House of Lords Debate on Colombia and the Democratic Clause in the FTA

On 12 July 2021, a Colombia human rights question was asked by Lord Browne of Ladyton in the House of Lords, sparking off a debate. You can listen to the debate here.

Lord Brown asked Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made as to whether the reported killings of civilian protestors in Colombia has put the government of that country in breach of its commitments to respect human rights and democratic principles, as set out in the UK–Andean Countries Trade Agreement of 15 May 2019.

Lord Ahmad (for the Government of the UK responded): My Lords, the United Kingdom remains concerned about reports of human rights violations in Colombia and we have raised our concerns with the relevant state actors since the protests began. We welcome the Colombian Government’s commitment to transparent investigations into allegations of excessive force and to take appropriate action against those responsible. The British Government attach real importance to the principles underpinning the UK-Andean Countries Trade Agreement and expect our partners to do the same.

Lord Browne: I thank the Minister for his reply. The UK’s 2019 continuity trade agreement with Colombia commits the UK Government to respect human rights and democratic principles. The violence towards and killings of civilian protesters committed by the Colombian security forces were not only totally unacceptable but in violation of that trade agreement. On 17 January, the Foreign Secretary told “The Andrew Marr Show” that

“we shouldn’t be engaged in free-trade negotiations with countries abusing human rights”.

What, if anything, will the Government do to hold the Colombian Government to their trade agreement commitments, if their investigations show what is obvious to everyone?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that we hold countries to their human rights commitments. The actual trade agreement is, of course, yet to be ratified by Colombia. Nevertheless, through the direct engagement of both our embassy and my colleague, Minister Morton, who is responsible for our relations with Colombia, we have spoken directly with the Colombian authorities, which are now pursuing a full range of investigations into alleged misconduct by the police. We welcome those steps that are being taken to strengthen justice and accountability.

Baroness Sanderson of Welton (Con) My Lords, it is not just the reported killings that are cause for such concern but the return of another familiar tactic from Colombia’s long civil conflict: disappearances. Human rights groups say that they have recorded up to 700 cases in recent months. What representations have the UK Government made to the Colombian authorities about this aspect of the protests?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to focus specifically on the concerns that she has highlighted. We have made representations through ministerial engagement and regularly do so through our embassy on the ground. We continue to support transitional justice within Colombia as a key part of our work.

Baroness Coussins (CB) My Lords, does the Minister agree that the FTA was breached when the Colombian police targeted clearly identified journalists and human rights defenders in the recent protests, seriously injuring many of them in an attempt to prevent them from reporting? What, if any, specific representations has the UK made to the Colombian Government about this, especially as we recently co-hosted the Global Conference for Media Freedom?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. We have prioritised media freedom in our work globally and I can assure her that we have raised a broad range of human rights abuses and concerns arising particularly from the recent protests. In this regard, we welcome the concerted attempt to look into investigations and hold to account those who have committed these crimes.

Baroness Goudie (Lab) My Lords, it is concerning to learn that 83 people recently suffered gender-based violence during a social protest in Colombia. One young woman who was arbitrarily detained was only 17 and was allegedly raped by the police. She committed suicide as a result. As the UK has taken the global lead on prevention of conflict related to sexual violence, what representation is it making to the Colombian Government on the alleged sexual assault?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, I will certainly follow up on the noble Baroness’s specific case and ensure that an appropriate representation is made in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence, particularly in conflict—that means building post conflict, as well. This is a key priority for our Government

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab) My Lords, on a number of occasions, most recently in May, I have raised with the Minister the question of Britain’s training programme with the Colombian police. We have heard from the reports of the demonstrations about violence committed by the police, involving between 26 and 44 deaths and, as my noble friend said, sexual assault. Can the noble Lord explain exactly what measures we are taking to ensure that the Colombian security forces are held to account for their human rights abuses?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that he has raised this issue. We continue to ensure that our training of overseas law enforcement officers is fully supported by reviewing all training initiatives and ensuring that human rights are at the forefront of direct engagement. The 220 investigations that I have alluded to are specifically into misconduct by the police. These cases are now open and we are monitoring and following their progress.

Lord Berkeley of Knighton (CB) My Lords, anyone who has travelled in Colombia knows that it is both one of the most beautiful and one of the most violent places on earth. Agencies such as Human Rights Watch have identified the lack of separation between the police and the military as contributing to the use of force and live ammunition to control protesters. Does the Minister agree that one way we might attempt to use any influence that we have would be to push for greater separation between these agencies?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord and will take that forward. I agree with the premise that we need to see a clear demarcation in the responsibilities of the police.

Baroness Blower (Lab) My Lords, I refer to my interests as recorded in the register. A recent ruling from the transitional justice court named 10 Colombian army officers as responsible for murdering 120 civilians and disappearing 24 in 2007-08. These cases relate to the so-called “false positives”: the Colombian state stands accused of killing close to 6,500 civilians, dressing them as guerrillas, during the Uribe presidency. Given the hostility to the transitional justice court from certain quarters in Colombia, can the Minister repeat Britain’s support for this institution and welcome the positive engagement of former FARC commanders, who have recognised their role in crimes during the armed conflict?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, I am happy to confirm the Colombian Government’s long-standing commitment to assist former guerrilla fighters in their transition to civilian life following the peace agreement. We remain committed to this and since 2015 have given over £63 million of support directly to Colombia through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Con) Can the Minister comment on whether the Government joined in the condemnation by the United Nations of the violent repression by the police of protests in Colombia in May, which left at least 18 people dead and 87 missing? What other steps are being considered?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, I confirm to my noble friend that we have made representations through discussions at the United Nations. As I said, we continue to make representations through my colleague, Minister Morton, and our ambassador to Colombia.

Lord Bhatia (Non-Afl) My Lords, if reports of the killings are correct, should we not cancel the trade agreement?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con) My Lords, as the noble Lord may recollect, the trade agreement has specific articles contained within it, Articles 1 and 8, which ensure that human rights are upheld. We will continue, because Colombia is yet to ratify the trade agreement, to uphold that aspect of it. Equally, as we lend support to Colombia, it is important that we ensure improved trade and prosperity for all Colombians.