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27 Jan 2010 : Column 293WH—continued

It has since transpired that that practice is systematic, and is carried out by military units across Colombia. I understand that about 2,000 cases have been identified-that is 2,000 civilians who have been slaughtered in cold
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blood by the Colombian army. What happened at Soacha was important, although Colombian human rights groups had been highlighting the practice for some time-only, I might add, to be accused by President Uribe of being anti-army terrorists.

Soacha was the first time that the media, the United Nations and others became involved. Indeed, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the phenomenon was so extreme, so systematic, that it could be described as a war crime. Soacha therefore became an emblematic case; and everyone, including the US Government, expressed concern and called for justice-and the Colombian Government promised that justice would be done.

Once again, however, despite the promises, the Colombian Government appear to have done nothing. Although a small number of soldiers were detained pending trial, I understand that in the last couple of weeks, now that international scrutiny has subsided, the Colombian authorities have started releasing those men without them having faced trial. Basically, those responsible for that industrial-scale slaughter are back on the payroll.

That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, as the majority of those involved were not even investigated. Their ringleader, General Mario Montoya, who in any other country would have been jailed for life, was instead appointed Colombian ambassador to the Dominican Republic. He remains there today, no doubt living the cushy life of a diplomat, yet his victims' families have received no justice.

The contrast with the plight of Colombia's political prisoners could not be greater. It is astonishing that the authorities in Colombia seem unable to catch the soldiers responsible for the extra-judicial killings, or the hundreds of people who have assassinated trade unionists, yet at the same time they are most effective at locking up those who speak out against the abuses and the Uribe regime more generally.

To sum up, it is important to say that the Colombian regime is expert at misleading the international community, and at providing misleading and bogus information to try to pull the rug over our eyes. Senior Government officials will sit in front of us, smile, look straight into our eyes and tell a pack of lies. It is crucial that we do not fall for it. We need to listen to what human rights organisations, trade unions, independent journalists and so many other brave members of Colombian civil society are saying. What they are saying is supported by evidence that the Uribe Administration are complicit in the violence and are not the slightest bit serious about dealing with the abuses.

If we believe the propaganda, we will be doing an immense disservice to the people of Colombia. For that reason, I call on the Minister to end British political, diplomatic and military support to that odious regime. In particular, in light of all the evidence, it is absurd to suggest that pushing ahead with a free trade agreement between the European Union and Colombia will help to alleviate the suffering of Colombian civil society. Colombia's trade unions, human rights groups, organisations that represent peasant farmers, its indigenous people and thousands of others have made it clear that such an agreement would make the situation worse, not better.

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It would be a disgrace for the British Government to support anything that merely served to legitimise Uribe. We should be on the side of those whose rights are being abused, not of those who are perpetrating the abuses.

2.48 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. He brings an important subject before the House. I have much respect for him. I know that he feels passionately about the matter and has consistently spoken up for human rights in Colombia.

I declare an interest in that I recently visited Colombia as a guest of the Colombian Government; it is entered in the Register of Members' Interests. I am also secretary of the all-party group on Latin America, and a member of the Conservative party Human Rights Commission with responsibility for Latin America. I have often raised human rights matters, not only with the Colombian ambassador in London but with incomers and ministerial visitors from Colombia-and, indeed, when I was in Colombia.

I condemn any killing of any sort in Colombia, whether it be the assassination of political leaders, the recent assassination of a regional governor, or the assassination of trade unionists or journalists. All murders and killings are wrong, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman and some of his esteemed colleagues will recognise that progress has been made. I dispute the figures that he has brought before the Chamber this afternoon. Every murder and killing is a murder and killing too far; they leave behind a suffering and grieving family. None the less, there has been a reduction not only in extra-judicial killings but in the killings of journalists and trade unionists. The perpetrators of such murders are wide and varied, and it would be wrong entirely to place the blame at the foot of the Government of President Uribe.

If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at the statistics for the amount of close protection and bodyguards that are given to trade unionists, he will see that they have increased. Perhaps I might pay tribute to him in that regard. The Government of Colombia were right to listen to the view of many people in this House-whether they be on the left or right-that there should be better provision for the protection of trade unionists, and that is happening and it should continue to do so. The Government of Colombia are right to keep the matter under review and if the provision needs to be extended, so be it.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the hon. Gentleman's argument. On the one hand he suggests that the Government should do more to promote human rights in Colombia, and on the other, some people on the Labour Back Benches have been campaigning very hard to see human rights training for senior military officials in Colombia withdrawn. That is what has happened. Therefore, the contradiction at the heart of his argument is clear. We need people at the very top as well as people in voluntary organisations, non-governmental organisations, and advocacy groups promoting human rights.

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Mr. Tom Clarke: Does the hon. Gentleman not concern himself with the fact that when we look at Colombia we discover the tremendous problem of drugs and the influence of the drug barons? We are told that drug-related conditions are second only to cancer as a cause of death. Does he not feel that much more needs to be done to co-ordinate a response to remove that blemish?

Mark Pritchard: I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The fact is that drugs from Colombia-I was recently in the jungles of Colombia-fuel crime in the streets everywhere, whether it be in West Bromwich Albion, Shropshire, or in the Rhondda. I am glad that the British Government are working in close co-operation with the Government of Colombia to deal with the issue. What is of particular concern is the new and emerging link between al-Qaeda and the FARC, which live and breathe off drug money. Moreover, because farmers have been so successful in diversifying their crops away from cacao, a lot of the drug production has been displaced into Venezuela. A question perhaps for another day is: what are the Government of Venezuela and President Chavez doing with the revenue that is coming from drugs in Venezuela? Therefore, progress is being made, but we want to see more.

Let me touch now on the organisation Justice for Colombia, which is funded by the TUC. Although I do not have an issue with that, the TUC and some trade unionists need to recognise that progress is being made. If occasionally they made one positive statement about the most minuscule amount of progress in whatever Government department in Bogota, some of their many siren calls about the Government of President Uribe might be taken more seriously. They need to applaud on occasion and condemn, as I do, when there are human rights abuses. I suspect that even if President Uribe or any future president were to get it absolutely right, Justice for Colombia may well move on to President Calderon and become Justice for Mexico.

Let us consider the facts. There has been a reduction in homicide, including the homicide of union leaders and teachers, who are also unionised members; a 90 per cent. drop in kidnappings; and a huge demobilisation of guerrillas, from the FARC and the other two groups-perhaps there is a lesson there for the Afghanistan campaign-the members of which have become integrated into society and run farms and small businesses. FARC numbers are running at around 9,000, which is a huge success. Both individuals and the collective have been demobilised and vulnerable groups have been protected.

If we look at who has attended this debate today, we will see that many of the glitterati of the left are here, and they are entitled to their view. I suspect that much of this agenda-not all of it, the human rights issue is important-is driven by an anti-capitalist outlook on life. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Yes, shock, horror. It is also driven by a slight dash of anti-Americanism. The fact is that the EU-Colombia free trade agreement will address many of the issues on which we agree. It will reduce poverty, enfranchise people to set up their own small and medium enterprise businesses, allow people to have the money to put shoes on their children's feet, and enable people to send their children some distance to go to school. If there is no agreement, millions of Colombians will be locked into the poverty they find themselves in at the moment. If there is a real campaign
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against the free trade agreement, the left in the Labour party should say so and tell its Front-Bench team. I will support the Government if they continue to support the drive to see that trade agreement come forward.

There have been successes in the Colombian economy. GDP and exports are up; inflation is down and private investment and foreign direct investment have risen. Britain, of course, is a major investor. I caution the left of the Labour party, those anti-bilateral trade agreement people, and those who have the dash of anti-Americanism running through their blood, that many pension trusts and investors from this country invest in Colombia. A destabilised Colombia would present a peril to pension investment and to the people who draw pensions in every constituency represented in this House today. The public sector debt and unemployment are down, and we want to see more people in employment, but let us recognise progress when progress is made.

Please forgive me, Miss. Begg, but I need to leave this debate early. I am sure that some hon. Members will be delighted about that. I will read the debate in Hansard. I am sure that it will be exhilarating, especially with my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and the Minister for Europe on the Front Benches.

Let me finally touch on Venezuela. It is particularly unhelpful to the poor people of Venezuela and Colombia and to the region as a whole for President Chavez to use hot talk to endanger stability and geopolitical peace in the region.

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about stability in the region, but have President Chavez's troops interfered in any other country in the way in which Colombian troops did in Ecuador?

Mark Pritchard: I just look at the incoming traffic to Caracas, which represents the glitterati of peace and human rights: President Ahmadinejad, Prime Minister Putin-

Colin Burgon: Answer the question.

Mark Pritchard: I am coming on to that; I am giving the hon. Gentleman some context first. The fact is that there are incursions on both sides of the border. They should end and both Governments should ensure that the rhetoric is reduced and that there is dialogue in a measured, calm and reasonable way, because conflict in the region would be absolutely disastrous for both countries.

I also encourage the hon. Gentleman himself, through his Venezuelan contacts, to encourage the Government of Venezuela not to talk in apocalyptic terms and not to talk about nuclear ambitions-I have a reference to such talk here and I am happy to send it to him. That talk is destabilising for the region and-dare I say it?-it is also destabilising for the poor people in the region and for human rights throughout Latin America.

I conclude by saying that much progress has been made in Colombia. It is not enough, it is not being made quickly enough and more needs to be done. However, I encourage the glitterati of the left in the Labour party to recognise where progress is being made. Yes, they should condemn when it is appropriate to do so, but occasionally they should recognise and applaud where breakthroughs have been made.

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3.1 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. It is an important debate and he has covered the issues affecting Colombia comprehensively. Indeed, when one also takes into account what the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) has just said about his involvement with and understanding of Colombia, it makes for an extremely comprehensive background to the debate.

The issue that I want to raise is a narrow one. I want to focus my remarks on the secret police in Colombia, who are known as DAS. I want to bring to the Minister's attention, although I think that he will be aware of them already, the press reports in Colombia that have suggested that there is a link between the UK security forces and DAS, which is a suggestion that I find greatly disturbing. We need to take these reports seriously and I will be listening to what the Minister has to say regarding the issue.

When we look at the situation of the security forces in Colombia, I think that hon. Members would agree that the reports that have emerged indicate that there is a straight link between President Uribe and the security forces; that, in fact, they report directly to him. I think that colleagues will also be aware of the recent scandal involving the security forces in Colombia. They have been involved in drug trafficking. It would appear that their involvement has been basically to neutralise the complaints that have been made regarding other activities.

This may be another point that the Minister can respond to, but I understand that, because of what has gone on in Colombia with the security services there, Interpol has decided that it should no longer co-operate with the DAS security forces. As I say, perhaps that is something that he will refer to in his winding-up speech.

I also understand that senior Colombian officials have been embarrassed by the scandal involving the country's security services and that they themselves have made statements, which have also been reported in the press, calling for disbandment of the security services. Again, that may well be something that the Minister wants to refer to in his winding-up speech.

Having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, I think that it is fair to say that there is still thuggery in Colombia. I think that that is accepted, although the hon. Member for The Wrekin made the point that there has been a reduction in the number of homicides in Colombia. Nevertheless, the very fact that a homicide can take place is to be considered disturbing. Although that decline in the number of homicides has happened, the thuggery is still there.

Indeed, when we look at what the Colombian security services have been involved in, we know for a fact-the evidence shows it-that death lists have been drawn up by the security services, they were passed to paramilitaries and paramilitaries carried out the murders. Although there may be a reduction in the number of homicides, the fact that that kind of activity can take place in a modern society is very disturbing.

Hon. Members may well have seen or read this already, but I understand that it has been reported in the Colombian press that, in one instance, members of DAS were
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ordered to participate in the murder of a trade union leader. The fact that the security services are involved in intimidation, which can lead to murder, and have tried to cover their tracks by drug trafficking again causes me concern about the way in which that society operates.

We also know that the threats have been widespread. I want to make the point to the Minister that communication intercepts of, for example, Supreme Court judges, trade unionists, human rights activists and so on have been made. We know that as a result of those intercepts, death threats were made. It would be a laugh if it were not so serious, but the death threats have been made in accordance with a textbook that is issued to DAS officers. The textbook sets out how they should approach or communicate with a particular person to make their death threat. It is because of the way in which these death threats have been made to this group of people that they have been traced back to that textbook and therefore to the security services.

I understand that the actual machinery that was used to make those intercepts is alleged to have come from the UK. It is alleged that the machinery was provided to the security services of Colombia and that it is being used, as I have said, in an intimidatory way. Perhaps that is something else that the Minister will refer to in his winding-up speech. If there is indeed evidence that such technology has been exchanged with or sold to Colombia, I hope that he will take action to ensure that that activity is brought to an end.

The final point that I want to make to the Minister is related to the way in which the British embassy in Bogota appears to have a relationship with, for example, the director of DAS. I have been told that I can be provided with a list of the people who were invited to a dinner at the embassy last year and that among the names on that list is that of the director of DAS. If that is correct, again, I find it very disturbing that that man, who is responsible for intimidation, has been invited to attend a dinner at the British embassy.

Mark Pritchard: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. However, is he not in danger of confusing the relationship between the UK embassy and Colombia in relation to counter-terrorism advice, help and support and the embassy's counter-narcotics help and support, given that those two issues are linked to what goes on in the streets of London and elsewhere?

Mr. Clapham: I do not think that I am in danger of confusing those issues. We have evidence that the director of the security services is so involved in thuggery that we should keep our distance from him. We should pass instructions down the line to our embassy in Bogota saying that we should not invite people to dinners at the British embassy when we know that they have been involved in the violation of human rights, as this person has been. When the Minister winds up, perhaps he can let us know whether any instruction has been passed down the line to ensure that we do not invite people who are involved in thuggery to the British embassy. Inviting such people to dinners at our embassy is not helpful, because it gives Britain the wrong image throughout Latin America. If I am proved correct about this issue, I
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hope that action can be taken and that an instruction can be passed down the line saying that we should not be involved with people we know to be involved in thuggery.

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