Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate at a really important time. I do not think that I can emulate his Spanish accent, but his speech really was excellent.
I should say that I visited Colombia last month alongside Justice for Colombia, which paid for my visit—I, too, am waiting for final details to update my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is good to see the Minister for Europe and the Americas in his place today. I thank him again for meeting me just before the summer recess and for his offer last week of a further meeting following my visit to Colombia.
As we have heard today, Colombia is a country of contrasts. It is the most beautiful of countries, but it is also a country scarred by decades of civil war, during which hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared, murdered or tortured, including—in fact, predominantly—trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders, and Colombia still is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.
That is why the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 was such a moment of hope for Colombia, for those of us in Westminster Hall today and indeed for everyone around the world who has a specific interest in the country. It was an agreement to end the armed conflict through a ceasefire, with disarmament by the FARC; a new special jurisdiction, courts and a truth commissioner; political participation by the FARC as a legal political party with seats in the Congress and the House of Representatives; land reform, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda talked about; and the substitution of illegal crops with legal ones, with time-limited subsidies to peasant farmers. Overseeing all of that would be a United Nations verification mission.
Nearly two years on from the signing of that historic agreement, and nine years after I first went to Colombia, I went back there last month with colleagues from Parliament, trade union leaders, lawyers and one of the Northern Ireland human rights commissioners, as part of JFC’s peace monitoring delegation. I know the Minister is very aware of the work of JFC, and I place on the record today my admiration for the incredible work it has done since it was set up by the trade union movement in 2002.
JFC has supported Colombian civil society in defence of human rights, labour rights, peace and social justice. Over the last few years, it has seen the involvement of the Irish trade union movement and politicians from the entirety of the island of Ireland. Those politicians have shared their experiences of the Good Friday agreement, including how they negotiated that agreement and dealt with its implementation, which has been of considerable benefit to the Colombian Government and the FARC as they learn how to construct and deliver a peace agreement.
When I first went to Colombia, I was a trade union lawyer, and I was struck by the fact that doing that job in Colombia would have put my life at risk; even now, as an Opposition MP, I would probably still be in the same situation. The people I met in Colombia in 2009 sparked my long-standing interest in the country, which is why I was really desperate to return this year. In particular, I wanted to see how the peace agreement is progressing.
I arrived in Bogotá the day after President Duque was inaugurated. He ran his election campaign on a promise to dismantle parts of the peace agreement. I hope that that promise will not be seen through by his Government—I suspect he will have more problems delivering that dismantling element of his manifesto than he originally thought. The agreement is fragile, and the progress of its implementation is slow—based on what I saw in my time-limited visit, I am sorry to say that some of it is non-existent.
In addition to meeting members of all the opposition parties, the UN, diplomats and trade union leaders in Bogotá, our delegation travelled to meet people in rural regions in the north and the north-east of the country, on the border with Venezuela. In the oil-rich region of Arauca, we visited one of the 26 zones in which former FARC combatants and their families are being reintegrated into civil society. In Colombia they call it “reincorporation”.
On the journey we took from Bogotá to Filipinas, we went on a plane—not as little as the one that the hon. Member for Rhondda went on—and then on a bus. What we saw during that journey, and what we heard and saw when we got there, was a clear demonstration of how what was promised and agreed in the peace agreement had not materialised, because of the failure to provide the basic resources necessary for reincorporation to succeed.
One reaches Filipinas by a dirt and rubble track that is strewn with huge craters and that becomes impassable in the frequent heavy rain. It took us five hours to travel 70 miles. People in Filipinas cannot access education, and some have died trying to get out of what is essentially a camp to get medical treatment. The small amounts of fresh produce that people can grow simply will not survive the journey along the track from the camp to the nearest town—by the time it gets there, the crop is destroyed.
One former FARC combatant explained to me that they managed to build some homes, but that, because of the rain, the homes flood. So they have water pouring in from the roofs of their homes, but they do not have any water in the toilets, because there is no mains water.
The lack of access to education and the inability to make a living not only make life very difficult but create an area of criminality, which is the only option for some people because they cannot survive through legal means.
The camp in Filipinas was only partially constructed. People there explained to me that they have the skills to build and complete the houses and infrastructure, but that because of the bureaucracy involved in getting the funds from central Government to local authorities and approved contractors to carry out the work, and because of the endemic corruption in Colombia, very little of the funding gets through. That is why infrastructure is not getting built. Will the Minister consider discussing with his colleagues in the Department for International Development whether the UK Government could provide specific funding or assistance that could be ring-fenced to target things such as building a 70-mile road that would make a transformational difference to communities?
Likewise in Tibú, just 12 km from the Venezuelan border, I met many campesinos—peasant farmers—and social leaders. We repeatedly heard evidence about how the voluntary crop substitution programme is not working. Many families have signed up for the programme, but, again, the funds are not coming through and the implementation of productive projects is not happening. I met the head of the chocolate farmers’ co-operative, who said that hundreds of families had signed up to the crop substitution programme because there is huge internal demand for chocolate in Colombia—I have tasted it, and it is the most fantastic chocolate. Never mind the internal demand, they want to be able to export that fantastic product and grow the industry, but they cannot do that because of the lack of implementation of the agreement.
In both the rural regions I went to, the challenges created by the arrival of people fleeing from Venezuela, which has already been touched on, are a huge concern. I travelled through Cúcuta, the main entry point into Colombia from Venezuela, which more than a million people have passed through, either staying in Colombia or moving on to other Latin American countries. Many of those people are second-generation Colombians who fled Colombia because of the dangers to them, but who are now returning as economic refugees from Venezuela. People in Arauca said to me, “We want to welcome them back. We want to help them. We have shared our food with them, but we have no money. We have so little food, we can barely feed all the people in our zone, never mind helping those who are arriving.” That naturally creates tensions, so I am really concerned. Of all the problems Colombia has had, and still has, in implementing the peace agreement, the problem with Venezuela and the arrival of more than a million people is the one that could, on its own, scupper it.
Colleagues have already talked about the murders, and I will not repeat what has been said, but I want to make the point that, there was a real spike in assassinations during the two-stage presidential elections. In the first month of President Duque’s Administration, 33 social leaders have been murdered, and more than 80 FARC members or family members have been killed since the start of the peace process. After a peace agreement, there is always a really dangerous period initially and an expectation that there will be problems, but the situation is tragic, and we really need to help Colombia all we can to prevent such problems.
I have mentioned the dissident guerrilla groups moving into previously FARC-controlled zones, where there is, effectively, no policing. The army cannot operate there, so there is no protection for the people who live there. During my visit I asked the police, the army and the UN about the numbers of prosecutions and convictions that have taken place since 2016, based on the hundreds of murders. I was not told about a single conviction since that date. The Minister is aware of the long-standing problems created by the culture of impunity in Colombia. I hope he will address in his response what steps the Government are taking to impress on the Colombian Government, and particularly the Fiscalía, that impunity must stop if there is to be any chance of the agreement succeeding.
I want to turn now to one of the most important elements of the peace agreement: political participation. As part of the agreement, the FARC has 10 seats in Congress for the two electoral periods starting this year. When Congress opened in July, only eight of the 10 Congress men and women-elect were able to take up their positions. Two of them, Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, could not. Jesus Santrich has received his official accreditation as a member of Congress, but has been unable to take up his seat, because he has been held in prison since April under threat of extradition to the United States. Ivan Marquez, who was the head negotiator for the FARC during the peace talks, left Bogotá in the aftermath of Santrich’s arrest because of his concerns about the lack of guarantees that he will not be subjected to political and legal persecution.
On 17 August, I visited Jesus Santrich in his maximum security prison, La Picota, in Bogotá. After a couple of hours going through the various checks, fingerprinting and questions, we arrived in a wing in a very large, noisy prison, where he is kept in isolation. He has a small cell with a bed, a light, a toilet and nothing else. He is a former FARC leader who was involved in the drafting and negotiation of the peace agreement with the Colombian Government negotiators. He is the subject of a US extradition threat based on an allegation that he conspired to smuggle 10 tonnes of cocaine out of Colombia on an aeroplane. He categorically denies the allegation.
Jesus is blind. He suffers from a degenerative eye condition that has become so severe that his sight is almost non-existent. He has other major health problems. No evidence has been presented to him, his lawyers or any court in Colombia to back up the allegation. He is essentially in administrative detention, prevented by the Colombian Attorney General from swearing in as a member of Congress, despite a constitutional right to do so.
Jesus has been denied any equipment to help him cope with his disability in prison—no Braille pen, no audiobooks, no voice recorder. He cannot have anyone read to him. He cannot have a radio or a television, unlike all the other prisoners, who can also have a visitor on a Wednesday to bring them some food. He is not allowed any contact with other prisoners. He has been on a 41-day hunger strike to protest against his treatment. He is very frail, still losing weight and obviously showing the strains of nearly five months’ incarceration. Previously he had been locked in his cell for 24 hours a day. Shortly before we visited, that regime was changed to allow him out for one hour every 24 hours.
Jesus is entitled to have his case considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, known as the JEP, established under the agreement. On the day I was there, he had been told that there had been a decision by the constitutional court that the JEP must be allowed to review any evidence against him. However, there are widespread concerns, which have already been alluded to, about the court’s ability to operate free from Government interference. It is worrying that one of Jesus Santrich’s lawyers for the transitional justice process, Enrique Santiago, has on two occasions been denied entry to the prison to speak to him. Enrique hopes to visit him on 17 September, and I shall follow that up to ensure that due process, and Jesus’s fundamental right to access to his lawyer, are respected.