Colombia — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 23rd November 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 3:30 pm, 23rd November 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether their discussions with the President of Colombia during his visit will include the subject of monitoring the human rights and environmental impacts of British and multinational corporations engaged in mining activities in Colombia.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

My Lords, discussions covered a range of issues, including human rights. We agreed a joint declaration on human rights. We held a "green growth" event, in which we discussed the importance of environmental impact assessments for the mining industry. Our embassy in Colombia was a founding member of the Colombian Mining and Energy Committee, which includes government, industry and civil society observers. It looks at compliance with the voluntary principles on security and human rights.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, what advice do the Government provide for British companies operating in Colombia to help them to comply with the ILO Convention No. 169, which gives indigenous populations the right to free and informed consent to projects that will affect them? There have been disturbing reports of companies that wish to exploit indigenous lands by colluding with misinformation campaigns and forced mass displacement. Can the Minister assure the House that no British companies are involved in such activities and, instead, that they are encouraged to help the new Colombian Government to deliver on their commitments to human rights?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I can assure the noble Baroness that the embassy meets regularly with representatives of indigenous communities and discusses these things. More specifically, as with other embassies, we encourage and expect British companies to respect human rights in the places where they do business. Both the UKTI and the Bogota embassy provide advice, including on prior consultation, for British companies to ensure that this happens. The embassy also has monitored very closely two particular companies where there were concerns, and I could certainly inform the noble Baroness, if she so wishes, at any time on the details of how they got on. But the answer broadly is that, yes, this is the way we wish to move and, although there are British interests in some of these companies, they have been under very close monitoring and pressure and there has been some improvement.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

Is my noble friend aware that the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples said on 31 October at the Peace Brigades International conference in London that it was important to assist indigenous peoples to build their capacity for negotiation? Would DfID consider funding the training of indigenous peoples in Colombia to develop their skills and knowledge so they can negotiate effectively with political authorities and multinational companies so as to produce development agreements that protect and advance their interests?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

As I just told the noble Baroness, officials in our embassy meet regularly with indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Additionally, the embassy is funding a project in Colombia aimed at developing the role of organisations in protecting the rights to the territories. We are also providing technical assistance to the Colombian Government to work towards effective implementation of the new land and victims law, which aims to return land to huge numbers of displaced people and compensate victims. We are also funding projects to support access to justice and protection of human rights defenders, and we will continue to provide support for the Colombian Government wherever possible.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

Is it not the case that in situations like Colombia the absence of human rights leads to further instability and alienation and that it is absolutely essential, not only in Colombia but across the world and, indeed, within the United Kingdom itself, to recognise that stability and security require people to be able to fulfil their potential in a situation founded on the belief in and conviction of human rights?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

The noble Lord, who has campaigned endlessly and bravely in these many areas, is absolutely right; human rights and human responsibilities-closely associated with the necessary degree of trust and investment-produce higher living standards. The whole package goes together nowadays in this increasingly transparent world; it cannot be avoided. Governments around the world will have to face it. We shall do our best here, both to face our own conditions and indeed to encourage others.

Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister not agree that the President and his Foreign Secretary, by coming to Parliament to meet and talk with parliamentarians, as he did on Monday, and by meeting NGOs and lobby groups specifically about human rights, as he did yesterday, demonstrated a willingness to listen and to take action to remedy the inheritance and consequences of violence, terrorism and drug trafficking that have overshadowed his country in recent years? Should we not now concentrate on improving our trade and cultural links with Colombia in order to improve the lot of the people and help them to return to normal relations with the rest of the world?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

Yes, President Santos has just had a very successful visit here, and my noble friend is quite right that he has an active reform agenda, which he has carried forward with vigour, and which is moving his country to what some people call a "new Colombia". It is certainly a very dynamic country, one with increasing trade and linkages with this country, and one that we are determined to befriend and support in its reform phase. So yes, President Santos has acted with vigour on the human rights front and is carrying forward changes that were undoubtedly needed.

Photo of Lord Stern of Brentford Lord Stern of Brentford Crossbench

My Lords, would the Minister agree that conflict and insecurity are deeply damaging for both human rights and environmental protection, and that the level of conflict and insecurity in Colombia over the past 10 years has been dramatically lower than in the preceding 40 or 50? Would he also allow me to observe that President Santos is an alumnus of the LSE? I chaired his presentation to the LSE yesterday and these questions of human rights and environmental protection were discussed very frankly and directly.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

Yes, I certainly allow the noble Lord to observe that valid and very constructive point; it is certainly so. It is also, of course, a fact that the revolutionary guerrilla movement, the so-called FARC, has grown weaker over the years. Indeed, noble Lords will have read the reports only a few weeks ago about the killing, finally, of the terrorist leader Alfonso Cano. The FARC operation goes on, but in a much reduced way, hidden away in the mountains, and President Santos has been the first to point out that its aims are pointless, and that it should come to peace and negotiation and have its grievances properly and democratically aired. He is taking a lead in, as I say, a new Colombia.