Christian Matheson – 2022 Speech on Human Rights in Colombia

The speech made by Christian Matheson, the Labour MP for City of Chester, in Westminster Hall on 20 April 2022.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Seven months would be me just getting warmed up. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing the debate and on her fantastic introduction.

Like many, I suspect, my involvement and interest in Colombia started when I was a trade union official. As we have heard from colleagues, Colombia was the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist 20 years ago, and my message for the Minister is that we must not take our eye off that ball.

There are two harsh realities in Columbia. No. 1 is that the peace process does not enjoy universal support. It did not at the time; when ex-President Santos put it to the vote, it was narrowly rejected. There is still a large, residual resentment at the peace process and at the fact that the Government and the state made peace with FARC. We heard that in the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who talked about the pressures to revert to the previous state of civil war, which was the longest-running civil war in the world at the time.

That is one harsh reality. The other, for those who oppose the peace process in Colombia, is that it is the only show in town; it is the only way forward. Peace cannot be established and won just because a document was signed at Cartagena in 2016; it has to be a long and ongoing process. That is why it is so important to see colleagues here from Northern Ireland—my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). I pay tribute to our representatives in the UK from Northern Ireland, including the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Colombia, and Lord Alderdice, and to all the parties in Northern Ireland, who are going—not have been—through a peace process, which is difficult at times for all of them. They demonstrate to the people of Colombia that peace must be invested in day after day, month after month and year after year. Peace cannot be achieved simply by signing a piece of paper—and then we all go home. Peace is difficult. It may not be as difficult as conflict, although some in the large cities of Colombia who have been insulated from the violence might be happy to go back to that situation. We have to continue to give that message and support the people of Colombia.

One big problem the people of Colombia face is that the Government—the state—still do not control large areas of territory in Colombia. Chapter 1 of the peace agreement foresaw comprehensive rural reform, giving people a stake in their own land and life. It also gave them security to carry on their lives without the threat of paramilitaries from either side. That section on rural reform has fallen badly behind in areas where there is no state presence. One set of paramilitaries has been replaced by another. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, they are narco-traffickers or former right-wing paramilitaries, or they sit in the middle bit of the Venn diagram and might be a mixture of them all.

I am pleased to say that the number of armed combatants has fallen. The rough guess of the independent Bogotá think-tank Indepaz is that there are about 5,200 to 5,500 armed, organised paramilitaries, which is lower than the combined total of 50,000 20 years ago. If we include all the different armed groups, there are probably about 17,000 in total, so progress is certainly being made. However, as my hon. Friend said, the number of murders of social leaders and human rights defenders jumped in 2020 and remains stubbornly high.

Four main sources keep count of the numbers of social leaders, human rights defenders and trade unionists murdered in Colombia: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a Colombian Government agency, the human rights ombudsman, Defensoría; and two non-governmental organisations, Somos Defensores and Indepaz. Of those, even the organisation with the lowest confirmed count, the UN high commissioner, still finds that a social leader has been murdered in Colombia every 3.2 days since the peace accord came into effect in December 2016.

A further consequence of the lack of peace and the failure to control territory is illegal deforestation and attacks on the environment. I pay tribute to British groups, such as the Earlham Institute and Kew Gardens, that are doing extremely important work with Colombians and Colombian academics in support of biodiversity programmes. However, deforestation continues, with a 36.9% increase in deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon basin between 2019 and 2020.

The second chapter of the peace accord focuses on political participation and seeks to establish guarantees for people to petition the state or to practise opposition politics. Before and during the decades of the armed conflict, people with reformist or leftist views participated in politics at great personal risk. Thousands were killed, including much of the membership of a political party originally linked to the FARC, the Patriotic Union, in the ’80s and ’90s.

Political participation guarantees still do not go much further than a few nominal changes in the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree mentioned the Kroc Institute’s monitoring report, which found that there is still stagnation on the commitments that would allow progress towards structural reforms of democracy, due to the absence of a political consensus for their substantial and comprehensive progress.

Spending on the peace process in Colombia fell by 18% from 2020 to 2021 and the Colombian Comptroller General argues that that contributes to increasing the lags in the implementation of the comprehensive security system for political participation. Peace is expensive—we know that, and we also know that Colombia has spent a lot of money supporting Venezuelan refugees, and has also had to deal with the pandemic—but it is so fundamental to social progress in Colombia that it is not an area where budgets can be cut.

Chapter 5 of the peace accord covers the processes that could deliver peace. It sets up a comprehensive system for truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace is a transitional justice tribunal that is prosecuting the most serious human rights abusers. Again, it does not enjoy full support, but something that enjoyed full support from one side or the other probably would not be the compromise that a peace deal would bring. A unit to search for the disappeared is working with victims and communities in an attempt to locate some of the 80,000 people who went missing during the years of the conflict. Again, that is similar to what happened in Northern Ireland.

We cannot have peace without justice, we cannot have justice without peace, and we cannot have environmental protection without peace. All are absolutely essential, but let us not forget the trade unionists and civil society leaders who are being murdered.