputable agencies with a sound track record of aid delivery and good financial management, which the Department has worked with in several humanitarian emergencies. We have audited them regularly and are confident in their ability to get aid to those at the sharp end who need it the most. We believe that humanitarian aid should be focused on those groups where the needs are greatest, rather than spreading larger amounts of assistance more thinly.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Department for International Development, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, published a White Paper on development last July. In that White Paper we made clear our commitment to ensure that agriculture and food security will be given the highest international attention. We have as a result also lobbied other Governments to do more in Kenya. The announcement that we made on additional funding has helped to put pressure on others to do more to help the people of Kenya. My ministerial colleagues and I have approached our international counterparts and I have written personally to Development Ministers of all major donor countries to alert them to the famine in the horn.

We have tried to lead the international response to the difficulties that the people of Kenya face, and to do so by example. In 2009, the UK was the third biggest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance to Kenya, after the US and Japan. In addition, the UK accounted for 17 per cent. of the $41 million committed by the European Community Humanitarian Office, and more than 15 per cent. of the $30 million committed by the UN Central Emergency Response Fund. The aid provided by the UK and others has brought some stability and has meant that food has been available, at least in the short term. The challenge is to avoid the same situation happening year after year.

That brings me to our second area of activity: helping Kenya to become self-sufficient so that it no longer needs to depend on humanitarian aid. We know that cash can have greater long-term benefits than food aid because it allows people more flexibility in the way that they organise their lives and incomes. We are providing £122 million over 10 years to improve the livelihoods of the poorest Kenyans, particularly in the drought-prone arid lands. Much of that is going through a hunger safety net programme, which provides cash to 90,000 poor rural households. A very rough equivalent would be the social security system of the UK. The fledgling programme is the start of a similar system in Kenya. Additional funding from the Kenyan Government, the World Bank and UNICEF extends that to another 120,000 households. In total, that means that more than 1 million of the poorest Kenyans will receive support in the form of cash rather than food aid.

We are also putting money into new crop and livestock insurance products to help poor households manage the risks posed by extreme weather events; we are trying to support people in looking after themselves for tomorrow, rather than just in dealing with the immediate situation. We have also just started working with the Ministry for Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands on a programme of longer-term
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support that will reduce dependence on humanitarian assistance. We plan to commit up to £15 million to that programme.

Thirdly, we have increased the frequency and intensity of our discussions with the Government of Kenya. Last year the Kenyan Government allocated more of their own resources to dealing with the consequences of drought than ever before. Frankly, they could do still more. Kenya has substantial domestic resources and should be perfectly able to prioritise the plight of its most vulnerable citizens. We shall continue to take every opportunity we can to make that point. We have also encouraged the Kenyan Government to develop their own longer-term strategy. We are working with Ministers and officials in Kenya to help them to appreciate the economic consequences of climate change, which is clearly an increasing factor in some of the difficulties that the people of Kenya face. It is particularly important that they are able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new climate finance, including the resources committed at Copenhagen. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for East Londonderry will agree that a lasting solution to food insecurity does not lie in humanitarian aid, however crucial it might be in the short term, and that the Department needs to focus on not only the immediate humanitarian needs of the people of Kenya, but how to help them to avoid a repeat of the present situation in the longer term.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked whether we could give further support to particular charities and he described the work of charities with which he is familiar. We have a strong programme of support for civil society; indeed, the Secretary of State increased that support last July, at the time of the White Paper. I do not know whether the organisations that the hon. Gentleman mentioned have had discussions with the Department, but if he wants to write to me or to bring some of their representatives to see me, I would be happy to listen to any presentations and to point people to potential sources of funding for work with the Department. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I can give no guarantees to him or the House, because we clearly need to do our audit checks. In principle, however, I would be happy to meet him and the organisations concerned, if he thinks that that would be useful.

Perhaps the last point that I should make is that we are seeing a disaster of the magnitude of that in Haiti every year internationally. At the same time, however, we are regularly seeing continuing emergencies of the sort that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House. The international system is having to deal with the reality that a growing number of people need humanitarian assistance, some for relatively short periods, others for much longer. There continues to be a question as to whether the international humanitarian system is tooled up, for want of a better phrase, to cope with the expected increase in the numbers needing humanitarian assistance. As the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister's questions only last week, we need to keep our eye on that particular issue. DFID and I as a Minister in the Department are continuing to put considerable time and energy into the issue.

I hope that I have done justice to the issues that the hon. Members for East Londonderry and for Upper Bann have raised. I repeat that I am happy to meet the hon. Member for East Londonderry and colleagues in
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the charitable sector with whom he has worked. I hope that people-perhaps in Kenya-will reflect on the issues that we have discussed and on whether they can do more to tackle the long-term challenges that Kenya faces.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

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Colombia (Human Rights)

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I sought this Adjournment debate because I visited Colombia last year and saw at first hand the human rights atrocities that go on in that country. The Colombian Government are a slick PR machine, well rehearsed at saying all the right things about how they are tackling the human rights crisis, but the real situation is very different from what they say. In fact, the regime in Bogota is complicit in the abuses.

However, the Labour Government are endorsing the proposal for an EU-Colombia free trade agreement-something that will only serve to legitimise the terrible record of the Uribe regime. Our Government say that they will ensure that a human rights clause is incorporated in the agreement and that that will provide the UK and the EU with leverage to force Colombia to comply with certain human rights standards, so I want to pose these questions to the Government.

First, if innocent people are still, as we speak, regularly being murdered by the Colombian army, why do the Government and the European Union believe that rewarding the regime with an FTA will do anything to improve the situation? Surely it would be better to wait for the killings to end-to tell the regime that it can have the agreement after it starts respecting human rights, not before.

Secondly, how will the Government monitor improvement by using the clearly bogus figures produced by the Uribe PR machine? Thirdly, what is the mechanism for withdrawing the agreement? We understand that withdrawal requires unanimous agreement by all the EU member states-something that we are never likely to get, regardless of the abuses in Colombia. Lastly-this is the proof of the pudding, as I see it-the EU already has a generalised system of preferences trade agreement with Colombia, which includes human rights clauses that the Colombia regime is currently flouting, yet the EU, far from suspending that agreement pending an investigation, as it is doing with Sri Lanka, is choosing to reward the Colombian regime with a full free trade agreement.

I come now to some specifics of the human rights situation in Colombia. First, I want to focus on the abuses suffered by our trade union colleagues, because, as we all know, that country is the most dangerous place on earth in which to be a trade unionist. It is vital to put it on the record that contrary to the assertions of the regime in Bogota and some of its more fervent supporters in the international community, the situation has not improved for trade union members. The facts are clear. In 2007, there were 39 assassinations of trade union leaders; in 2008 there were 49. That is a 25 per cent. increase in the number being killed.

The statistics are the same for other abuses. More trade unionists are receiving death threats and being forced to flee their homes and jobs. More trade unionists have disappeared and more trade unionists are being locked up without trial. It is high time that people stopped swallowing the propaganda of the Colombian regime and looked at the reality.

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It is also important to examine who is perpetrating the attacks and, according to the Colombian TUC, that is pretty clear. In 90 per cent. of the cases, the perpetrator of the abuses is the state, either directly via the police and army or indirectly through allowing right-wing paramilitaries linked to the army free rein to butcher our trade union colleagues in that country. The question of why they are being targeted also comes back to the Colombian state. On repeated occasions in recent years, the Colombian President himself, President Uribe, has spoken out publicly about trade unionists, human rights activists and the like, but instead of saying how important their work is and offering support for their predicament, he has lashed out at them, describing them as criminals or terrorists. Such comments lead to people being killed, and President Uribe knows that.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Like the hon. Gentleman, I have visited Colombia, but I did so about eight years ago. I met President Uribe and all the officials there and was given assurances that the extra-judicial killings and the murders of trade union representatives were now under control and were stopping and it was all a put-up job by other organisations. I came back to this country and had meetings with Ministers here and was given the same assurances, but we see things, if not staying the same, getting even worse. Is the hon. Gentleman confident that this time the Government will actually listen and take action on this matter?

Jim Sheridan: The proof of the pudding will be in my hon. Friend the Minister's response. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that the Colombian Government run a slick PR system and they are very convincing, especially when we are talking to Ministers, but I am confident that our Minister will see through that and see the Colombian regime for exactly what it is.

What is truly astonishing, however, is the impunity that the perpetrators of the attacks enjoy and the almost total lack of any genuine effort on the side of the Colombian authorities to confront the problem. More than 100 union leaders have been murdered in Colombia since 2007, yet in not one of those cases does anyone appear to have been convicted and jailed for the assassination. That is a green light to those who engage in the attacks to continue doing so. Although the Colombian regime claims that it is dealing with the issue, it is unable to supply the names of anyone who has been convicted of any of the killings or to say in what jail they are being held.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept, if he takes the figures from the Human Rights Observatory, that in fact there has been a significant reduction in the number of union leaders being killed? For example, in 2008 it was 17; in 2009 it was nine. I would be interested to know where he got his figures from.

Jim Sheridan: We got the figures from the Colombian TUC, and nine killings is nine killings too many.

Mark Pritchard: Yes, of course it is.

Jim Sheridan: There is nothing to celebrate in nine people being killed through no fault of their own.

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Bob Spink: I was told eight years ago that the killings would cease totally, and they have not.

Jim Sheridan: You can imagine the outcry, Miss Begg, if nine trade unionists were killed in this country; you can imagine the effect that there would be. The situation is similar for journalists, because Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist. Six were assassinated there during 2009, and the concerning thing about such cases is that those murdered are invariably the journalists reporting on Government corruption, human rights abuses or other issues that the regime in Bogota would prefer to be swept under the carpet. There has been widespread harassment of journalists deemed unsympathetic to the Administration of President Uribe, including by the DAS-Department of Administrative Security-secret police, who in one case threatened to murder the daughter of a reporter if she did not shut up. It is not enough simply to condemn those who violate press freedom or kill trade union activists. Those responsible need to be named and shamed, and in this case that is primarily the Colombian regime.

The second human rights issue that I want to touch on is political prisoners, as although the regime in Bogota appears to find it impossible to arrest those responsible for killing trade unionists and others who speak out against President Uribe, it seems to have no problems whatever in locking up critics for long periods without trial, on the flimsiest of evidence. That tactic of jailing opponents is used by several nasty regimes around the world. Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan jump to mind, and the Foreign Office has rightly spoken out in those cases. What is strange in the case of Colombia, unlike the others that I have mentioned, is the deafening silence from our Government. Let us be clear: although the regime denies it, the Colombian authorities are throwing large numbers of people in prison simply for their political beliefs.

With five parliamentary colleagues, I visited several of the victims of that criminalisation in two prisons in Colombia last year. It was clear that they were being locked up on bogus evidence that would not be taken seriously in most countries. They are normally accused of rebellion or terrorism; but they are not taken to court so cannot clear their names. They are left to languish in jail for months-and, indeed, for years.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I, too, had the opportunity a few short years ago to visit Colombia. Along with my colleagues, I had the chance to meet a number of displaced people. I understand that their number has increased to about 4.5 million-but perhaps my hon. Friend was coming to that. Does he agree that that figure alone suggests that it is time for a strategy to return to peace in a country that does not give the impression that its leadership is prepared to do so?

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend is renowned for his work in international development. Indeed, he is regarded by many in the House, if not all, as a man of the highest integrity. In case there is any ambiguity about what we are saying, my right hon. Friend has confirmed that it is also his view.

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Why have we not condemned this state of affairs more forcibly? The truth is that it should not need much pressure to get the Colombian authorities to release those prisoners. For example, the British NGO Justice for Colombia has managed to get more than 15 political prisoners released; and only days after we visited the prison, one of the prisoners whom we had met was freed, which allowed a very public denunciation of his situation in the Colombian press.

I would like to focus on one prisoner, a woman I met last year. She is an outspoken defender of human rights and trade union rights, and she remains in prison unconvicted even as we speak. I ask the Minister to consider the case of Liliany Obando. She is an academic, and has toured north America and Australia at the invitation of trade unions there, with the express intention of raising awareness of the human rights crisis in Colombia. Her high profile work clearly angered the regime in Bogota. Shortly after she returned from one of her speaking tours, she was dragged from her home in front of her young children, and thrown into jail. That was a year and a half ago, and she is still there. I therefore urge the Minister to make urgent representations on her behalf and publicly demand that the Colombian authorities release her immediately.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I understand that one of the accusations against Liliany Obando is that she was collecting money for terrorists, yet she had raised money from a Canadian trade union to be used for an educational project in Colombia. That accusation was condemned by the Canadian Government. I hope that the Minister will consider taking the same position today.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. The Canadians have been very proactive, not only in that case but on the situation in Colombia in general. I shall touch on that aspect later.

I wish to cover one other matter-one that is so important that it deserves the attention of everyone here today. It is the question of extra-judicial execution. It is a deplorable practice. The Colombian army is murdering civilians, and then dressing their bodies and pretending that they were guerrillas killed in combat. It does it because, in the grotesque world of Colombia's Ministry of Defence, soldiers who achieve a high body count receive financial bonuses with time off work and their officers receive promotion.

To the south of Bogota is a poor neighbourhood called Soacha. Over the past few years, countless young men from that neighbourhood, where unemployment is extremely high, have been offered jobs by a bogus employment agency established by the army. The young men, some as young as 17, when going off for their first day at work, simply disappeared-that is until their bodies were paraded on television by the army as guerrillas killed in combat; they were even wearing FARC guerrilla uniforms. The problem was that although their bodies were riddled with bullet holes, their uniforms were not; they had clearly been dressed as combatants after they had been executed.

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