Guest Post: Colombia – the first test for Ireland’s business and human rights agenda?

A warm welcome to Karol Balfe of Christian Aid Ireland, who provides the latest guest post on business and human rights in Ireland. Karol is Christian Aid’s adviser on governance, peace building and human rights and can be followed on twitter: @KarolBalfe. 

Ireland has earned an enviable reputation as an honest broker, a defender of human rights, and as a leading authority on issues of international development. Commendably we have committed to ensuring policy coherence across government in support of development objectives as a fundamental principle of the government’s One World, One Future policy document. As Ireland considers how to address the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and how best to go about implementing them, our ties with Colombia offer a test of our commitments and values and illustrates concerns that in reality trade may trump human rights.

…in reality trade may trump human rights

In early November of this year the Dáil will debate the EU Free Trade Agreement with Colombia and Peru. This Agreement was signed in June 2012 and was approved by the European Parliament last December. Its provisions applied provisionally from 1 August 2013, and will be fully enforceable and binding once ratified by all EU member states. A coalition of Irish trade union and non-governmental organisations working on human rights in Colombia has been urging the government not to ratify this Agreement, and in the event it is ratified, to insist on better human rights protections.

Colombia has been entangled in conflict for over five decades. The conflict has involved grave violations of human rights and has resulted in massive internal displacement of people. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre there are 5.7 million internally displaced people by the conflict, involving the illegal seizure of approximately 6 million hectares of land. Wealth and power is highly concentrated in Colombia. Some positive changes have occurred, in particular the approval of Law 1448 – the Victims and Land Restitution Law – in June 2011 and the beginning of the peace process with the main guerrilla group in 2012. However positive efforts such as these have simply not resulted in real changes on the ground. In 2013, 70 human rights defenders were killed for the work they do, alarmingly these figures are twice as high as figures from 2010 and in the first half of 2014, 30 human rights defenders have already been killed. In what has been dubbed “Black September,” over 150 death threats have been issued in the month of September 2014 against Colombian human rights defenders, journalists, and labour leaders.

Colombian unions and thousands of farmers opposed the free trade agreement strongly through large scale strikes in 2013, and today hold it, and other such trade agreements, responsible for increasing poverty while fostering a climate in which corporate rights are paramount and labour rights hardly exist. As Lyda Fernanda, an economist from the Transnational Institute suggests:

a year after the national agrarian and popular strike, small-scale producers continue to receive low sale prices for their products, as well as facing the high costs of production and transportation, repression and criminalization of protest.

What is more disturbing “is that the rural economy, the basis for national food production, is being threatened by free trade agreements”.

In a recent Seanad debate Deputy Richard Bruton, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation stated that “The agreement incorporates commitments on human rights, sustainable development and the objective to reduce poverty.” While the clauses do provide a limited opportunity to promote human rights, potentially a mechanism to suspend the Agreement following a failure to comply with international human rights standards, and dedicated subcommittees to deal with market access and labour and environmental issues, there is:

  • an absence of adequate monitoring, evaluation and compliance mechanisms
  • no means of enforcing labour or environmental standards where abuses do not reach the level of human rights violations, which MEPs were advised “may make it difficult for the EU to live up to its own legal responsibilities”.

Additionally the suspension clause has never before been utilised at EU level. No specific independent body or committee has been established to monitor the implementation of the human rights clause in the FTA, or of the Road Map. It appears that these issues are to be discussed within the Trade Committee, in spite of the fact that a study commissioned by the International Trade committee of the European Parliament noted that it is “self-evidently inappropriate for the main organ of the agreement, [the] ‘Trade Committee’, to have the primary competence to deal with issues arising under the human rights clause.” In addition, a major failing is that civil society is not represented at that level.

Minister Bruton also stated that: “This agreement with Colombia represents an opportunity to support sustainable, equitable development”. Recent evidence does not support this claim. The situation of peasants, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Peoples has worsened since the introduction of the US Free Trade Agreement. Imports of cheap subsistence products such as milk and corn have resulted in Colombian products being undermined by cheaper imports. This constitutes blatantly unfair competition as these products are subsidized by the US tax payer.

So what does this mean for Ireland and its efforts to implement the UN Guiding Principles? While this is an EU treaty it does not mean Ireland should not take action itself. The 2012 EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy clearly sees human rights as the responsibility of Members States and the EU. At the very least the Irish government should develop and set out clear and specific human rights guidelines for Irish companies doing business in Colombia in order to ensure they do not violate human rights. The Irish Government should also ensure that adequate human rights monitoring and compliance mechanisms are included this and in any future EU trade agreements with a human rights component.

Further reading:

  • REPORT: ‘The U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground’ – Failure of Labor Action Plan in Colombia Holds Lessons for Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement Negotiations, Says Congressional Report, United States Congress – 131029
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