Following the recent killings of several civilians in protests in Colombia, Britain’s training of Colombian security forces is at odds with its stated commitment to human rights.
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Over recent days, the Colombian national police have killed a number of civilians protesting a proposed tax hike on basic goods. Many more civilians have been injured, and Colombia’s riot police reportedly sexually assaulted a woman.
Though numbers remain unclear, human rights group Isais Cifuentes de Cali has estimated up to 14 people have died.
Documents obtained by The Canary can reveal that the UK’s College of Policing has been training Colombian police over the past three years. This is despite Colombia being one of only 30 countries the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCD) lists as “Human rights priority countries”.
Colombia’s unpopular president Iván Duque has been rocked by a national strike. The strike is in response to proposed tax hikes on everyday items. According to a recent poll, his disapproval rating has fallen to 69 per cent – the lowest level since he was first elected in 2018.
Characteristically, the Colombian police, a long-time recipient of US and British assistance, have responded with grim brutality.
In a particularly disturbing video, a police officer in Colombia’s third largest city, Cali, is seen shooting a protester as he runs away. The protester died later.
Repression was also widespread in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. The country’s notorious ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) unit filled streets with tear gas and assaulted protesters in the capital.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the UK’s College of Policing has been training Colombian police. This has been happening over the past three consecutive years – 2018, 2019, and 2020. All of the training took place in Colombia.
The issue is of public concern in light of the UK government’s possible complicity in human rights abuses abroad. But the College has refused to disclose where exactly the training occurred, the nature of the training, and the cost.
In recent years, the College has come under fire for receiving millions of pounds to train repressive police regimes. These include Saudi Arabia, where the death penalty remains legal.
What’s more, the College insisted that it ‘can neither confirm nor deny whether the above information represents all the information held that would meet the terms of your request’, citing National Security concerns. To this end, the College absurdly claimed that it didn’t know how many Colombian police officers it had trained during 2018-2020. In response to an internal review, it was unable to offer even an estimate.
The College’s website adds that:
‘The UK police service works closely with government departments… to ensure that any assistance provided is consistent with the UK’s national objectives.’
Given that Colombia is a resource-rich nation in a strategically valuable location, the UK’s current national objectives there can be deduced.
UK training is particularly concerning given the Colombian security forces’ longstanding links with paramilitary groups. These are groups that are responsible for the armed elimination of social organisations. Indeed, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, a key ally of the UK during Tony Blair’s tenure, publicly encouraged the violent crackdown of protesters.
Colombian human rights group INDEPAZ now estimates that 57 social leaders have been killed in 2021. That’s alongside 22 signatories to the government’s peace agreement with the FARC, formerly the country’s longest-running guerrilla insurgency.
Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) recently discussed the UK’s police training record:
Many of these police forces have been accused of torture and other abuses. They use their power to uphold brutal and repressive laws. The UK should not be collaborating with them or strengthening their authoritarian rule.
The killing of George Floyd and the repression that followed drew international attention to state violence. But it is not just an issue in the United States, it is happening all across the world. There must be an end to the hypocrisy and a full review of which police forces the UK has trained and if they have been responsible for human rights abuses.
The UK government’s apparent respect for human rights is at clear odds with its police training record.
This article was initially published in The Canary and has been edited for style.