Bishop of Sheffield on UK trade with Colombia and human rights

On 30th July 2014, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara led a debate in the House of Lords on the motion ‘that the Grand Committee takes note of the Bilateral Agreement for the Promotion and Protection of Investments between the United Kingdom and Colombia’.

The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke during the debate, raising the issues of land ownership rights, protection of the human rights of indigenous Colombian people and the need for a monitoring system.

14.03.27 Bishop of SheffieldThe Lord Bishop of Sheffield: My Lords, I shall speak briefly to support and echo the excellent remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and the points made by other noble Lords on the dangers posed by this treaty, in three specific areas.

First, on the protection of land ownership rights, as we have heard, this is no small issue in Colombia. A concern for the common good of the international community must surely include ensuring the ability of Colombia to continue to regulate in the interests of its own people, especially on this key issue. Such a concern would clearly preclude the binding of the Colombian people to corporate rather than national interests. We must therefore work to achieve greater reciprocity in the balance of protections afforded to investors, the Colombian Government and the wider citizenry, including the indigenous peoples in respect of land ownership rights. To this end I, too, urge the Government to incorporate safeguards to the investor-state dispute settlement provision to ensure that the UK complies with its human rights obligations and commitments made in Good Business: Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Secondly, I wish to echo the excellent remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on the dangers posed by this treaty to the protection of the human rights of the Colombian people. Assurances are needed from the Government that the necessary changes will be undertaken to ensure that the treaty does not undermine Colombia’s ability to meet its international human rights obligations. This is particularly necessary with respect to upholding the indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent, and their right to self-determination and their own development, as guaranteed in the United Nations ILO Convention 169 and the treaty on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Thirdly, I strongly urge the Government to establish an annual monitoring system for the treaty, to measure the impact of this agreement on both human rights and peace agreements. In the interests of accountability, as has been suggested, such monitoring ought to be incorporated into the annual FCO human rights report.

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Livingston of Parkhead) (Con) [extract]:

…I make it clear at the outset that the Government believe that the UK-Colombia investment treaty will benefit both countries. It will encourage increased levels of investment that will contribute towards economic growth, which I believe is in everyone’s interests. This view is shared by the democratically elected Colombian Government. They ratified this treaty in 2013 and have been pressing since then for the UK to ratify it as soon as possible. They have stated that they believe it will stimulate investment flows, guarantee the transparency and protection of investments within the standards recognised by international law, strengthen Colombia’s commercial ties with the rest of the world and guarantee equal treatment to Colombian investors in the UK….

…The noble Lord, Lord Alton—and, I think everyone else—raised issues about human rights. Of course, in Colombia, this issue is complex and difficult. The Government recognise the progress that the Colombian Government have made in tackling human rights issues, but clearly they are not there yet. There are still challenges and more that can be done to improve the situation in Colombia, especially for human rights defenders, victims and land restitution claimants and to prevent sexual violence. The UK Government will continue to discuss the matter and raise it with the Colombian Government. The continuing armed conflict is one of the major issues—

Lord Alton of Liverpool: Before the Minister leaves that point about monitoring the situation, several noble Lords suggested having a formal mechanism in the department and within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to log each year our assessment of human rights in Colombia and how they are being impinged on by business interests. Will he do something more formal than simply saying that it is an issue that concerns the Government?

Lord Livingston of Parkhead: I was going on to talk about the FTA, which covers a number of human rights issues and discussions. I will discuss with my colleagues in the Foreign Office the monitoring and reporting of human rights in Colombia as a more general issue. It is clearly one area of the world—regrettably, there are many—which has been a challenge.

The armed conflict is one of the main sources of the problems in Colombia. Like the noble Lord, Lord Monks, I support the efforts of the Colombian Government to find a solution through a negotiated peace process. Three or four months ago, I was in Colombia and had discussions with the Colombian Government. I do not doubt their genuine approach to finding a peace solution. In many cases, they will have to take some of the people of Colombia with them during this process. Some have made the corollary with some of our efforts in Northern Ireland and there is, of course, a lot of hurt over the years to make up. I hope that they make progress, which would lead to a number of better solutions.

The UK Government take a balanced approach. We realise that there are problems. It is very important to recognise the progress and effort of this Government in Colombia. They have made significant progress and we will continue to urge them to make further progress. We will also raise specific issues, and will urge that appropriate investigations take place and that protection measures are afforded.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others raised land reform. We do not agree that the treaty presents a threat to Colombia’s land restitution programme. As noble Lords know, under the programme, businesses can lose their land, or have to pay compensation, if they cannot prove they undertook due diligence to ensure that the previous occupants were not forcibly displaced. However, in practice, the risk of a business owned by a UK investor losing land or having to pay compensation appears to be small. Very few businesses appear to be losing land and we are not aware of any claims against British businesses under the programme.

The full text of the debate and the Minister’s response can be seen at Parliament.uk