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Latin America: Future Foreign Policy

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the need for, and (2) the benefits of, engaging with countries in Latin America as part of the United Kingdom’s future foreign policy.

My Lords, Latin America is an increasingly important partner for the UK’s global ambitions. It is one of the regions most aligned to UK values. Our relationships are based on democratic values, sustainable, inclusive and resilient economic growth, and the championing of free trade. We also have strong people-to-people links and effective co-operation on innovation, health and climate change.

My Lords, despite the Minister’s positive words, Latin America gets just two brief paragraphs in the recent integrated review. As well as the scope for export growth, there is huge potential for UK influence and global leadership on climate change and human rights, not least in Colombia, where the UK is the UN penholder for the peace process. Will the Minister ensure that future FCDO policy does not short-change itself by ignoring Latin America?

My Lords, I recognise the work that the noble Baroness does in this region. I reassure her and your Lordships’ House that Latin America continues to be an important partner for the UK. The priorities set out in the integrated review, such as climate change, trade, supporting open societies and human rights, are all relevant to the region. It has three countries in the G20, more than 400 million inhabitants and strong commercial and cultural links across the globe, so I assure her that Latin America is a region where we have strategic allies on issues that matter most to us.

My Lords, I support the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and urge the Minister to work with the new US Administration and our partners in the Commonwealth on relations with Latin America, including on trade, the environment, security and foreign policy. Will the Minister also confirm that the Government are not involved in some zero-sum game here and are fully committed to facilitating, not hampering, trade and foreign policy co-operation with our nearest European neighbours?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that the essence of the integrated review is to lay out the strategy of the United Kingdom post our exit from the European Union. In doing so, a number of our key priorities remain closely aligned with those of our European Union neighbours and partners, as they are with those of other countries, including those in Latin America.

My Lords, with vaccine diplomacy tipping Latin American countries further into China’s influence, is the Minister concerned about the current Peruvian elections, where the far-left front-runner admires Venezuela; that Chile may soon have a leader who favours China; and that Brazil’s climate and Covid crises threaten world stability? To follow up on the previous question, is this not a strange time to reduce our influence by disconnecting from our European allies? There is an EU-shaped hole in the integrated review.

My Lords, let me correct the noble Baroness. As I am sure she appreciates, on a number of occasions I have stressed the importance of engagement with the European Union to our future, whether on human rights or climate change. Many issues that impact those within the European continent impact the United Kingdom, and we will continue to have a strong relationship with our EU partners. On her other point on the context of Latin America, we have strong relationships with different countries and will continue to explore trade opportunities and the challenges of climate change across Latin America, but will continue to be a strong advocate for human rights.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that demands on the world’s supply of lithium and copper will increase with our dependence on digital and battery technology? Given that Latin American countries, especially Chile, Peru and Bolivia, have some of the world’s greatest resources of these precious metals, does he also agree that we should nurture our relationships with them, based on our historic links and the huge good will there, just as how in the past our relations with oil-rich countries were built up because of our oil energy needs?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and assure her about the agreements being signed. The full implementation of trade agreements with Andean countries and central America, Chile, CARIFORUM and Mexico, and the negotiation of new agreements with CPTPP and Mexico this year, have paved the way for a UK-Mercosur FTA in the future. We will continue to work closely with the region.

My Lords, the Minister referred to economic growth and trade opportunities. Some say, I think rightly, that prioritising a trade-corridor strategy is optimum. As it has the current presidency of the Pacific Alliance, have we sat with Colombia to determine how best to maximise opportunities for the UK? If so, what might they be and what is the best mechanism to achieve them?

My Lords, we work very closely with Colombia on a range of priorities, as we do with other Latin American countries and partners. We are looking to strengthen our ties across the region, as he rightly points out, by creating the trade corridors that we require and are in the interests of the region, as well as the United Kingdom.

My Lords, on 29 March, Carlos Vidal became the latest trade unionist to be killed in Colombia. At least 18 trade unionists were killed in 2020 and, according to the UN verification mission, a total of 133 human rights defenders were murdered. So what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the Minister’s Colombian counterparts address this issue with a public policy to dismantle criminal organisations, including paramilitary successor groups, as stipulated by the peace agreement? Also, what is the Minister’s response to the call for the Security Council, which is today considering Colombia, to create a group of technical experts to assist in that?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out the challenges that remain within Colombia, which is an FCDO human rights priority country. Indeed, in my virtual visit, the issues that he raised were raised directly by myself with the Justice Minister of Colombia. In terms of the UN Security Council, the noble Lord is again correct. It is meeting today and will be hearing from the UN Secretary-General’s special rapporteur, who will present her quarterly report. We will remain invested in Colombia, both in the peace process and in the defence of human rights.

My Lords, I remind the House of my registered interest as president of the Peru Support Group. Given the serious misjudgment by the Blair Administration when they withdrew interest, involvement and resources from Latin America in favour of building up a friendship with China, is it not disappointing that, further to the increasing influence of China, there is so little mention of the region in the integrated review? The Minister has said that there is a real commitment to relationships with Latin America, so how does he explain to the House this minimalist comment in the integrated review on our strategic interests in Latin America?

My Lords, I hope that the responses that I have given already, including today, will address some of those concerns. The noble Lord mentioned Peru among other South American countries, and I shall give him a practical example. The United Kingdom recently signed a second Government-to-Government contract with Peru worth over £100 million, which is helping to rebuild schools and hospitals in that country that were damaged back in the 2017 flooding. That is just one practical example of the strengthening relationship between the UK and Latin America.

My Lords, as chairman of the UK branch of Plan International, a charity, for about 20 years, I have regularly visited most of the countries in Latin America. The major problem always was that people obtained all sorts of wonderful things and shelves were stocked but no one knew how to use them. That was rather wasteful and we wanted to do something about that. Can the Government, given that development is now included in the Minister’s portfolio, assure me that the experience of non-governmental bodies that already work in Latin America will be involved in any plans, as their experience is invaluable in providing insight into opportunities and areas of need? The lesson that I learned was that it was important to have someone explain how to use things, not just to present them and then hope that people would be able to put together a prefab school or all sorts of things for educational use. In the light of the—

My Lords, I picked up the gist of my noble friend’s question when she began and can give her a very to-the-point response. Of course, the importance of civil society remains part and parcel of the delivery of our programme. As regards my portfolio on human rights, we work closely across the regions, particularly in countries such as Colombia.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the third Oral Question, from the noble Lord, Lord Robathan.