Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
UK Trade with Colombia
Here is the final speech I am going to share with you from Labour Connected, which was made at an event organised by the TUC and Justice for Colombia on the Peace Process and Human Rights Situation in Colombia. In my speech, I set out how UK-Colombia trade would be different under a Labour government, and outlined the responsibility we have to respect and protect workers’ rights at home and abroad. You can watch a short clip from the speech here and read it in full below. As always, please let me know your thoughts and thank you for engaging with my online Labour conference speeches.
Friends, comrades — it is a great pleasure to be with you today and a great honour to be part of this panel of guests. Thank you to the TUC for inviting me to speak.We are here, of course, four years on from the signing of the historic peace deal in Colombia.For all the MPs and activists taking part today, we remember that week very vividly because we were at our annual conference in Liverpool, and there was a genuine sense of joy and celebration amongst all those from Britain who had spent so many years campaigning in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Colombia for peace, democracy and human rights.In the speech I made at the conference that week, I talked about the courage of the union movement in Colombia and the terrible price so many had paid in the fight for justice.
“But they never gave up”, I said. “And now, for the first time in decades, thanks to their efforts, there is a real chance of a lasting peace.”
That was four years ago and much has happened since then to dampen the joy and celebration we felt that day. Because, as we all know, signing a peace agreement and implementing a peace agreement are two very different things.
Today, thanks to President Duque, the peace agreement is being actively undermined by the government which is meant to implement it.
We have the spectacle of Alvaro Uribe potentially — and deservedly — facing trial for corruption, bribery and witness tampering, but continuing to enjoy impunity for the human rights abuses committed under his leadership. An impunity which his friends in the Duque government also appear to enjoy today.
I want to thank my fellow panellists for everything they are doing to bring attention to the extreme human rights abuses currently taking place in Colombia.
I will join you in doing all that I can to highlight those crimes in the British Parliament and to raise the profile in this country of the 600 Colombian trade unionists, community leaders and human rights activists who have been killed since 2016, and the thousands more harassed, attacked and threatened simply for demanding that the terms of the peace agreement are delivered, and for trying to secure a better, more just future for their fellow citizens.
We think especially today of those who have suffered and been killed in their efforts to ensure that the ordinary working people of Colombia can do their jobs for a fair wage, in decent conditions, free to organise and represent themselves, and safe from discrimination, exploitation and abuse.
According to the International TUC’s 2020 report, Colombia is ranked amongst the world’s worst 10 countries for workers’ rights, and 1 of 9 countries in the world where workers were murdered last year.
It should shame the Duque government that Colombia is ranked worse for workers’ rights than the likes of China, Egypt and Belarus, but instead their actions continue to make the problem worse.
Of course, you do not need me to tell you that if union leaders and representatives cannot operate free from violence and intimidation, if their legal status is routinely denied, then it is impossible to even start to challenge all the more mundane, but ubiquitous abuses of workers’ rights — all the breaches of the International Labour Organisation or ILO standards — from which Colombian people suffer every day.
So as we mark the fourth anniversary of the peace treaty in Colombia, what Colombian citizens urgently need is not just a government in Bogota that is genuinely committed to that treaty, but also concerted international pressure to ensure the protection of their human rights, their labour rights and their democratic freedoms.
And I believe the United Kingdom has two special responsibilities in that regard.
First and most obvious, as the penholder at the UN Security Council when it comes to the Colombian peace agreement, the UK has a responsibility to the citizens of Colombia to lead the UN in demanding that the agreement is observed and implemented in full by the Duque government, and holding them to public account in the eyes of the world if they continue to fail.
But as we have found in relation to Saudi war crimes in Yemen or the genocidal actions of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people, our current Conservative government is quite happy to hold the pen on these issues, but not so ready to use it when it comes to holding powerful nations to account.
That inertia, that cowardice — call it what you will — would end on Day 1 of a Labour government. We would use the UN to hold Duque to account.
The second area where the UK has a special responsibility — the one which is particularly important to me — is in relation to our trade with Colombia and the conditions we are prepared to set on that trade.
My guarantee is that when Labour are in government, future trade agreements that the UK signs with other countries will be made conditional on clear, enforceable commitments to uphold human rights, to uphold democratic freedoms, and meet the full range of ILO rules and standards.
Because unlike the current Tory government, we believe in the simple principle that if a country won’t respect and protect the rights of their workers, if they won’t abide by the ILO rules, and if they preside over a justice system where community leaders and union representatives can be murdered with impunity, then that is not a country with whom the UK should share preferential trade.
By contrast, there is not one single post-Brexit trade negotiation conducted by this Tory government and not one single treaty they have signed which has insisted on any more stringent conditions when it comes to the protection of labour rights.
And why is that?
Because — as it was put by former Australian PM Tony Abbott, newly-appointed to the government’s Board of Trade — they consider labour rights to be, and I quote, a “peripheral issue” that should not get in the way of securing trade deals and filling the massive trade void that will be left behind after Brexit.
That is why, in 2018, the UK government signed a rollover deal with the Andean countries, including Colombia, which has essentially been cut-and-pasted from the heavily criticised and rightly criticised EU-Andean Countries Agreement of 2012. And they did that in full knowledge of all the criticism that when it comes to human rights and workers’ rights, the EU Agreement is both wholly ineffective and also severely out of date.
After all — and most basically — when the trade deal was signed, the Colombian peace process had not yet begun and there was no Colombian peace agreement to uphold.
You would think that a development like that would be significant enough for the UK government to at least attempt to negotiate a new trade deal with Colombia, reflecting the status of the peace agreement and the human rights issues facing the country.
But instead, they chose to ignore all of that and we are left with a UK-Andean agreement which mirrors the same exact flaws as the EU deal.
So instead of providing benchmarks and penalty clauses which would force Colombia to uphold human rights, we are left with a so-called ‘roadmap’ for the country to follow which is non-binding and unenforceable.
The respective governments and negotiators can point all they want to the commitments in the trade deal roadmap to human rights monitors, to respecting labour rights and to eradicating the drugs trade, but frankly none of that matters if those commitments are not binding and enforceable, and unfortunately the commitments in the trade roadmap are anything but.
After all, how can a roadmap hold those who commit human rights abuses to account if there is no provision for the signatories to trigger investigations, to issue sanctions, or to suspend all or part of the trade deal?
If the UK are going to follow in the footsteps of the EU and simply monitor human rights abuses in Colombia rather than issue trade sanctions as a result of them, the least they must do is involve trade unions in their monitoring bodies.
Although I am afraid to say that we should not hold our breath, given the track record of this Conservative government when it comes to listening to trade unions.
But a Labour government would be different when it comes to the negotiation and enforcement of those labour rights provisions in trade deals.
We will be different when it comes to involving our trade unions in the negotiation of new agreements and in the human rights monitoring bodies required in countries like Colombia.
Respect for the rights of working men and women are so often the first thing that governments let slide in times of economic crisis. A Labour government in Britain must be different, not just protecting those rights at home, but also insisting on their protection abroad.
The British Labour Party has always been aware of the responsibility we have to raise these issues up the political agenda as we have consistently done in Parliament and must increasingly try to do through our online campaigning. But as I have said today, we will have an even greater responsibility in government not just to raise awareness of these issues, but to take action on them at the United Nations and through our future trade negotiations.
We will ensure that the UK serves as a global champion of human rights and social justice rather than treating them as “peripheral issues”.
We will stand in government for the same values and goals that inspire us in opposition.
And we will continue to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Colombia.
I hope that they will know lasting peace in my lifetime. I hope that the civil conflict and exploitation of workers which has plagued the country for far too long will finally come to an end, and that justice will come in its place.
That is the very least the people of Colombia deserve, so many of whom have never known proper protections of their rights, so many of whom have never known a period of lasting peace, and all of whom desperately want and need both.
That is our shared dream.
And with a Labour government in place, I promise we will do whatever we can to make it a shared reality.