Alyn Smith: This is why Colombia is a country that matters to us

COLOMBIA is a beautiful country with a tragic history. The same country which inspired literary classics such as One Hundred Years of Solitude has seen brutal violence as cartels fought and killed over territory and cocaine. It is a country with potential, but one hampered by poverty, inequality and corruption. Throw in a global pandemic which is running riot through the streets as well as the failure to implement the 2016 peace process, and you have a fiery cocktail ready to explode.

This is exactly what has happened since April this year. The government attempted what were, to my mind, rather cack-handed tax reform proposals. These sparked a series of protests which quickly manifested across the country. People took to the streets demanding change. The crowds swelled with a growing sense of frustration at the government’s failure to address the problems in their society. Almost all of the protesters acted peacefully.

The government responded with violence, pure and simple. Between April 28 and June 26, there were 4687 cases of police violence, according to the Colombian human rights NGO Temblores. They also claim that there have been at least 44 killings carried out by the police, 2005 arbitrary arrests, 82 victims of eye injuries (mainly caused by police projectiles) and 28 victims of sexual assault. Colombia’s Foundation for Press Liberty claims that there were 257 cases of aggression towards journalists covering the protests. The majority of those were committed by state forces and included 102 physical assaults and 11 illegal detentions. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) registered 56 people killed in protests between April 28 and June 16, with hundreds more wounded.

Both the EU and the OHCHR have criticised the extreme response by the Colombian government. More recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said that there was evidence that the security forces used “excessive and disproportionate” use of force, which in many situations was “lethal”. The US Embassy in Bogota called for “restraint” from Colombian police to avoid “additional loss of life”.

And what of the UK? To its credit, it has not been entirely idle and has raised its concerns with Colombian officials. However, as the penholder for the peace process on the UN Security Council for Colombia, the UK has a key role to play here upholding human rights and the rule of law.

As such, the UK can and should be doing more. The delicate situation in Colombia once again highlights the folly of cutting international aid at a time when countries all around the world are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. If the UK cannot give financial assistance, it should explore what capacity it has to offer advice to help stabilise the situation.

Since defending human rights is a stated aim of “Global Britain”, it should also be doing more to assist and protect human rights defenders. It could do this through targeted Magnitsky sanctions against the individuals most responsible for human rights abuses. It could also empower human rights defenders with the tools and resources they need. Moreover, it should make more of an effort to facilitate the peace process under way since 2016 and prevent it falling apart completely.

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These are all suggestions my SNP colleagues and I made at last Thursday’s debate on Colombia, and they are actions we would hope an independent Scotland would act on. The foreign policy would be human-centred, feminist, egalitarian, ecological, multilateral and promote international law. Those are a lot of principles, but they are principles which will enable an independent Scotland to be a good global citizen. It is also why we stand with the people of Colombia so that there is a durable peace for everyone.

Some will no doubt say that we should not get involved in other countries affairs. And yes, states have sovereignty over their internal matters. But no man is an island and no state lives in isolation from others within the international system. Globalisation means that events happening on the other side of the world have an impact on us here.

If human rights are respected in Colombia, then there is room for peaceful reconciliation in a country ravaged by conflict. If Colombia can engage in sustainable development, then the power of criminals, gangs and paramilitaries will be eroded. A Colombia at peace with itself and sharing prosperity is a Colombia free from divisions, dissensions and disunity.

A Scotland which can help another country to stand on its own two feet is a Scotland I would be proud to be part of. We can mirror the example of our Arctic neighbours in promoting peace and sustainable development in other countries.

This is why Colombia and indeed other countries matter to Scotland. In helping others to help themselves, we can help create a better world where rights are respected and democracy flourishes. Scotland the good global citizen has a nice ring to it – perhaps that’s something the UK could learn from us.

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