Rt. Hon. Hugo Swire, Minister of State for the British Foreign Office, on British-Colombia relations.
In 2010, the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague launched the Canning Agenda—a drive to reverse a long-standing British tendency to underestimate Latin America and neglect its huge opportunities.
Colombia has been a clear case in point, and a country with which we have been determined to work more diligently. We have a long-standing relationship with Colombia that has supported the country’s transition from being described as close to a failing state 20 years ago, to a modern, dynamic, and progressive economy in 2012—particularly in security matters. Our relationship is now starting to develop even further, and together we have made big strides toward a more mature and wide-ranging relationship.
A major step along the way was President Santos’ Guest of Government visit to the UK in November 2011, during which he inspired many people with his vision to transform Colombia. The visit also helped to develop a close working relationship between our two governments, reflected ever since through a series of ministerial exchanges on issues such as education, science and innovation, climate change, and human rights. We have also developed a close partnership on global challenges, notably during Colombia’s time as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and around the Rio+20 Summit in June 2012. Throughout, we have found Colombia to be a particularly constructive partner on a wide range of foreign policy issues and we are pleased that Colombia is now taking on more of a leadership role across Latin America.
The UK has also been championing Colombia’s bid to become a full member of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as part of an agreed accession process. We welcome the Colombian government’s strong leadership to achieve OECD standards. We see this process as an important opportunity not only to support Colombia’s transformation into a more competitive and open economy, but also to make the OECD a stronger and more globally relevant institution. I am delighted that we have been offering technical assistance where appropriate, including in areas such as fiscal transparency and anti-bribery legislation. We have also helped with the establishment of a National Contact Point as part of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to encourage adherence by businesses to international standards of business ethics.
British companies are being alerted to Colombia’s impressive growth rates and by its unwavering commitment to trade liberalization and investor protection. Colombia looks set to become an even better place to do business if, as we hope, the EU-Andean Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is ratified over the coming months and as the Pacific Alliance trading bloc continues to develop. Given this encouraging backdrop, it is perhaps little surprise that overall trade between our two countries reached a record level of £1.68 billion in 2011 and UK exports of goods and services to Colombia rose by 45% compared to 2010.
The UK is the second largest investor in Colombia after the US, with recorded investments of over $5 billion over the last 10 years. This investment is primarily concentrated in the services, beverages, and extractive (oil and mining) sectors. Many of the British companies present in Colombia are seen as pioneers in responsible business practices, and we will continue to offer support to their efforts. The UK is also funding a number of projects involving UK companies and local NGOs to promote and implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
We are also working intensively to develop links in areas where growing Colombian demand matches UK technical or commercial expertise. One is in science and innovation, where we have signed a number of agreements to promote collaboration in sectors such as technology transfer, energy, and health. This is supported by an intensive program of activity to facilitate exchanges of students and staff between our universities—Colombia will support 1,000 (increasing to 1,500) Colombian PhD students per year as part of its “Science without Frontiers” program, and the UK is a target destination.
A second relates to green growth, where President Santos’ long-term low carbon development plan fits well with UK expertise in areas such as transport, construction, agriculture, and energy.
Finally, we are helping to bring UK infrastructure companies to Colombia to see for themselves its huge potential as the Colombian government looks to invest $60 billion in this area over the next eight years. Our Colombian colleagues have already shown strong interest in our experience as highlighted by the transformation of the previously derelict and contaminated area of London that became the host and showcase for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
We have significantly expanded the British Embassy in Bogotá to deepen our relations in areas such as infrastructure, science and innovation, and green growth. But we need to do more. Given Colombia’s openness, tremendous resources, and relative ease of doing business, I want to see more UK companies, research institutions, and universities make Colombia a priority for international engagement. The opportunities for UK business are huge.
Broadening our range of activity does not mean that we have turned our backs on the types of engagement that have long been central to our relationship with Colombia. Our important collaboration on counter-narcotics work continues to deliver results, and we are pleased to support the Colombian government’s initiative to share its expertise with other countries affected by the illegal drugs trade.
Human rights also remain an important part of our dialogue with the Colombian government. We welcome the steps taken so far by President Santos, particularly the passing of a law to return land to its rightful owners and provide compensation to victims, as well as proposals to improve protection for human rights activists and trade unionists. We will continue to assist the Colombian authorities in their efforts to tackle the remaining human rights issues and to implement the new laws.
The changing climate in Colombia is perhaps most perfectly embodied by President Santos’ courageous decision to launch a peace process with the FARC rebels. This brings the hope of peace to all Colombians and reaffirms Colombia’s commitment to transformation after many years of internal conflict. As Prime Minister David Cameron has said, the UK stands ready to draw on its experience to assist, including by sharing experience from the Northern Ireland peace process. Colombia’s consistently strong economic growth and successes by the armed forces create a favorable climate for the talks. And while significant challenges remain, President Santos can count on the full support of the UK and the wider international community in this important effort.
The Colombia of today is a place of great dynamism and optimism. It is therefore encouraging that so many influential British people and organizations are overcoming outdated stereotypes about the country and are finding such imaginative opportunities for collaboration. The UK government will do all that it can to facilitate further such exchanges and to support President Santos in his drive to transform Colombia. Given how much we have achieved over the last two years, it is clear that we have only just scratched the surface of the wealth of opportunities that exist for us to work together.
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© The Business Year - October 2012