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UK-Andean Trade Agreement: Human Rights

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2022

I remind Members to observe social distancing and wear masks. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights and the UK-Andean Trade Agreement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. This debate concerns human rights and the UK’s trade agreement with the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. For the benefit of the Ecuadorians present, Ecuador is not one of the countries of concern to me; Peru—though only a little—and Colombia are the objects of my concern.

It is commonly agreed that any trade agreement nowadays should go beyond merely the management of trade flows between different countries. The then Foreign Secretary, who is now the Justice Secretary, said in January 2021 that

“we shouldn’t be engaged in free trade negotiations with countries abusing human rights”.

That is clear and unequivocal. The Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and North America, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), told the Commons last July that

“our commitment to human rights is a foundation stone of our foreign policy… We will ensure that we use our trade relationships not just to export products and services but to export our principles and values.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 800.]

That is a strong, powerful statement.

Even in their report to the House on the trade agreement with the Andean countries, the Government stated:

“The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally and this will continue as we leave the EU. We want to ensure economic growth, development and labour and environmental protection go hand-in-hand.”

There we have it: human rights, labour standards and environmental protection should all be part of any modern trade agreement.

It gets a little better; there are strong statements in the agreement itself. Article 1 states:

“Respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights…underpins the internal and international policies of the Parties. Respect for these principles constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.”

Article 269 commits both parties to

“the promotion and effective implementation in its laws and practice…of internationally recognised core labour standards”.

Sadly, there is no mechanism to enforce that. There are no sanctions and no discussion of what we do when things go wrong. There is an acceptance that we should have domestic advisory groups on both sides to represent civil society, trade unions, employers and so on, which could monitor adherence to labour standards and human rights commitments. I shall be asking the Minister where we are with our own domestic advisory group in the UK.

I will start with Peru, which in many ways is an easier case. Peru generates concern around environmental standards. Back in 2017, Peruvian civil society representatives and their European counterparts filed a complaint before the European Commission against the Peruvian Government for failure to comply with environmental and labour obligations under the free trade agreement with the EU, was then the guiding trade agreement. The Peruvian Government continue to fail to establish clear objectives and indicators to monitor progress on tackling these big environmental issues, so there is concern about Peru.

Colombia is a country I know reasonably well. It had a horrendous civil war, which in a way continues. It reached, in part, a negotiated solution. However, that has not stopped the huge erosion of basic human rights, including the right to life and others.

The hon. Gentleman often brings human rights issues to Westminster Hall about which he and I are on the same page, as we are today. While respect for democratic principles, fundamental human rights and the rule of law should be an essential part of any agreement, does he not agree that we need not simply words but actions? We should not continue to trade with those whose flagrant disregard for and abuse of human rights is prevalent and persevering. I believe that he will now illustrate, in addressing what has happened in Colombia—land grabs and murders of peasant people—that those in authority there have a disregard for life itself.

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s support. He is absolutely right. I will continue on exactly that theme.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has information about 196 human rights defenders —those who protect the population more generally and go out of their way to act as a human shield—who were killed in 2021. They faced increasing death threats in the aftermath of protests last year. In the first 24 days of this year, 10 human rights defenders were murdered. The International Trade Union Confederation rates Colombia as one of the worst countries in the world for workers’ rights and documents 22 trade unionists who have been murdered in the last year. Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be active in a trade union.

It is good that an issue as important as international human rights has been brought to this Chamber. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have to start dealing with such issues in Colombia? Only on Monday, José González Marín, an agricultural workers trade union representative, was shot six times and killed, the rationale being that he wanted the UK-Colombia free trade agreement suspended. This cannot continue.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. That someone was shot for being a trade unionist going about trade union activities is simply an outrage. The right to life is a fundamental right. The right to protest is a fundamental right. In this country in the past, trade unionists may have faced imprisonment, but rarely death, I have to say. It is shocking that that is still the way things are in this world.

More than 1,200 Colombian social leaders, often representing the indigenous community, are estimated to have been murdered since the 2016 peace agreement was signed. I was involved in supporting the creation of that agreement, so I bow to nobody in recognising its importance, but we recognise that it did not solve the problem of violence. Worse than that, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has verified that at least 46 people—two of them state agents, the rest civilians—were killed during protests, with at least 28 of those killings attributed to the police. One young woman, who may not count as one of the 28, was gang-raped by the police and took her own life as a result.

State repression and widespread killing of protestors by the police breaches every democratic principle known to us all. Rather like my hon. Friend said, the question arises of what the remedy should be. The problem with the Andean agreement is that it ultimately makes no demand on the authorities in Colombia or, indeed, Peru. The UK did not consider the Colombian Government’s failure to uphold many of their obligations under the peace agreement when negotiating the Andean agreement. I recognise that the agreement is a roll-over of the EU agreement, but the human rights commitments are nevertheless real, despite the violations that contravene the commitments of the Colombian Government, who have failed to live up to their own expressed intentions.

Will the Minister say where we are on this? I recognise that the treaty is in transition. What do we say to the Colombians and to the Peruvian Government about the gross breaches of the standards to which they agreed and to which we as a country are committed to uphold in our trade negotiations?

Like my hon. Friend, the Trades Union Congress has joined the Colombian trade unions in asking for the agreement to be suspended until there are effective measures to ensure that human rights are observed and, in the case of Peru, that environmental and labour standards are upheld. Clearly, in the absence of any capacity to do that, what matters is how we monitor human rights abuse. What do we do in terms of our dialogue with the Colombian authorities?

I mentioned that there is provision in the treaty for the establishment of domestic advisory groups that ought to be able—through civil society, trade unions, employers’ organisations and civil organisations such as non-governmental organisations and the like—to say what the situation is on the ground and to be listened to. Only by listening away from Government sources do we get the real information on the ground.

I have listened over the years. I was a Minister in the Foreign Office years back. As a recipient of Foreign Office advice about Colombia from our embassy, I did not always find it to be as complete as the information that one would get from civil society and from those on the ground who saw the erosion of standards in people’s real lives and, brutally, people’s real deaths. Where are we up to with the establishment of the domestic advisory groups? It is so important that we have the capacity to monitor, to inform and, where appropriate, to give real criticism and look at whether we want to be part of a trade agreement that is so lacking in enforcement.

More broadly, will the Minister comment on our policy with respect to free trade agreements and human rights clauses? If this is the example that we are using with other regimes where we know that there are regular human rights abuses, we will be creating a very difficult future for our commitment to maintain human rights and to maintain pressure on labour standards and, importantly, environmental standards. We are likely to be talking in the near future to Brazil and other Governments in Latin America. I have to say that the present Brazilian Government would probably not pass muster in terms of their commitments on human rights standards, so what does the Andean agreement say about our ability to work in the future where human rights are central to the whole operation?

I know that the Minister is a trade Minister and is not directly responsible for our embassies, although there are trade representatives in them. What kind of information and advice pertinent to the agreement do the Minister and her colleagues get from our embassy in Bogotá? The ambassador is due to speak to groups of MPs in the not-too-distant future, so I hope that we will hear that directly from him, but he will perhaps give a little more information to Ministers than to a Back-Bench MP, however interested in Colombia I am.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we expect human rights issues in countries to be discussed and ironed out in free trade agreements, arrangements, discussions and negotiations? He has just explained how many people have been killed only this year, and it continues. I would think that the UK Government do raise this issue, but the fact that they do so and nothing happens is not acceptable. What does he think should happen with these negotiations? We cannot continue to turn a blind eye.

That is almost exactly where I want to end. We have got to an agreement. The Government and the Opposition agree that human rights, labour standards and environmental standards are fundamental. That has been enshrined by the then Foreign Secretary, by Foreign Office Ministers and by trade Ministers too. We are in agreement that Colombia is a very difficult case. Peru is perhaps less difficult, but it nevertheless causes some problems. There are therefore two problem countries out of the three Andean treaty countries. In that context, what is the value of writing human rights clauses into an agreement if, in the end, nothing is done about the erosion of standards?

We have to rethink the way that we do things. We have to rethink whether sanctions or a road map need to be delivered, saying that we expect change and transformation. In the end, we expect to have the capacity, if our interlocuters in Bogotá or other capitals—in Peru, Brazil or wherever—are not conforming, to say, “We really can no longer live with this agreement.” I put it to the Minister that the time has now come to listen to the call, from the Colombian trade unions in particular, for us to suspend this agreement until such time that there is a recognisable road map for human rights, labour standards and environmental improvement.

I start by thanking the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this important and well-attended debate. These debates are very helpful to get things on record and to raise awareness about particular issues. They are also very helpful to Ministers, because they enable us to take some time to do a deep dive into areas that we normally would not pay a huge amount of attention to, because of the demands on our time.

The debate has caused me to take some time this week to look at the tragic details of the cases that he and other Members have raised—there are hundreds of cases. These are not just lists of names; there are stories behind them about what those individuals were working towards and what they were trying to secure for their communities. These are people who have been killed and murdered and, as hon. Members have said, been victims of other crimes too, including sexual violence. They were trade unionists, they were protestors and they were environmental campaigners—as well as many other things. Their murders, and the murders of members of their families, including children, are horrific. Colleagues have done the House a service in reminding us about what has gone on and what continues to go on. I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for that.

I thank the Minister for giving way, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate and I apologise for arriving a few minutes late. While the Minister is paying tribute to those who have been murdered, I want to add to the record Dr Luz Marina Arteaga, a social leader from the Matarratón and El Porvenir communities in Colombia. I and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) had the huge privilege of meeting her several years ago during our visit with the ABColombia group. She was found dead towards the end of January, murdered for standing up for the rights of her community. We have written directly to the Foreign Secretary about that—I hope we will hear back soon. I want to add that to the record and emphasise the necessity for accountability mechanisms in these trade deals. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, these are not worth anything in writing if they are not acted upon.

I thank the hon. Member for raising that particular case. If we were to raise every case we would be here for several weeks; there are large numbers of individuals and their families falling victim to this activity. The countries that the hon. Member for Rochdale is concerned about are of concern to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; they are on its watchlist for human rights abuses. As well as the levers that the Government have, which I will come on to, we have a huge amount in the UK that we can deploy to try and improve this situation. Our trade unions are a part of that suite of things that we have to offer as a country. When we talk about global Britain, we often do not talk about what they do, but I know from previous roles that they do a tremendous amount to build capacity and highlight the plight of vulnerable individuals. We have done good work both in the FCDO and in other Departments—the Department for Work and Pensions, for example—to try to use that knowledge and expertise to grow capacity in organisations elsewhere.

Government can be a catalyst for reform and for improving human rights around the world. In formulating our trade policy, for which I hold the brief, I try to balance off what the best way of doing that is. I am very conscious that trade in itself is a force for good. Our trade dialogue gives us a platform to raise human rights issues. Just in autumn last year, I and another Minister from our Department went to Peru to discuss issues related to trade, and were able to raise other issues alongside that debate. Trade is also important for poverty alleviation. I am very conscious that, as we come out of the pandemic and, we hope, recover swiftly from that economic blow, removing barriers to trade is a vitally important component of that.

I am also acutely aware that the communities that hon. Members have mentioned this afternoon have suffered terribly during the pandemic. Many of them have lost millions of jobs, and those individuals have little or no state support, and so are more vulnerable to exploitation. Organisations, civil society voices and trade union voices that we want to strengthen are increasingly important at this time.

We have many other tools in Government outside of our trade negotiations. We shape our official development assistance programmes to reflect concerns about human rights. To give the hon. Member for Rochdale an example from another situation, we reshaped our ODA programming following the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. We still wanted to work there, and there was a need for us to be there, but it was not appropriate to continue as we had been. We do adapt—our policies are not set in stone. They can adapt, and our FTA policies and programmes enable us to do that.

We have spent to date £68 million through the conflict, stability and security fund to support the implementation of a peace agreement in Colombia, as the hon. Member for Rochdale will know. As I said, that country is on the FCDO’s human rights priority country watchlist. Our Minister met with human rights defenders and social leaders in November last year to talk extensively about those issues.

There have been 40 community activists killed already this year, and there have been 13 massacres. As I have said twice already, that cannot continue. Can the Minister give this House assurances that, in any discussions with the Colombian authorities, No. 1 on the agenda will be human rights in that country? We should be doing everything that we possibly can to remedy that issue. If they will not listen, if they continue to turn a blind eye, does the Minister have any ideas about how best to progress this?

When we meet Ministers and other people who can assist us in other countries, that is absolutely part of our core script. On visits, we as Ministers, but also our officials, will listen to organisations in country as well. It is incredibly important that we do that and that we have a good understanding. Of course, through our networks around the globe, and particularly in those countries, we ensure that these things are monitored and reported back to our ministries. I will come on to what we can do, because as the hon. Member and other hon. Members have said, the situation persists.

Crucially, we have also put in place a multi-million pound project to help to transform the approach taken by the Colombian national police on human rights, social conflict and gender. I mention those things because addressing them is part of how we—the UK—can help to resolve the situation, and protect and strengthen civil society.

The hon. Member for Rochdale asked me some specific questions on our engagement. I have mentioned the engagement that my Department has had with Peru recently. Last year, three UK Ministers visited Colombia. In addition, there were regular calls between officials, as well as virtual visits—given some of the restrictions we faced—by Lord Ahmad and the UK international ambassador for human rights. Most recently, a Foreign Office Minister visited Colombia in November to attend an event marking the five-year anniversary of the signing of the 2016 peace agreement, which obviously provided opportunities for her to raise these issues, which she did.

I will respond to some of the questions that the hon. Member for Rochdale asked about our position on monitoring; then I will answer the questions put by the hon. Member for Wansbeck about how we can apply some teeth to such monitoring.

The hon. Member for Rochdale asked about monitoring of the commitment and ensuring that we deal with countries that try to adhere to the core standards of the agreement. We have an annual trade committee, under which we have several specialised committees, with those countries’ partners. That is obviously the successor to the EU structure, which he alluded to. It meets on an annual basis and is due to meet again in March. It helps to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement, as well as providing a framework for ensuring that commitments are met and that the agreement is functioning effectively. It also supports our objectives, including our human rights objectives.

Regarding the UK’s domestic advisory group—clearly, the countries have their own such groups, but I will talk about ours—we launched a public expression of interest for that in January. It is an independent group of expert organisations that will monitor the implementation of the trade and sustainable development chapters of the UK’s FTAs, including those with the countries that the hon. Member for Rochdale is concerned about. The UK’s DAG is expected to be in place shortly—later this year—and engagement with the UK Government and partner countries will be regular and ongoing. Partner countries to these agreements will also establish their own respective DAGs and we have discussed the issue at the UK’s first trade and sustainable development committees, which began last year and will continue this year. We have regular discussions with those countries at ministerial and official levels, and our annual trade committee and associated sub-committees provide a platform to do that.

The countries’ trade agreements include binding provisions on trade and sustainable development, or TSD, on both labour and environmental standards, and they provide for an annual TSD committee, which I have already alluded to. Those are an opportunity for the UK to raise concerns with partner organisations and we will do so if necessary. However, that is how we will monitor what is happening. What hon. Members want to know is how we will apply some teeth to this process.

Clearly, we take a bespoke approach to our FTAs, but all our FTAs contain either chapters or parts based on human rights. Those provisions differ and have a different focus, depending on the particular needs of the situation that we are dealing with. For example, there may be chapters on gender or indigenous people. That is what “good” looks like in an FTA; that is what we work to. However, the reasons for including such provisions are not just because it is a nice thing to do—