Bryan Nott Responds to Law Society Colombia Article

Justice For Colombia News | | credit: Law Society Gazette on: Monday, 23 April 2012
Original source: Click here for original article

‘Colombia: isn’t it a bit dicey?’ It is possible that the lawyers Michael Cross spoke with when he visited Colombia showed irritation at that question. Sadly, I believe the majority of Colombians would view ‘dicey’ as an improvement on their current experience, evoking as it does a rather Boy’s Own version of dangerous.

The ‘Opportunities in Colombia’ article (tinyurl.com/cpunv5s) paints an upbeat picture of a country ‘open for business’, with confident declarations of a ‘current trend towards normality’. However, there is another side to the story.

Along with colleagues Victoria Phillips of Thompsons and Ellie Reeves of OH Parsons we visited Colombia shortly after Mr Cross, although not as guests of the British government. Travelling on a trip organised (but not paid for) by Justice for Colombia, alongside MPs and trade unionists, our experience could not have been more different.

Mr Cross makes passing reference to some of Colombia’s deep-rooted problems, but much more attention is afforded to wide-ranging opportunities for foreign investment and business. We are told ‘things have changed’. In fact far too much remains the same. The Colombian government dearly wants to give the impression that the past - government repression, state-sponsored paramilitaries, disregard for human rights and a judicial system that too often fails justice - is all behind it. The administration of president Santos has certainly improved its rhetoric but actions are not matching words. In some respect things may get worse - in response to a sometimes over-independent judiciary the government is looking to enlarge the military’s immunity from prosecution.

There are opportunities to make money in Colombia for foreign businesses, but at what cost? Regularly identified as one of the most unequal societies on Earth, 40% of Colombians live in poverty and labour rights are severely limited. Employees are kept on casual employment contracts and it is undeniably the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist - three out of every five trade unionists murdered worldwide are in Colombia. Many non-violent government critics face years in prison awaiting trial on questionable charges.

If only Colombia could rid itself of the reputation created by five decades of civil war and three decades of being the international cocaine capital then, the theory goes, it is the perfect place to invest. A significant attraction is those same limited labour rights and the equally limited controls on multinationals wishing to exploit its natural resources.

Therefore, it was with a sad sense of irony that I read a comment in Mr Cross’s article by a consultant with energy firm Sanclemente Fernández Abogados, that ‘we have never had expropriation without compensation’; presumably assuring putative investors that Colombia will not follow other ‘left-leaning’ South American states in nationalising industries. Our delegation travelled beyond Bogota. In the Putumayo region in southern Colombia 14 indigenous communities had lived on tribal lands. All but two of which lost their land, often as a result of forced, violent eviction, or, to put it another way, ‘expropriation without compensation’. A key driver was the fact that in 2008 the Colombian government declared the region a mining area, clearing the way for an influx of multinational corporations.

We were told (by British Embassy officials) that British companies have found themselves on ‘appropriated’ land. The Colombian government recently passed legislation to commence a process of returning such land and compensating the victims. However, everyone affected we met said that the law was not being implemented.

Apparently, 10 years ago Colombia was a very different place. Strange then that barely six months ago the Law Society Council passed a resolution calling on the Colombian government to act on the murder of lawyers and the culture of impunity that surrounds it.

There are better things UK lawyers could be doing in Colombia. The Colombian Association of Labour Lawyers is organising a people’s tribunal in May to hear testimony regarding the abuse of human rights. They have support from across the Americas and Spain. UK support would be equally welcome.

Bryan Nott is a partner at Simpson Millar



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