From the TUC

Hear No Evil, See No Evil: British Trade and Colombia

13 Feb 2014, By

Following on from Nick Clegg’s “record breaking” trade trip to Colombia last week, the Deputy Prime Minister was yesterday asked by  Robert Flello MP what contact he’d had with “human rights organisations, trades unions and opposition movements”. The answer, it seems, was very little. Instead, he has largely been getting his information from the regime he should be examining.

On the Monday of his visit a government press release trumpeted Nick Clegg’s current trade visit to Colombia and Mexico. “The UK took its eye off the Latin American ball, and as a result we’ve fallen behind many of our other European competitors”, Mr Clegg confided to all who would listen. Clegg went on to note the UK’s status as Colombia’s second largest foreign investor, and called his visit “a real statement of intent.”

Of course, there were many good reasons why the UK would have been right to stop watching that trade ball in the years since 1992, the last time a senior UK government minister visited Colombia. Extrajudicial executions, assassinations of trade unionists, forced displacement, torture and disappearances have been a constant reality for Colombians, particularly those brave enough to join opposition parties, trade unions and other civil society groups.

Former President Uribe tended to blame the victims, labelling murdered trade unionists or those calling for justice for their deaths “criminals dressed up as unionists” and linking them to terrorism. So the improvement in language from his 2010 successor, President Santos, is welcome. The new President has publicly condemned attacks on trade unionists and human rights defenders, committing to end the culture of impunity surrounding attacks and murders. His bold move to launch a peace process to resolve the 40-year-old conflict with the revolutionary FARC has been less than popular with hard-line elements, including Uribe himself.

This apparent progress encouraged a number of countries and organisations to push through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Colombia that previously would have been unthinkable. Canada and the USA had faced objections on human rights grounds but, like the EU, eventually signed up on the basis that FTAs would encourage the regime to build on its warm words and start to deliver real change.

As a result of pressure from trade unionists opposed to the deal, the EU-Colombia/Peru FTA does indeed contain provisions to take serious action, up to and including total suspension of the agreement. The problem with this set up is twofold: the EU has very rarely taken serious action on the basis of human rights abuse by a partner, and the FTA contains no formal monitoring mechanism for investigating the real human rights situation in Colombia, although we also secured the creation of a “Domestic Advisory Group” which will provide a mechanism for unions and NGOs to raise complaints. GMB international officer Bert Schouwenburg is one of the four trade unionists on the DAG.

But the limited nature of the arrangements within the FTA makes high level contact between EU states and Colombia incredibly important. In the absence of EU resources directed specifically to identify breaches in Colombia’s human rights record, member governments need to engage with Colombia with their eyes and ears – and their minds – open.  If the EU only takes serious measures against the very strongest breaches of human rights, it would be all too easy to accept the official line from Colombia that, despite ongoing problems, everything is moving in the right direction.

So what did the Deputy Prime Minister do? For a start, Mr Clegg clearly didn’t meet any trade union or opposition groups. The Victims’ Unit he mentioned, although doubtless comprising genuine victims of forced displacement, is an official government institution and one which the UNHCR notes has only patchy success in registering offenses. The British NGO Peace Brigades International does brave and vital work protecting human rights defenders by deploying international volunteers to accompany those at risk; they are, however, by very definition not Colombian and therefore at one remove from the day-to-day experience of those they do so much to protect.

In the last week opposition politicians have been subject to vicious death threats from a paramilitary group, and the trade union leader Huber Ballesteros has been put on trial accused of ‘rebellion’ and ‘financing terrorism’, having been arrested during a wave of strikes and just before he was due to fly to the UK to meet British MPs and address our Congress.  President Santos may not engage in the name-calling of his predecessor, but he still presides over a system that does it for him.

Nick Clegg notes that lasting solutions will only be possible through a peace process like that pursued by President Santos, but by backing a trade agreement with a country still in the throes of conflict the British Government does at the very least have the responsibility to talk to groups who may tell them things they don’t want to hear.