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To their credit, the Colombian Government have responded firmly to the revelations of extra-judicial killings by issuing a zero-tolerance policy for abuses
and implementing reforms to prevent similar crimes in future. The prosecutor general's office continues to investigate more than 75 members of the armed forces linked to the killings. The Government still have much to do, but those are signs that they recognise the severity of the problem and are working to address it. None the less, according to Human Rights Watch's annual world report published in January 2009, hundreds more cases of extra-judicial killing and other human rights abuses await resolution. Non-governmental organisations have criticised the impunity resulting from the backlog of cases, and some worry that the departure of prosecutor general Mario Iguaran on 31 July 2009 will cause further delays. In 2008, the Colombian Government increased the office's budget and personnel levels, which was a step in the right direction and an indicator of the Government's commitment to ending impunity, but more trained investigators and prosecutors are needed to address the office's overwhelming case loads.
Despite the challenges that the prosecutor general's office faces, it has made several important advances in human rights cases during the past two years, including arresting four retired generals for collusion with paramilitary forces and reopening the case against retired general Rito Alejo del Rio for his alleged crimes during Operation Genesis.
It is crucial that the United Kingdom Government do all they can to help Colombia during the next few years. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has spoken to both British and Colombian officials, who expressed their disappointment at the Government's decision on 30 March 2009 to end bilateral human rights projects with the Colombian Ministry of National Defence, even though the United States and Canada have increased financial commitments to such projects.
Will the Minister say why that decision was taken at such a crucial time for the evolution of human rights in Colombia and will he confirm that the decision was not linked in any way to cost-cutting measures in the Foreign Office? In addition, will the Minister explain how the budget shortfall currently affecting his Department is impacting on funding for Colombian programmes? While the Foreign Office is under so much financial pressure, it is important that the Government finally shed light on how much they are spending on counter-narcotics programmes. That issue links indirectly to human rights abuses across Colombia.
I have no doubt the Minister will explain that the Government are unable to publish what resources are used in counter-narcotic operations because of security concerns. However, the United States, which runs extensive counter-narcotic operations in Colombia, diligently lists every dollar spent on such operations for the public to see. The Department of State's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs annually publishes extensive information on not only how much money is spent, but details of the programmes in place and analysis of their success over the past 12 months. Of course, there is a need to protect national interests and individual personnel, but the secrecy with which the Government surround their counter-narcotics programmes leads only to unfounded suspicions and, in some cases, conspiracy theories. Will the Minister let us know which
body monitors how much money the UK Government spend on counter-narcotic operations in Colombia and who is responsible for assessing the effectiveness of the programmes?
Despite the difficult fiscal reality in which we find ourselves, I urge the Government to continue to take the issue of human rights seriously and to support the Colombian Government in their reforms. In the past, Colombia has struggled to exist as a democratic nation against an utterly ruthless, well-organised, drug-financed terrorist group. I ask hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon-some with considerable passion-to acknowledge the reality that the country has faced.
Investment in and trade with Colombia can help the country to overcome those challenges. A free trade agreement would be an effective mechanism whereby Colombia could use the resulting economic opportunities to boost social conditions. That would ultimately lead to better respect for human rights and reaffirm Colombia as a strategic partner for the UK in Latin America. UK investment in Colombia is substantial-more than $16 billion a year-and it is surely in both countries' interests to build on the trade links that already exist.
However, having said that, it is undoubtedly true that real issues remain around the persecution of trade unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia. A human rights clause in any free trade agreement with the EU that would enable suspension of the agreement if it is breached would act as an incentive to have frank and constructive dialogue. The promises and good will expressed by the Colombian Government have not always been translated into practical effect and improved human rights at a grass-roots level, but sometimes they have. I hope that the Minister will continue to give those issues a high priority in the formulation of Government policy.
Many points have been made and I have been urged by a number of hon. Members to give the Minister as much time as possible to reply. I know that Back Benchers will want to press the Minister in interventions, so partly out of deference to them, I will conclude and give the Minister 16 minutes to speak in response.
The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): It is a delight to sit under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. This subject is one of the key issues the UK faces in our relations with Latin America and the European Union. As he may know, there was a very interesting debate on the subject in the European Parliament on Monday. I know that many hon. Members follow these matters keenly, as do many of our constituents. Many hon. Members write to me on the issues that their constituents have raised, and we watch the topic very closely.
"When war is declared, truth is the first casualty."
In the ongoing war there has been in Colombia between different groups-paramilitary and military, and different drug lords-it has been difficult to see the truth. Although the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) spoke with his customary intelligence, his version of
events was rather different from the version of events that I have. He has a rather over-optimistic interpretation of the situation in Colombia.
Mr. Watson: When truth is tested, we need to adhere to our virtues. I have a simple request for the Minister: will he comment on the activities of the former British ambassador to Colombia, Sir Tom Duggin? I understand that after leaving the embassy in Bogota, he took control of the Colombian operations of the mercenary company Global Risk Strategies, which is now known as the Global Strategies Group. That firm was established by Damian Perl, a former marine, and Charlie Andrews, a former Scots Guard officer. It has operations in Afghanistan and is one of the largest mercenary companies operating in Iraq. The company has been mired in controversy, and many of its staff members-ex-Fijians and ex-Gurkhas-have been killed in action. Will the Minister comment on the appropriateness of our former ambassador taking up such a role in such a controversial country?
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I understand that Sir Tom Duggin has not worked for the company to which he refers for a couple of years. It is obviously difficult for me to comment on his work for that company when he is a former civil servant. I am not aware of any direct conflict between Sir Tom Duggin's former responsibilities and the work he has done, but if my hon. Friend has specific allegations he would like to make, I hope that he will put them in writing to me, so I can look into them.
Chris Bryant: I do not know the specifics of the matter or of the work in which Sir Tom Duggin has been engaged-I have never met the man-but if my hon. Friend says he is not making an allegation, I suppose that there is nothing I can investigate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North spoke with passion. Whether he is a member of the glitterati of the left-a rather weird phrase that was used this afternoon-I do not know. I have spoken to others who went on the trip to Colombia and know that the visit was an eye-opener for many of those who went. I will come on to some of the specific issues that he raised in a moment. The hon. Member for The Wrekin suggested one of the more bizarre things I have heard today: that FARC and al-Qaeda are somehow linked. That is the first time that I have ever heard such an allegation, which seems bizarre in the extreme.
It is interesting to note that the work we do on counter-narcotics with the Colombian Government is very similar to the work we do with the Venezuelan Government on counter-narcotics. Both of those countries fully acknowledge the problem that they have. We have to acknowledge that the consumers of cocaine in this country are part of the problem that leads to the human rights abuses across the Andean countries-in Peru increasingly, in Colombia, in Ecuador and, of course, in Venezuela. In Venezuela, the issue is largely to do with the trade-the passage-through the country, which often goes on to Africa. I am glad to say that we work
closely with not only the Venezuelan Government but the Spanish Government to try to prevent that trade. The hon. Member for The Wrekin has a rather exaggerated understanding of what a free trade agreement can or cannot achieve.
I also say to the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) that, although I want to see a free trade agreement with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, I do not believe that it should be any free trade agreement. The point being made today is this: if we are convinced that the current human rights abuses are such that we might want to cease the free trade agreement, why on earth would we want to sign up to a free trade agreement that we could not be certain we would be able to suspend? I have said regularly to my Colombian counterpart, and to President Uribe for that matter, that they will have to do significantly more work before the whole of Europe will feel able to subscribe to a free trade agreement. I also believe that it would be wrong for us to close the door on negotiations on a free trade agreement, because that would simply be like saying to Colombia, "Don't bother engaging with Europe on those issues and carry on exactly as you are doing."
I think that we should be pushing hard on the issue of human rights with Colombia to ensure that all the issues are dealt with so that we can then sign a free trade agreement, and that is the track that we have been encouraging the Spanish Government to go down during their six-month presidency of the EU. It cannot be just any free trade agreement. One specific issue on which we have held firm is the question of whether a suspension, if we wanted to suspend, would come in immediately when we think that there are significant human rights abuses, or after a 15-day delay. We think that it should be immediate, and I have made that point firmly to the Colombian ambassador to the UK.
Colin Burgon: On that point, would the Minister clarify whether unanimity across all member states would be required to trigger that suspension? If that is the case, does he not think that it would be virtually impossible to achieve?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unanimity would be required to sign up to the agreement and to suspend it. I am less pessimistic than he is about the possibility of securing a suspension if one was wanted, because that is precisely what we have done in the case of Sri Lanka, on which it has not been all that difficult to secure unanimity.
There are some key challenges in Colombia in relation to human rights. The first, which has barely been touched on today, is the problem of poverty. Many millions of Colombians live in abject poverty and have no opportunity to make a decent living or feed themselves properly. That is one of the key issues the Uribe Government have said they are intent on tackling. It is true that they have made some progress on poverty, as have many other countries in Latin America, but we want to see much further progress, not least because the roots that the drugs trade is able to press down into Colombian society depend on the endemic poverty across the country.
The second key human rights challenge, as many hon. Members have mentioned, is the number of murders. Colombian statistics might indicate a fall from 28,000 murders in one year to 16,000 in another,
but that is still 16,000, a very large number of murders. That is accompanied by complete impunity. We have heard today of the number of cases in which there is no investigation, let alone the cases in which there is some investigation that takes a long time. Clearly, where there is no justice, there is a significant human rights abuse. Therefore, I want to see all the murders tackled, whether they are extra-judicial killings or those that result from the general level of violence in the population.
The third key human rights challenge, as hon. Members have mentioned, relates to trade unions, and I raise that point as a trade union member myself. The number of trade unionists, and other human rights defenders for that matter, who are murdered in Colombia is still far too high. We could have an exchange about whether that number is 49, 39, 17 or nine, but the fact is that trade unionists are being killed because they are trade unionists, and that must stop. We must make that absolutely clear, as I have done regularly.
Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The case of Liliana Obando has already been raised with the Minister this afternoon. As he is aware, a large number of trade unionists have been, and are being, held in custody in Colombia. Will he make representations to the Colombian authorities about that woman?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have already made representations about Liliana Obando. We first did that on 27 April 2009 when we sent two letters from the British embassy: one to Carlos Franco, director of Human Rights First and director of the presidential programme for international humanitarian law; and the other to the director of international affairs from the prosecutor general's office. On 25 June we received information from the prosecutor general's office. The Colombian Foreign Secretary is in London tonight and tomorrow for the conference on Afghanistan. I shall be seeing him this evening, and I will raise that case specifically with him. It is not something we will let go over the days to come.
When I visited Colombia before Christmas, I raised with all the people I met, including President Uribe, the need for Colombia to seize the issue of human rights abuses. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how in the end it can be the closest partner with the EU, which we would really like to see. Furthermore, a couple of weeks ago the Colombian Deputy Foreign Minister, Adriana Mejia, was here in London. I raised a series of human rights issues with her then, and I intend to write to her about the case that my hon. Friend has just raised.
I mentioned earlier the issue of impunity, which is still one of the biggest problems. In many parts of Latin America the prison systems are simply unable to cope and the criminal justice systems are unable to deal with
cases fast enough. Therefore, the perpetrators of extra-judicial killings, whether paramilitaries, members of the military or whoever they are, simply go by without any justice at all. We would not accept that in this country, and we should not accept it for the people of Colombia either. That is why we work particularly hard to try to tackle the issues of corruption that exist in the criminal justice system in Colombia.
Mr. Watson: I know that my hon. Friend is doing his best to move the agenda on, but with regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) about the use of technology by DAS to identify potential human rights activists, would he commit to investigating whether it is British technology that is used and report back to the House on that, given that we are moving into an era of struggle for information freedom, as Hillary Clinton says?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend might not be a member of the glitterati of the left, but he is certainly a member of the glitterati of the blogosphere, so he is much more technically competent than I am. I am happy to look into that matter, but I am slightly hesitant about what I might be able to say in public, because traditionally, as I think all hon. Members accept, we do not want to talk publicly about the specifics of our counter-intelligence work. As a former Minister in the Ministry of Defence, he will understand that.
Another problem, which I have raised with the deputy Minister for human rights in Colombia, relates to the law on rebellion, or rebeldía. Intrinsically, at face value, that certainly does not seem like a law that respects human rights. One might think that it allows someone to rebel-I see several hon. Members on whom the Whips might have more of an effect if we had a law on rebellion in the UK. The serious point is that it is absolutely clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) said, that Colombia needs to do considerably more to abide by conventions of the International Labour Organisation and the UN. Recent reporting and monitoring of changes in the law suggest that it is moving in the right direction on those issues. Consequently, I am keen to encourage the Colombian authorities to move further.
We have touched on the issue of the drugs trade, and undoubtedly that is one of the single biggest causes of death, violence, criminality and corruption within the whole of Colombian society. It is one area where I think we British have a shared responsibility with Colombia. That is why we do not provide military aid to the country. We have stopped providing human rights training to the military because we do not want to provide aid to the military. Instead, we try to tackle the drugs trade.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): This debate relates to the information given to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs by those exporting goods from Israel and Israeli settlements to the United Kingdom and the effectiveness or, as I shall demonstrate, the ineffectiveness of HMRC checks in preventing fraud.
Under the EU-Israel trade agreement, produce from Israel enters the UK and other EU member states under a preferential agreement that exempts it from import duties. The agreement only applies to Israeli territory that is within its internationally recognised borders, and that has recently been reaffirmed in a legal ruling from the European Court of Justice.
The Israeli authorities have long had a cavalier attitude to compliance with the agreement. In 1997, for example, in another Adjournment debate, I drew attention to the then practice of Israeli authorities of importing Brazilian orange juice, re-labelling it "Made in Israel" and re-exporting it under preference to the European Union. Israel has also unilaterally interpreted the agreement as applying not just to Israel but to the numerous settlements in East Jerusalem and the west bank, even though they are illegal under international law. Settlement produce has been routinely labelled "Made in Israel" and thereby exemption has been claimed from import duty. Not only is that defrauding the EU taxpayer by avoiding legitimate import duty, but it sets a dangerous precedent that could allow other countries unilaterally to reinterpret their agreements with the EU.
As a result of the abuse, in February 2005 the EU introduced a technical arrangement requiring all goods from Israel to be marked with their place of origin and postcode, supposedly so that individual customs authorities could identify settlement goods and prevent the fraudulent obtaining of exemption from import duty. However, it is clear that these checks are not working and that goods from settlements are still being misrepresented as originating in Israel.
An indication of the likely scale of abuse can be estimated from the total duty raised on settlement goods in 2009, which was just under £22,000, compared with demands for duty in 2005-08 that averaged £110,000 per annum, which is five times the level raised in 2009 and suggests that at least 80 per cent. of settlement goods are imported without duty being paid on them. The information and powers available to HMRC are so weak that the controls are unenforceable and the European Commission oversight is ineffective.
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