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27 Jan 2010 : Column 300WH—continued

3.11 pm

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. I have been described as many things, but I have never been described as part of Labour's glitterati. When I look round at Members from places such as Barnsley, Paisley and Renfrewshire, and Bradford, I know that those are the places where the real glitterati hang out.

My hon. Friend mentioned the proposed free trade agreement between the EU and Colombia and how its so-called human rights clauses are likely to have no effect on the situation in Colombia or on the behaviour of what can only be classed as the abhorrent regime in Bogota. However, I would like to add a couple of points about the agreement that make it even more imperative that the British Government insist on delaying it.

The first point relates to the international situation and the United States. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) accused some of us of anti-Americanism, but I side with Americans such as Mark Twain, who said that he did not want to see the eagle of freedom sink its talons into any other country. There is a sizeable body of opinion in America that thinks differently from right-wing Republicans. As hon. Members and the Minister will be aware, the US Congress, backed by the President, has so far refused to ratify the country's free trade agreement with Colombia. The reasons that have been given for that are the human rights situation, the ongoing attack on trade unionists and others and the continuing impunity that the Colombian authorities have permitted. I understand from recent press reports that the US ambassador in Colombia announced last week that he thought there was little chance of the US-Colombia agreement going anywhere at this stage. Interestingly, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers are often portrayed as America's outriders, so I wonder how they feel about the present situation. On most occasions, we seem very pleased to follow in America's wake, but what are we doing now?

In addition, the Canadian Parliament has not ratified the proposed Canada-Colombia trade agreement, again after incredibly fierce debate about the human rights consequences. Similarly, the European Free Trade Association group of countries has delayed approval of its free trade agreement with Colombia, again on human rights grounds. For the European Union to press ahead with such an agreement would send entirely the wrong signal-that human rights are not so important to the European Community. It would also shatter the international consensus on the issue and provide President Uribe-one of the worst human rights abusers in the world-with an incredible domestic propaganda victory, which his regime, more than any other, does not deserve.

My other point on the free trade agreement is perhaps of more concern. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that informal discussions with the European Commission have revealed that suspending the proposed EU-Colombia free trade agreement on human rights grounds at some point in the future would
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require the unilateral agreement of all 27 EU member states, and senior Commission officials have privately admitted that there is no chance whatever of securing that unanimity. The Colombian regime presumably knows that-as has been said, it has an excellent intelligence agency domestically and internationally-and therefore has little interest in whether there are human rights clauses in the agreement, safe in the knowledge that they would never be enforced in any case. Therefore, the arguments that the Foreign Office has repeatedly put forward in recent months about including human rights clauses in the agreement are slightly disingenuous-I am being quite polite there. Colombia clearly does not respect human rights, and incorporating in the agreement clauses that will never be implemented will do nothing to change that.

My hon. Friend mentioned that Colombia benefits from a generalised system of preferences-plus trade arrangement with the EU. That mechanism specifically says that countries benefiting from the GSP must comply with several international human and labour rights standards. If they do not, it says that an investigation should immediately be opened into their conduct and that trade preferences should be suspended, as recently happened in the case of Sri Lanka and, before that, Belarus. Colombia complies with virtually none of its obligations under international treaties. Do not get me wrong, the Colombian Government swear that they comply with everything, but that is nothing more than spin in reality. They regularly breach International Labour Organisation core labour standards, and collective bargaining in the public sector, for example, is illegal under Colombian law. They also flout international human rights norms almost daily. Has the European Commission pushed for an investigation or a suspension? It has not. I wonder why. When such abuses so clearly continue, why on earth would it be sensible to upgrade Colombia's trade status?

When one looks at how the GSP human rights clauses have been so comprehensively ignored, it is beyond belief that the Foreign Office should continue to bleat on about how the human rights clauses in the proposed free trade agreement will make all the difference, give us leverage, force an improvement and all the other nonsensical arguments that we have heard. When I last met a Colombian trade unionist just before Christmas, she clearly told me how strange she and her colleagues felt about what was happening with the free trade agreement. They had always assumed that Europe was to the left of, or more progressive than, its counterparts in Washington. For us to push ahead with the agreement, while the United States has taken the position that it has on human rights, is an utter disgrace. It is stomach-churning that a Labour Government should provide this undeserved reward to a regime that murders more trade unionists than every other repressive regime in the world combined. I and other members of the glitterati will continue to raise this issue, because the fate of working people, whichever country they live in, is closely linked with our politics, and we will not give up on them.

Several hon. Members rose-

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I would like to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm. I call Jeff Ennis.

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3.18 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): It is always a great pleasure in such debates to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon), who is a new Labour colleague and friend. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on calling the debate. It is always a great privilege to support an hon. Member whose constituency's title is as long as mine.

In December 2009, I was fortunate to be a member of a delegation to Colombia sponsored by the Justice for Columbia campaign, and if hon. Members have a look at the Register of Members' Financial Interests, they will see my entry in that weighty tome. I want to make some general remarks about that visit, which was my first to Colombia. First, the country is very beautiful and has an excellent climate. Its regions are very fertile and it is very productive agriculturally. It is rich in mineral resources and the people are fantastically friendly to Europeans like us. The problem, currently, is that the people of Colombia are being badly let down by their national Government, whose performance has a negative impact on the country's standing in the world. The biggest problem is the infringement of Colombian people's human rights, particularly the number of extra-judicial killings that continue to take place, and particularly the killing of opposition politicians and trade unionists. As Amnesty International has said, Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist. For the past decade, more trade unionists have lost their lives in Colombia than in all the other countries of the world put together.

When we arrived in Bogota to go to the hotel in the city centre, one of the first things that I noticed was the number of people on motorcycles, and the fact that they all had reflective bibs and crash helmets with the registration number of the motorcycle. That is because of the number of drive-by shootings from motorcycles carried out in places such as Bogota. That is the sort of legislation that the Colombian Government have had to pass to try to protect as many ordinary people as possible. It is a sad indictment of the current state of affairs.

I want, having set the general scene, to turn the Minister's attention to two seriously worrying incidents that occurred while we were in Colombia. The first was something that we witnessed in a town called La Macarena, a tiny community in a remote rural region called Meta, which the delegation visited. My hon. Friend talked about the appalling phenomenon of extra-judicial executions, in which the Colombian army has murdered thousands of innocent civilians and then tried to deceive public opinion by claiming that they were guerrillas killed in combat. The people responsible for those crimes have gone unpunished, and I understand that the new commander of the Colombian army, who was allegedly appointed to clean things up, was previously the officer in charge of a region called Antioquia, where perhaps more extra-judicial executions have occurred than anywhere else. In addition to him, numerous other army officers who were behind those killings have been promoted. Virtually all remain on active duty, which is no doubt the reason why the murders continue.

In La Macarena we met local people and human rights activists from the region, who gave us details of case after case of innocent, mainly young, people simply
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disappearing. No one was investigating the cases, and those who dared to speak out about them were threatened and, in some cases, forced to flee the area. However, what shocked us the most was the cemetery in that small village, which could be better described as a mass grave. On the village outskirts, right next to the main military base in the region, was a cemetery with more than 1,000 unmarked graves. Each had a little cross with the letters "NN" on it, which in Colombia means an unidentified body, along with the date of burial. Nearly all had a date in either 2008 or 2009. There were just as many dated 2009 as there were dated 2008, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is no longer in his place, about progress being made by the Colombian Government. That is not what I witnessed at first hand in La Macarena.

Even more chillingly, there were four graves that had been dug ready for the next crew. I got the impression that they had been dug to order, ready for the next four extra-judicial killings. No one except the army knows who the people in those graves really are, and as access to the region is severely limited, and no autopsies or investigations are carried out, it is almost impossible for anyone else to identify the victims. To make things clear, those people are not included in the 2,000-odd cases of extra-judicial execution that are being investigated. Those dead people are completely unregistered. I strongly believe that the army in that region systematically murders people and buries them in the cemetery. The army admitted to killing them, but said that they were all guerrillas killed in combat- although there are not that many guerrillas within 100 miles of La Macarena because of the heavy military and police presence.

Something else that caused me concern was that when we met the officer in charge of the military establishment, Colonel Yunda, he explained to our group that he had been trained by the British Army. He even gave us the name of the sergeant-major in charge of the course he was on. We were all very disappointed and found it very hard to accept that a British soldier had trained that colonel for the Colombian army.

My first request to the Minister, therefore, is that he should arrange for our embassy in Bogota to take a serious look at what is happening in La Macarena. I have no idea whether all those bodies are still there. Some say that the Colombian army might try to remove them, now that it knows that the cat is out of the bag, but we have plenty of photographs as documentary evidence. Given the relationship of the Foreign Office with the regime in Bogota I feel sure that a strongly phrased request from our ambassador to the Colombian authorities to explain who the hundreds of dead people in La Macarena cemetery are, along with pressure to allow an independent investigation and proper autopsies, would have an effect on the Colombian Government. I ask the Minister to ensure that our embassy intervenes.

When we flew from La Macarena to Villavicencio we went to a civilian airport, and that was the only place where I saw direct evidence of harassment of local people. On that day flying around Colombia to the war zones, as it were, we were accompanied by two human rights activists, Edison Cuellar and Carolina Hoyos, who are very brave people and a credit to the people of Colombia. When we got to the civilian airport we were
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late for our next engagement, so we got on the minibus as quickly as we could. I was called later, as I was the only MP there, to go back into the airport, because the people there had detained Edison and Carolina. We had shown our passports and gone straight through, and the people on the gate had called two guards over-I guessed they were members of DAS-who began investigating and questioning them, asking them where they were from, their home addresses and so on. They were harassing them. After a while, when I went to find out who those people were, they gave us false passes. The dispute went on for a while and I said I would raise it with the ambassador. Eventually, those two guys, who were dressed in jeans and did not look like security men at all, produced passes showing that they were DAS security men. I know that if I had not been there Edison would have been in danger of taking a good beating. It reminded me to some extent of Grimethorpe in 1984 during the miners' strike.

My second request to the Minister relates to one of those activists who were in our company, Carolina Hoyos. She is an exceptionally brave young woman, and a human rights activist in Meta region. She helped to arrange our visit to La Macarena. Carolina has taken testimony from hundreds of victims of human rights abuses in the region and has been a great help to us. We were in awe of her commitment and bravery. However, just days after we left the region, when we got back to England, her home had been broken into. All the documents about the cases that she was investigating-cases clearly showing the complicity of the Colombian army in the abuses-were stolen. Other items of value were left. It was clearly a burglary to order. I do not think that it was a coincidence that her house was burgled after she had accompanied us on the visit. I am deeply concerned for Carolina's personal safety, and would therefore welcome a commitment from the Minister that he will look into her case, and that of her colleague Edison Cuellar, who also worked with us on our visit and is the vice-president of the regional human rights committee. It needs to be made crystal clear to the Colombian authorities that nothing should happen to either of them.

The UK's relationship with Colombia is extremely important to the Colombian Government. After all, the UK is the largest foreign investor in Colombia after the USA, with investments totalling more than $16 billion. We should be using our relationship with the Colombian Government to apply more pressure to eliminate human rights abuses.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin said that nothing positive comes from the Colombian Government. The number of kidnappings in Colombia has fallen drastically in the past few years. That should apply equally to the number of extra-judicial killings.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): I said that I hoped to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.30.

3.30 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate on an issue of undoubted importance.

Colombia is suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. It has the world's second largest number of internally displaced people-3 million to 4 million have fled their homes in the past two decades-and
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one of the highest murder rates in the world. Today we have heard from many hon. Members who have been to Colombia and witnessed at first hand the suffering of the people there, including poor peasant farmers, indigenous people, trade unionists, human rights activists and journalists. The list seems to go on and on. Although killings by gangsters are obviously a great cause for concern, there is something particularly chilling about state-sponsored executions and the repression of different political viewpoints. It is an affront to the foundations of a free democracy.

Behind the figures and statistics often heard in such debates are individual stories, particularly those of people whom Members have met, which often end up being the most poignant and powerful. I was moved by the story of Liliana Obando and am looking forward to hearing the Minister's response on her case. Equally, I was shocked by the practice of killing innocent civilians and dressing them up in guerrilla clothing in order to claim a bonus. The fact that that happens not occasionally but systematically is deeply shocking.

The Colombian Commission of Jurists shows that state agents are directly or indirectly responsible for three quarters of extra-judicial killings, political murders and forced disappearances. The Colombian Government's record has been pitiful. Last year, they made a show of arresting 42 current and former members of the army for such crimes, but 38 have been released pending trial, and now the deadline for prosecution has lapsed. As many Members have pointed out, even when the Colombian Government say the right thing, they all too often do the opposite.

The UK Government have changed their position on Colombia. They have cut off bilateral aid for de-mining and human rights training for the army but, bizarrely, continue to give military aid for counter-narcotics programmes. The Minister is shaking his head; I hope that that means that it is no longer happening. We should not be giving military aid and legitimacy to an army with such a poor human rights record. In addition, although I do not have time to go into detail, the many killings by right-wing paramilitary forces and by guerrilla groups, including FARC, have left many ordinary Colombians fearing for their lives.

President Uribe seems to be following the worrying trend in the region of trying to extend his term of office by changing the constitution, but that is ultimately an issue for Colombians to decide. Depending on the Constitutional Court's ruling, there might be a referendum in which they get to have their say, but in general terms, it is not a good trend for democracy. In a democracy, no one person is indispensable. Last month, the International Crisis Group highlighted the dangers for institutions in Colombia and the dominant Executive power if democratic checks and balances were undermined and the constitution were changed. It could have severe consequences for the human rights situation in Colombia.

I will be brief, because I want to ensure that the Minister has plenty of time to respond to the many points raised in this debate. I encourage him to touch particularly on human rights abuses by the Colombian army and the state itself. The Government have been strong in their condemnation of paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. I hope that condemnation of the Government and state actors will be equally strong in his remarks.

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There has also been an interesting debate on free trade agreements. Although discussions and negotiations should certainly continue, there is no strong case for renewing the agreement while the human rights issues remain unresolved. I welcome the Minister's comments on that and look forward to hearing him set out clearly and in full how he thinks the Government can bring pressure to bear on the Colombian Government to protect the human rights of everybody in that country.

3.35 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this important debate, which he introduced with evident commitment.

In the past decade, Colombia has made significant progress in reasserting Government control over much of its territory, combating drug trafficking and terrorist activities by illegally armed groups and reducing poverty. Since the development of Plan Colombia in 1999, the Colombian Government, with substantial support from the UK, the United States, Canada and others, have stepped up their counter-narcotics and security efforts.

Against that backdrop, the human rights situation is improving, but Colombia remains a country in transition. Although the country's security situation has vastly improved in the past decade, fighting between the armed forces and illegally armed groups continues to harm the country's citizens, especially its most vulnerable groups, the displaced, the indigenous population and Afro-Colombians.

Years of reforms and training, as well as key changes in leadership, are leading to welcome progress in increasing the armed forces' respect for and understanding of human rights. Practical examples include the army's new rules of engagement, which exist to ensure that international humanitarian law is followed in combat situations. However, revelations of extra-judicial killings in Soacha and a preliminary report by the UN special rapporteur for extra-judicial killings indicate that far-reaching reforms have not fully taken hold.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is being as generous as ever. The British Government support a European free trade agreement with Colombia, with the justification that human rights in the country will be closely monitored. Given that the budget for investigating forced disappearances was only £13,000 last year and the budget for identifying the victims of forced disappearances was £39,000, would it not be wise for the Minister to commit to considering that budget in order to ensure that there is a body of evidence to test the justification for the treaty?

Mr. Francois: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may want to have a repeat bite at the Minister himself if time allows, but he has put the question to me as insurance. I will not speak for the Minister-I will allow him to respond in his own way-but having sufficient resources to investigate such matters is probably important. However, I will leave him to give his own definitive answer.

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