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The noble Viscount said: My Lords, let there be no misunderstanding, the internal political and security situation in Colombia has the potential to escalate in its enormity and tragic viciousness, placing it alongside the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, Kashmir and Afghanistan. The issues are complex, easily misunderstood and often misrepresented with the power of the state being undermined, a weakening of the rule of law, a threat to democracy and civil rights impinged upon as a consequence.
This evening I will offer an overview on matters relating to security, guerrilla activities, narco-terrorism, drugs and human rights, all of which are interlinked, and finally comment on how the integrity of one of Britain's largest and most successful companies, British Petroleum, is being called to account. I have a close association with Colombia and wish to see misunderstandings reversed.
For background, Colombia endured between the years 1948 and 1964 a bloody civil war between liberals and conservatives which left an estimated 300,000 dead. The war displaced peasants to the cities, concentrated rural property in fewer hands, increased impunity, escalated delinquency and weakened the power of the state.
The war finished thanks to a political pact which alternated public office for 16 years between the two traditional parties. The political consequence was that opposition to the Government diminished and "clientism" increased as a way to bestow favours from the state and ensure support from the popular classes. The result was that from 1965 incipient insurgency against the government and regional elite increased and has caused a continual war since. The state is in many cases unable to extend benefits and authority into the rural areas, where the outlaws are fighting a war, not for political power, but for control of the land.
Colombia is undergoing terror and counter-terror. The increase in insurgency provokes an increase in counter-insurgency, each cycle involving a wider and wider net of social classes and groups, both to the detriment of society and the state.
In the first instance the conflict was ideological. Now, however, economic and political means are being used to obtain armed domination, territorial control and with it the displacement of people--some reports suggest 1 million in the past decade.
Terrorism in Colombia is a complicated phenomenon. The difficulties facing the country can be divided into three broad categories: guerrillas, narcotic traffickers and paramilitaries. The guerrillas have developed a system of extorting money from landowners and businessmen which relies on the assassination or kidnapping of those who do not pay. Of 1,496 reported kidnappings in 1996 over 40 per cent. were the work of guerrillas and the rest of general delinquency.
Apart from exerting influence locally, they ambush and assassinate police and soldiers, force civil servants to divert public funds, and attack the oil and electricity industries to extort money. They also attack villages and rob businesses and banks, netting the guerrillas an estimated annual income of up to $620 million; and in
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are the most powerful guerrilla organisation, credited with having 70--some say up to 100--fronts and approximately 8,000 to 10,000 men under arms, with three times as many militants. They attack government installations, are responsible for protecting the narcotics trade and maintain a high level of kidnapping. They operate close to the main cities and in rural areas throughout the country, are well armed, well trained and have good resources which reportedly include light aircraft and helicopters. They are very strong and are rarely put under pressure by the security forces.
Regretfully, FARC has gained political legitimacy as a well equipped, belligerent force in the eyes of some national and international observers, with human rights abuses and narco-trafficking down-played by sympathetic media observers.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) is the next most organised group, with approximately 10 urban and 20 rural fronts. It is most noted for attacking infrastructure, especially that involving foreign companies, has some contact with the narcotics trade and actively kidnaps. It is strong but susceptible to concentrated military pressure.
The weakest of the three established groups is the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and dissident factions of M19. But all groups, and particularly FARC and ELN, sporadically join forces and work together under the banner of the Co-ordinating National Guerrilla (CNG) movement.
International narco-trafficking has the ideal conditions to prosper in Colombia with its chronic insurgency and weakened government. However, the two major cartels have been effectively dismantled by the country's successful and ongoing series of operations. Some of the trade has moved overseas, but many refining and transport operations continue and have diversified to include heroin as well as cocaine. They have an increasing level of protection and involvement from the guerrillas, particularly FARC, and it is this aspect that what is already a highly debilitating national problem is developing into an even more serious situation.
Thus far all the groups are in conflict with the government and the law of the country. That does not wholly apply to the paramilitaries, whose origins lie in rural self-defence organisations, created by landowners and cattle ranchers who armed themselves in order to protect their communities, something the armed forces could not guarantee. Almost predictably, it took little time for them to become dissatisfied with pure defence and they now take the fight to what they see as the common enemy of the government and themselves, the guerrillas. They will attack anyone who they believe is assisting their enemy, including businesses forced to make extortion payments, the families of kidnap victims paying ransoms and communities sympathetic to the guerrillas. Justice is arbitrary. By kidnapping the families of guerrillas and forcing an exchange of
It is against that backdrop that I now wish to say a word about British Petroleum's presence in Colombia. BP, like other companies, extracts oil in isolated regions where the guerrillas and paramilitaries are active. The exploitation of oil deposits causes social imbalances and attracts migrants looking for work, creating local inflationary pressures.
BP's operations have been called to account by a British Member of the European Parliament and in a series of "World in Action" television programmes in which the company was accused of direct violations of human rights and association with death squads in Casanare.
I have now visited the oil region twice and spoken in depth to BP on all related issues. Far more importantly, I have met separately with a wide range of local NGOs, community representatives and elected officials. It was their view--and they should know the true position--that the allegations against BP were without foundation. They would be dismayed if BP were to pull out through unwarranted pressure; it would be seen as a defeat for Colombia as well as for Britain. They recognise the reality that the enormous wealth that BP and its partners are generating can, if used wisely, contribute significantly to Colombia's economic development and search for social stability.
It must be understood that terrorists have the means for distorting facts by maligning the state by posing as victims, exploiting ecological issues, arousing the indigenous peoples and manipulating the media through their representatives. The ELN, for example, which accuses foreign oil companies of polluting the environment, is itself easily the worst polluter. It has caused massive contamination of rivers and water supplies by constantly blowing up oil pipelines.
I believe, however, that there may be a strong case for BP's principal Colombian partner, Ecopetrol, to be encouraged to take full responsibility for the security of the oil operations, a point that I made forcibly to President Samper. In co-ordination with the government, the oil companies might be encouraged to design policies to ensure a fairer distribution of the wealth generated and to prevent and correct those undesirable effects which increase social conflict and offer opportunities for the guerrillas to justify themselves as defenders of the victims.
The local representatives whom I met felt that the company, as the operator, could do more to improve its relationship with local communities in several areas, not least by being more accessible, responsive to concerns and generally more people-friendly. I believe they are right about that, and BP itself recognises the validity of those comments. I therefore urge the company to move rapidly to address them.
Colombia is approaching local elections, set for 26th October, under a severe threat by the guerrillas, who have vowed to disrupt the process. Considerable violence can be expected. The guerrillas are resorting to
There is a debilitating divergence of opinion on how the country's problems should be addressed. One faction, including the new defence Minister, heralds peace talks as offering imminent hope for a resolution of the war with the guerrillas, with others insisting that military action offers the only hope for defeating them. The reality probably lies somewhere in-between. However, a clear direction and a coherent strategy are essential, if resources are to be concentrated and used effectively.
Notwithstanding the current major government military offensive, about which, rightly, little is known, the geography makes it almost impossible for the army to defeat the terrorists and, conversely, for the guerrillas, as they do not have enough popular support, to win power. Peace negotiations, when they do begin, with guerrillas and paramilitaries might usefully include a new social chapter and political pact, as much in Colombia's interest as that of the world at large. In addition and most fundamentally, the state should be encouraged to end impunity once and for all.
The Colombian political system has lost the ability to resolve its internal difficulties by itself and without international support to press for peace negotiation, Colombia will be faced with an escalating civil war with catastrophic results. God knows, the country has already paid dearly--in the past 10 years more than 20,000 Colombians, including judges, journalists, policemen and innocent civilians have lost their lives in the war on drugs. Yet, during 1996, the country eradicated 73,500 acres of coca and poppy, confiscated 615 tonnes of coca leaf and 57 tonnes of pure cocaine and cocaine base, confiscated a record amount of precursor chemicals, and destroyed more drugs processing laboratories, clandestine airstrips and transportation infrastructure than ever before. At the same time, it enacted tough laws to forfeit the assets of drug traffickers and increased drastically the penalties for their crimes.
President Samper proposed a global agenda against drugs in the United Nations General Assembly last September, which I believe is worthy of attention. It includes agreement on controls of chemical precursors and weapons trade, a mandate to combat money laundering with seizure and forfeiture of assets from drug trafficking extended on a global basis, a worldwide intelligence network against drug cartels and a global treaty of judicial co-operation.
What is not generally known in Europe is that Colombia is being castigated by the United States, placing it in a category of pariah states, for not doing more to curtail the export of drugs. The United States Government has decertified Colombia, which rightly feels that that is a kick below the belt. All that is despite the reality that the Colombian national police and armed forces are essential to any effort to combat the flow of illicit drugs. The United States has imposed that sanction on Colombia for its perceived failures, yet at the same time retains 90 per cent. of the profits and controls the largest market for consumption. None of that is to say that we in the United Kingdom do not share similar concerns and objectives to those of the United States. But we differ in approach.
The difficulties that Colombia faces are overwhelming and the social and military programmes necessary to defeat them are beyond the resources of the country. International support is crucial. It is certainly in the best interest of the international community to have Colombia face and defeat those problems, particularly those of terrorism and narcotic trafficking. There is no alternative to supporting democratic institutions in Colombia, with their weaknesses approached realistically, its system of justice made more effective and its law enforcement agencies and armed forces supported.
Baroness Hooper: My Lords, Colombia is a beautiful country. It has a population of about 40 million but its territory is about the size of Spain, France and Portugal combined. It is a vast territory. One of its main exports to this country is flowers: the carnations and roses that we can buy on the streets. It is a country which has produced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, acclaimed by his peers as perhaps today's greatest novelist. It is a country which has embraced democracy and a more open form of government. It has also succeeded in opening up its economy and improving its economic performance, with a falling trade deficit, rapid growth in non-traditional exports and an inflation rate under control.
Therefore, it is very sad that all those positive factors should be overshadowed by the fact that the improvements in internal security which were reflected in the greater confidence in Colombia's economy shown earlier this year have gone away. Ground has been lost to the guerrillas, as the noble Viscount dramatically told us, and they now control a very sizeable territory in Colombia. Again, as the noble Viscount pointed out, the local elections due to take place later this month have provoked an offensive. He mentioned some aspects of that offensive. I have been informed of the Maoist ELN movement kidnapping 12 town councillors in two communities, including the entire town council in Simiti in the north, as well as kidnapping five mayors in the
In the war on drugs, in the past 10 years, over 20,000 people, including politicians, judges, journalists, policemen and innocent civilians have lost their lives. Small wonder then that there is a lack of confidence in the judiciary and fears of corruption in the public sector.
Therefore, I believe that it is both useful and important to discuss this issue in your Lordships' House--not in any way in a spirit of wishing to interfere with the internal order of another country but because the pressures affecting Colombia affect international trade and investment. In particular, they affect the growing bilateral relationship between our two countries, which not only the United Kingdom Government but also institutions such as the CBI, chambers of commerce and private sector companies, have all been working hard to cement. It is also important because narcotics trafficking and its consequences are the responsibility of all countries, whether they are producer countries, consumer countries or merely transit countries. I am, therefore, grateful to the noble Viscount for providing us with this opportunity for debate and for setting out the issues.
Since I believe that most of the concerns about internal security in Colombia flow from the vicious narcotics trade and because I believe that that is very much an international responsibility, I want to dwell on that topic. I should point out--indeed, the noble Viscount has already referred to the matter--that previous administrations in Colombia succeeded in taking very great steps against the trade. The administration of President Vergilio Barco, who sadly died earlier this year, succeeded in smashing the much feared Medellin cartel. The current Samper Government have also succeeded in taking many measures, as enumerated by the noble Viscount. Among their successes has been gaoling the leaders of the Cali administration, the organisation which replaced the Medellin cartel. The sadness about the whole area is that as soon as the baddies are pushed down in one area they pop up in another.
However, the Colombian Government are making every effort in their fight against illegal drugs and spending around 2 per cent. of their GDP in that fight. As has already been said, they have eradicated many areas of illegal drug crops; 30,000 hectares have been taken out of production already this year, and that exceeds their target for the year. They have taken a variety of other measures and there has been an international effort to encourage crop diversification. It is vital that those programmes continue, but the fact remains that the prices paid to producers in a country such as Colombia is a small fraction of the trade price of narcotics, and demand is not diminishing in the consumer countries.
What can and should we be doing? The noble Viscount listed a number of points and perhaps I can add one or two of my own. I should like to refer back to the World Drugs Summit held in London in 1990. It was hosted by our government jointly with the United
As a result of that conference in this country, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, announced the formation of a drugs task force to help in taking initiatives on the education and preventive front. I had the privilege of leading one of the task force visits to various countries in Latin America in pursuit of that aim. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister if that drugs task force continues in existence and if the Government have any plans for it.
I hope that the Government will support the next United Nations drugs summit, planned for next year, in order to be able to increase the pressures on consumer countries to play their part in this fight. I hope also that the Government will ensure that the necessary and appropriate precautions are taken to ensure that what is a legitimate trade in precursor chemicals emanating from this country is safeguarded so that those chemicals are not diverted into the illegal drugs trade. I hope that the Government will take every opportunity to point out to the United States Government, as mentioned by the noble Viscount, that their policy of decertification is counter-productive and hits many innocent people.
I hope that the Government will continue to support companies like British Petroleum in its struggle to carry out legitimate business to the benefit of the Colombian economy and its people. I know that we shall be hearing more on that front from other noble Lords in the course of the debate. In supporting the economy of Colombia, I hope that the Government will follow up on the many trading initiatives that have been taken. There was a successful British festival in Colombia in May and I hope that the DTI support for trade missions that have taken place in the past to encourage the fostering of relationships will continue. Perhaps the Minister can give us an assurance on that.
I hope that the Government will give the appropriate support to ensure free and fair elections, both in terms of the local elections at the end of this month as well as the presidential elections next year. It is essential that we continue to foster our trade relations, along with other cultural and educational links with Colombia, in order for the peace and stability of that country to be reflected throughout the region.
Lord Rea: My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for bringing this important problem before the House. I must confess that, alas, I have never visited Colombia except in transit for one hour en route to Quito in Ecuador, its next door neighbour. I know, however, that Colombia is a very beautiful country with extremes of climate from alpine to tropical.
In Colombia that cause is not hard to find. The "war against drugs" is usually held to be the main cause of the conflict and the short briefing that I received from the Colombian embassy puts that at the top of the list. However, to a great extent I suggest that, though it is important, it is a secondary issue providing a smokescreen for the real problem in Colombia; that is, the gross economic disparity between a small ruling elite and the impoverished majority. Three per cent. of Colombia's landed elite own over 70 per cent. of the arable land and 57 per cent. of the poorest farmers subsist on under 3 per cent. of land. The poor farmers and the landless do not feel that the democracy of which the Colombian Government are so proud gives them a fair hearing. They have reason for that.
More than 1,500 members of the left wing Patriotic Union Party (the UP) have been killed in the past 12 years since the party was founded. It is suggested that the rate of killings may have dropped in recent years. But according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights--the human rights wing of the Organisation for American States; not a particularly left wing organisation--of the 26,710 Colombians who were killed in 1996 due to political murder and common crime (5 per cent. more than the previous year), 3,600 were killed for political or ideological reasons. Sixty five per cent. of those murders were attributed by non-government sources to the armed forces and the paramilitaries, as described by the noble Viscount.
As the number of political killings by state forces declined, those by the paramilitaries--the unofficial forces--increased. The Colombian human rights ombudsman--the Colombian Government are to be congratulated for creating such a post--reported last year that paramilitary activity had increased by 60 per cent. since 1992. One of the worst features of the continuing extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses, as the noble Viscount said, has been the relative impunity of the armed forces and paramilitary groups who carry out the majority of those murders.
In June 1996 the Consejo Superior de la Judicatura, the Superior Council of the Judiciary, reported that between 97 per cent. and 98 per cent. of all crimes go unpunished and that 74 per cent. of crimes go unreported altogether. Human rights monitors assert that virtually 100 per cent. of all crimes involving human rights violations go unpunished. However, there is some hope that that will change--at least as far as violations by the military are concerned--since the decision of the Constitutional Court in July this year which stated that military personnel who commit crimes which violate human rights can now be tried in civilian courts. Previously they could only be tried in military courts which seldom, if ever, gave a verdict of guilty.
Despite government promises to take action to establish mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders, little progress has been made. This failure to take effective measures has led to the killing of further human rights workers. For example, Mario Calderon's flat was broken into on 19th May this year. He, his wife and his father were killed and his mother seriously wounded. He was a member of CINEP, which is one of the biggest human rights organisations in Colombia working mainly for popular education and the promotion of the defence of cases of human rights violations.
What is the solution to all this? Clearly, it will be a long, uphill process. The peace talks between the government and the guerrillas in 1995 broke down. There is some doubt as to whether the military or the guerrillas wanted peace. The noble Viscount discussed that. In the meantime I suggest that the best way forward will be for the Colombian Government to show with action as well as words that they support the observation of basic human rights, particularly that very basic right, the right to life itself.
Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for tabling this Unstarred Question on Colombia. I should first declare an interest as a non-executive director of British Petroleum. As the noble Viscount emphasised, BP is a substantial investor in Colombia, a country with which the United Kingdom has long had close commercial and historical ties. BP has been developing and operating the Cusiana and Cupiagua oilfields for several years, and production is now approaching some 300,000 barrels of oil a day. By any standards, that ranks as a significant development.
For that reason, BP finds itself--both metaphorically and sometimes, I fear, literally--in the firing line when it comes to the security problems which lie at the heart of the noble Viscount's Question. I am grateful to the noble Viscount for quoting the view widely held in Colombia that the allegations against BP are without foundation, but the company has become an obvious target for those whose political agenda is to undermine what has been, after all, one of the oldest and most stable democracies in Latin America.
The problems which BP faces in Colombia are similar to those which many other British companies are facing in other parts of the world. It is, I think, relevant to consider for a moment how far the investment and operations of global companies in countries such as Colombia offer their inhabitants precisely the sort of support and encouragement they need to escape from the violence and intimidation which they face.
Investments by multinational companies often have very long lead times, involving highly technical challenges and difficult financial decisions. These can only be progressed in close co-operation with the relevant authorities and governments, both local and national. Once these hurdles have been overcome, it is vital, from any company's point of view, that the investments are sustainable. Companies like BP--and I speak from six years' experience on the main board--are not in the "get rich quick" business. Their investments are for the long term. That is why sustainability is vital, and, to be sustainable, the company's operations and activities must be perceived by all concerned as yielding substantial benefits for the host nation.
Anything which smacks of selfishness, greed or lack of concern for the local environment, is likely to prove unacceptable to those whose consent and goodwill is essential to the project. It hardly needs saying that anything which contributes to violence undermines the whole viability of the operations.
That is partly why BP accepts that the wealth which it helps to create in countries across the world--including Colombia--must be shared between its shareholders (without whom there would be nothing to invest in the first place) and the countries themselves.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, talked about the case for a fairer distribution of the wealth generated by oil production. The fact is that in Colombia more than 85 per cent. of the revenue which BP and its partners earn is returned to the Colombian people, either through taxation or through the Colombian Government's equity share. Along with BP's partners, the company also invests voluntarily in a significant social programme of some 10 million dollars a year in health, infrastructure and education.
I hope that that illustrates the way in which a global company can help the transition from an economy plagued by drugs and terrorism to one where wealth is created legitimately for the benefit of all. The more successful the oil industry can be in Colombia, the less the temptation to rely on illegal activities such as narco-terrorism. That, of course, is one reason why global companies are so often the targets of those whose power and influence will be undermined once the culture of violence is replaced by a free-trading, liberal economic environment.
That is inevitably a process of transition, which cannot be achieved overnight. Meanwhile, transgressions are undoubtedly committed by all sides of the conflict. The Colombian Government themselves are deeply concerned about the widespread impunity for even the most serious crimes. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, has referred to that. Even in the region of Casanare, where BP operates, which is one of the more peaceful areas of Colombia, some democratically elected officials and respected community leaders, such as Mr. Carlos Arregui, have been murdered. Along with others, BP has urged the Colombian authorities to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. Mistakes by the civil
Global companies need to ensure that their principles are never compromised. BP adopts the same ethical and environmental standards in Colombia as it does world-wide. Global companies have a duty to condemn unequivocally all violence irrespective of its origin. They also have an obligation under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to respect the rights and dignity of individuals, wherever they operate in the world. But in an atmosphere of violence companies also have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their staff and contractors unless they are to disinvest, which is probably the goal of some of their critics. Protection is needed from physical attack and from other threats such as kidnapping and ransom demands. Unless companies are to provide themselves with private armies, this means relying upon the host country's arms and legitimate security forces. This can often prove to be a difficult relationship. In Colombia the arrangements are not ideal, and I know that BP would like to see them improved. But the need for security cannot be ignored.
It is sometimes alleged that global companies offer legitimacy and the means of survival to non-democratic dictatorships. This is most certainly not the case in Colombia. There as elsewhere global companies hold out the prospect of material and social improvement for people who would otherwise have very few opportunities to help themselves. I have no doubt that the average citizen of Colombia would be infinitely worse off if international investment were to be successfully discouraged or threatened.
To revert to the noble Viscount's Question, I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that, when offering support and encouragement to Colombia "in dealing with its internal and political situation", Her Majesty's Government continue to regard the activities of global companies as an indispensable part of that process.
Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I also thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this debate and allowing noble Lords to hear some outstanding contributions from varying perspectives. The focal point has been the guerrilla war. There are a number of factions involved in the guerrilla war. Nonetheless, the main ones are the FARC and the ELN. The FARC is by far the largest and best organised faction in Colombia, and it is also the oldest. The scale of the problem has been graphically demonstrated by all contributors to the debate. In 1997 more than 30 mayors were killed as a result of guerrilla action. Kidnappings, extortion, murder and other atrocities have been committed by both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. The guerrillas have also become involved in the drugs trade that provides them with a valuable source of income.
The president and his government face a number of seemingly intractable problems in their search to broker a peace. First, to make peace with the rebels will require the government's agreement to such concessions as land reform, the disarming of paramilitary groups and the army's withdrawal from certain areas. These are issues that will infuriate the army and Colombia's powerful conservative elements. Secondly, the FARC appears to be uninterested in negotiating with a president and government that it believes are unlikely to survive the array of political challenges that they face. Thirdly, the guerrillas are also motivated by profit more than ideology. Consequently, a government-sponsored political agreement will not necessarily placate the rebels. My concern is that in the light of the obstacles to a negotiated peace there is little hope of a cessation of violence in the short term. In fact, in view of the FARC's recent successes it may be encouraged to pursue its strategic aim of creating liberated zones. Such a policy would lead to escalation. Moreover, there is speculation of an arms race building up among the guerrilla factions, particularly the FARC and the ELN. As a consequence of the funds gained from extortion, kidnapping and drugs dealing, the guerrillas possess the financial clout to purchase heavy and sophisticated weaponry. They have also stated that they intend to launch final and massive offences, not least next year.
It is, when one considers the war on drugs, very much as my noble friend Lady Hooper said, an international responsibility. Despite criticism from the US, the government have nevertheless scored a number of successes in the war on drugs. The government appointed General Rosso Jose Serrano Cadena as the director of the national police to lead a major crackdown on the drugs trade. The new director proved extremely successful, co-ordinating the capture or elimination of all the eight top leaders in the Cali Cartel, as we have heard this evening, in addition to implementing a largescale eradication programme.
Tougher sentences on drug traffickers have been passed and legislation facilitating the seizure of assets has been enacted. Coca plantations have been sprayed with defoliating agents so successfully that it provoked a peasant revolt last year. The seizure of drugs and the
An important contribution was made to our debate this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for he focused on the humanitarian disaster and the human rights issue. The rural population is often caught between the crossfire of the guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries. As we have heard, frequently people have been executed on the mere suspicion of being sympathetic to one group or another. Amnesty International has pointed out graphically that more than 1 million people have become homeless in the past 10 years as a result of the civil war in Colombia. In 1996 alone some 180,000 people abandoned their homes in north west Colombia, fleeing persecution from right-wing paramilitaries.
The situation in Colombia is unusual as those people fleeing are not technically refugees; that is, they are not entering another country. As the noble Viscount stated, Colombia needs the support of the international community in facing these issues, because the social implications of the crisis are very grave. There is a further distressing dimension to the refugee problem as it is the male villagers who are mostly killed in the conflict. The majority of refugees are women and children. Moreover, in order to survive, tragically many women have to resort to prostitution.
When I read Amnesty International's work on the subject I was impressed by its criticism of the UN with regard to its operations in Colombia. It is worth the House noting that while the UN has dedicated 150 personnel to observe human rights in Rwanda, a mere six currently operate in Colombia.
I should like to take the opportunity to express my support for the efforts of the Colombian Government in addressing the complex political and security situation which confronts them. The Republic of Colombia, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, pointed out, is Latin America's oldest democracy. I am certain that I reflect the view of your Lordships' House when I wish the government success in preserving the nation's democratic institutions and in promoting the country's socio-economic prosperity.
As we are all well aware, the political violence and instability that have afflicted Colombia have metastasised, affecting those beyond the republic's national frontiers. The internal problems that face the Colombian Government are no longer parochial and are increasingly having an external impact in a variety of ways. The illegal export of cocaine is a notorious example of internal problems manifesting themselves into international issues. However, the country's internal turbulence has also had political repercussions on our own shores. This year, for instance, we have witnessed a significant increase in Colombian refugees fleeing their country and seeking political asylum in the UK. Nevertheless, it is perhaps the activity of a leading UK multinational company in Colombia that has poignantly served to focus British domestic public attention on the plight of that Andean country.
As we have heard graphically from the noble Lord, Lord Wright, BP has recently been at the centre of intense, albeit frequently misleading, media attention with regard to its operations in Colombia. I read some specious allegations made with respect to BP's complicity in human rights violations by Richard Howitt, the Member of the European Parliament for Essex South. In addition, more recent claims have alleged its responsibility for grave environmental damage.
Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to take up one or two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright. I listened intently to his view of the aims of a multinational operating in the world. I believe that those aims can best be summarised as fourfold: to maximise the returns for its shareholders; to implement a rigorous health and safety programme which ensures the protection of its employees as well as the interests of the local community; to maintain stringent environmental standards, thereby minimising the company's impact on the environment; and to behave in this day and age as a corporate ambassador, not only representing its country of origin but the international business community as a whole.
In addition to complying with this set of criteria, I believe that there are a number of fundamental principles with which these aims should be imbued; namely, there must be a significant degree of interaction between the multinational and the local community. It cannot operate in isolation or to the detriment of the indigenous people who surround it. Indeed, it must seek to support and improve their standard and quality of living. Consequently, its presence should strive to stimulate the local economy and it should also seek to nurture close social and cultural ties and endeavour to respect the environment.
Assuming that local resources warrant the commitment, the multinational should tailor its strategy to accommodate a long-term presence and investment in the region. I strongly welcome the noble Lord's comment on the importance of a long-term approach to its presence in any market, for the era of the swift economic pillaging of a developing country's resources has been and rightly must be consigned to the history books.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a multinational must preserve the highest ethical approach to its operations. Again, I welcome the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, since BP is an exemplary case of displaying a corporate probity commensurate with its international standing, and not differentiating between applying the highest standards wherever it works in the world.
In the light of these questions and in the context of the debate, it has been reasonable to ask to what extent BP measures up to the theoretical model. As a preamble, if I may beg your Lordships' indulgence, and as we have heard tonight, I wish to emphasise that the actual environment in which BP operates is far removed in Colombia from any situation that could be envisaged in a hypothetical model. BP must operate in an environment where the rule of law is unashamedly
Nevertheless, there is another dimension to their opposition. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that their hostility is founded on purely ideological grounds. The political purity of their cause has long since been corrupted by their participation in the lucrative drugs trade. As a consequence, these factions have become well financed, resorting to extortion, kidnapping and sabotage to further their goals--both political and financial. Certainly, BP has refused to be intimidated by these tactics. While some international companies may have considered acquiescing in blackmail out of political expediency, British Petroleum has not. Perhaps it is BP's refusal to play by the "rules of the game" that has left it exposed to a smear campaign orchestrated by those unable to bribe the company's co-operation.
In addition to this, it is worth noting that the ELN, which is very active in the Casanare region--an area some 250 miles east of Bogota where BP operates--has targeted the multinational, declaring that all its employees and facilities in the province are legitimate military objectives. As a result of this official declaration of war, BP's facilities have been attacked--16 incidents in 1996 and three major attacks in addition to a number of other incidents this year--and the safety of its employees has been threatened.
In that unusual context, health and safety standards assume a different complexion. In such an environment, it is even more incumbent on BP to fulfil its commitment to guarantee the health and safety, or, more succinctly put, the security of its employees and contractors. Thus, like other companies operating in Colombia, whether they be in the hydrocarbons industry or other sectors, BP has turned to the state for the protection of its employees and facilities. As is ultimately the case in the United Kingdom, it is the Colombian military and the police which are the only legitimate bodies responsible for addressing the multinational's security.
Despite efforts in some quarters of the media to invoke a sinister complexion to the voluntary agreement with the government, there is nothing untoward, given the circumstances of the situation in which BP is active. Those are the facts about BP's security arrangements in Colombia. I have visited the facilities in Casanare and have spoken extensively to senior management. Prior to that, I had the privilege and honour of being the Minister responsible for oil and gas, keeping a strong watching brief on the international activities of our oil companies.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for providing this opportunity to debate the complex issues facing the Colombian people.
This House will be aware that the publicity given to Colombia as a leading producer and distributor of cocaine masks a much more positive and important truth about the country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, reminded us, Colombia is a long-established democracy and one which is going through very difficult times. It is reassuring that, despite all the obvious difficulties, many of which have been highlighted during the course of our debate this evening, the vast majority of Colombian people have resisted the temptation to turn away from democratic principles. Many courageous Colombians have stood and faced the difficulties confronting them. It is incumbent upon Colombia's friends to encourage those who are trying to improve the country's international reputation and to continue to offer what assistance is possible and appropriate to help them in that time of need.
Speakers in this evening's debate have highlighted the areas of specific concern. They are drugs, internal security, human rights, corruption and judicial shortcomings. I suppose that we might be forgiven for thinking that there does not seem to be much else that could possibly go wrong. Yet, despite the long-running drain of the civil conflict, Colombia's economy has recorded consistent and impressive growth and stability over the past 40 years, only stumbling slightly in the past few months. That is a notable achievement in the face of so much adversity and it is worth noting that Colombia's economy has been one of the most stable in the region as a whole. It is that performance which has attracted substantial British investment to the country, to the point at which Britain is now the largest investor, even ahead of the United States. Moreover, for all the adverse publicity about the issues that we have discussed this evening, significant progress has been made in dealing with some of them.
First, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, said, there is a real problem in Colombia on the drug front. However, as many noble Lords
In addition, there has been a raft of tough new anti-narcotics legislation in the past year, including pre-sentences for the traffickers, thus allowing the authorities to seize assets acquired through criminal activity. Unprecedented numbers of drug seizures have taken place both at the point of origin and in Europe. My honourable friend the Minister of State for foreign affairs, Tony Lloyd, had, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, the opportunity last month to obtain a vivid first-hand impression of the dangers that the Colombian security forces face in their daily battle against that deadly trade. It is also worth mentioning the excellent co-operation that we received from the Colombian anti-narcotics authorities.
There has, too, been some action on human rights. There has been an improvement in the performance of the Colombian security forces. In 1993 they were believed to be responsible for more than half of the human rights violations in Colombia. Today that figure stands at around 10 per cent. Of course we must not be complacent about the situation. The so-called "para-militaries", about whom the noble Viscount spoke so graphically and who operate outside the law, are seen by many NGOs as fundamentally linked to certain military units and as being responsible for around 50 per cent. of all crimes of violence committed by parties to the conflict. Most of the remainder of the crimes are perpetrated by the guerrilla forces, whose possible original ideological motivation has long since been largely replaced by the law of financial reward from kidnapping and their unholy alliance with the drug traffickers.
The Government of the United Kingdom condemn unreservedly the attempts by the para-militaries and the guerrillas to undermine the democratic process in Colombia through the violent intimidation which has been offered to those engaging in local elections. There has also been action on the peace process. The noble Viscount gave us a vivid picture of guerrilla activity. The Colombian Government have recently made approaches to the guerrillas aimed at bringing them to the table to discuss a peace framework. To date, regrettably, the guerrillas have rejected that approach.
There has, too, been action on corruption. Here there are signs of resolve to tackle the serious problem even though results may not be immediate. There are currently 20 congressmen under investigation for corrupt practices under a legal process called "Process 8,000". Eleven of them have been imprisoned. Other senior political figures have been scrutinised under the process, including the former attorney general and the Mayor of Cali, Colombia's third largest city.
There is a wellspring of goodwill towards Britain in Colombia as well as much admiration for what we have been able to achieve in the field of administrative reform. We should take advantage of that and ensure that any assistance we give is sensitively and constructively focused. I hope that I have outlined the key areas of concern. That is where we have concentrated our resources. In addition, we are making contributions to projects for promoting better standards in government, for the protection of the environment and for the exploitation of renewable natural resources through the bilateral co-operation programme of the Department of International Development.
What has the United Kingdom done to help on the drugs question? The UK has provided some £14 million in drugs related assistance to Colombia since 1989, focusing mainly on law enforcement, training, demand reduction and alternative development. We have had excellent co-operation, as was evidenced on Mr. Lloyd's recent visit. He saw, too, the strengthening of that co-operation in the discussions that he undertook. We also have a bilateral asset confiscation agreement which was signed in February this year. Earlier this year we ran a money laundering prevention course in Bogota for Colombian financial institutions.
As regards extradition, we fully support the Colombian Government's attempts to change the constitution to allow extradition of Colombian nationals. We believe that sends a strong signal to the drug traffickers. This Government recognise the appalling threat--which so many noble Lords have mentioned this evening--posed by the international drugs trade from its point of production and trafficking to its point of distribution and consumption. It poses a terrible threat to thousands of innocent people and, most tragic of all, in particular to thousands of young people and children. Whenever we go abroad it is always on the list of issues which I and other Ministers raise with our interlocutors in other countries. There will be a drugs summit in the Caribbean later this year. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, we have appointed an international drugs co-ordinator to look at ways of improving our international co-operation on this important question.
The noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Moynihan, concentrated many of their remarks on the human rights issues. The human rights situation in Colombia is of great concern to us. We take every opportunity to raise our concerns with the government and maintain regular contact with the NGOs both in Colombia and in the UK. We strongly support the work of the newly established United Nations human rights office in Bogota. Human rights are the central part of our foreign policy. We do not hesitate to make our concerns known to our partners. We believe that much can be achieved through constructive dialogue. My honourable friend Mr Lloyd
The noble Lord, Lord Rea, mentioned in particular the Amnesty report. This Government share Amnesty's concerns about the human rights situation in Colombia. We are aware of Amnesty's concerns regarding the extent of the links between the army and the paramilitaries. While we do not dispute that links exist, their extent is not clear. It is most likely that individual units and personnel are involved and that co-operation takes the form of providing intelligence or turning a blind eye to paramilitary activities. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, expressed particular repugnance at the impunity enjoyed by so many who commit appalling crimes. The Colombian Government have given assurances to my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd that they recognise the problem and that they will put in place measures to correct these problems including tackling the paramilitaries and reforming the penal code. In the new year President Samper announced a package of measures including reform of the military justice system and updating of human rights programmes with regard to the military. I understand that little has been implemented but the statement itself offers some encouragement. More recently the head of the Colombian armed forces, General Bonett, assured EU heads of mission on 29th September that the military was genuinely seeking to improve its human rights performance and also aimed to deal evenhandedly with the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, raised the point about the local elections due to take place on 26th October which have been threatened with disruption by the guerrillas and paramilitaries. Although the elections have been cancelled in nearly 20 municipalities, sadly, the Colombians are determined that they will take place elsewhere. I am happy to assure the noble Baroness that the UK Government have agreed to make a contribution towards the cost of the Organisation of American States which will act as observers to the elections.
The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, told us about the specific difficulties being faced by large companies such as BP which have been the subject of allegations about complicity in human rights abuses by the Colombian armed forces and paramilitaries. BP has also been accused in the media of serious environmental damage. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, quote so appreciatively my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd. I hope that it is the first of many such quotations that we may expect from the noble Lord, and that his appreciation will continue.
But in doing so, I wish to make three points. First, in this day and age, large companies can no longer act with impunity. Demands on them have changed. It is no longer sufficient for them to consider only the commercial implications of an operation. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, the responsibility for them to be seen to be operating ethically and transparently is now more important than ever. Those obligations are here to stay. Secondly, it is right that scrutiny of the activities of British companies should lead to questions being asked of them when necessary. We take such questions seriously and will continue to follow them up as appropriate, looking to the companies concerned to provide a credible response, as we have done with BP. Finally, if in responding to the allegations which have been made against it, BP has been able to introduce measures to ensure that as far as possible it will not again be vulnerable to similar criticism, that in itself is a result.
However, perhaps I may also say that sometimes BP and other large companies like them are easy targets. It is far easier to make people believe that because they are big enough they can somehow ignore the rules that are made for them to abide by too. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wright, I believe that they can be a force for the good, contributing to the future of the country in which they operate and bringing real and constructive development to local communities. I hope that that gives the noble Lord the assurance he seeks.
The question that we are considering this evening is that of encouragement to Colombia. In addition to the activities I have already described, I mention also our efforts to promote and maintain high level contacts with Colombia. The most recent example was the visit of my honourable friend. During that visit he spoke to many different people. Such visits send strong messages to those who are bent on destabilisation and trafficking. They must not have it all their own way. Our ambassador and his staff travel widely in Colombia, often visiting areas at the centre of conflict between various warring factions. Again, we believe that this sends a strong and unequivocal message to those we are striving to support in their endeavours to improve the situation. Much of this activity is carried out in close consultation with our partners in the EU who recently issued a collective statement robustly supporting the Colombian Government in their effort to promote peace and stability, and condemning those whose declared goal is the destabilisation and overthrow of the established order.
I hope that it will be clear from the answers that I have attempted to give to the questions raised and remarks made by noble Lords this evening that we are taking constructive steps in helping the Colombian Government to deal with the many serious problems that
But we must remember that none of that assistance would be possible without the co-operation of the Colombian Government whose acknowledgement of these problems is a vital starting-point for everything we are able to do. We will continue to seek ways in which we can work with the Colombian Government and with
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