Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Issues of Mutual Concern between Ireland and Colombia: Ambassador of Colombia

10:00 am

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I am aware that this is a busy morning for members. As well as being obliged to attend other meetings, a number of them are due to be present in the Chamber. We are meeting earlier than is normally the case. The only item on the agenda is our engagement with His Excellency, Mr. Néstor Osorio, Ambassador of Colombia to Ireland, who is accompanied by the deputy head of mission, Mr. Juan Manuel Uribe. The format of the meeting will be that we will hear a brief presentation from the ambassador which will be followed by a question and answer session.

I am delighted to welcome the ambassador and the deputy head of mission. The ambassador has had a distinguished career. When I met him last night, he told me that he had been Colombia's permanent representative to the World Trade Organization and the United Nations in New York, where he was president of the Security Council during Colombia's membership of it in 2011 and 2012. He is resident in London. One day his country and ours will have resident ambassadors in Dublin and Bogotá, respectively, which would make a great difference.
Mr. Osorio has started his first visit to Ireland well, having presented his credentials to President Higgins yesterday. I congratulate him on his appointment as ambassador to the United Kngdom and Ireland. This visit has been engaging and he has covered a wide range of activities, reflecting the engagement with Latin America. This is important for us, as the region has significant potential. Ireland has many historical links with it and we recently opened a new consulate general office in South America, on which I am sure the committee will focus further.
The ambassador has had a busy week. Last Tuesday he launched a specially produced book written in Spanish and English at the Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square entitled, Ireland/Colombia: 20 Poems, which was written by Irish and Colombian writers. His presentation yesterday in the library of Trinity College Dublin on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and world literature was appreciated. He has also met many companies and focused on trade. This morning he met the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton. It has been a great start to his first official visit to Ireland. There is a growing market, with major prospects for trade between our two countries and Mr. Osorio's visit recognises the potential of our relationship with Colombia.
The ambassador will brief the committee on the issues obtaining in Colombia following the presidential elections. The committee has focused on Colombia in recent years. Deputy Eric Byrne visited the country earlier this year and I visited it with the then Deputy Michael D. Higgins three or four years ago. Colombia has had a terrible century and at times was on the brink of falling. Long-standing social injustices, underdevelopment and poverty generated by terrorism have been impacted on by a drug-fuelled business. However, Colombia has come a long way. Mr. Osorio will update us on the issue of human rights, as well as the victims' law and land restoration law, just two steps the Colombian Government has taken in its progress. He may also update us on FARC and the meetings in Havana. The European Union has responded to this development by negotiating a free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru that is provisionally in effect. Such agreements are the European Union's strongest instrument in encouraging social and economic progress among partner countries. We know that the situation is not perfect, but Colombia has come a long way, particularly in terms of human rights, as acknowledged by the UN human rights commissioner. We look forward to hearing the ambassador's comments.
Before we start, I remind members and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting, as even when left in silent mode, they cause interference with the recording equipment in committee rooms. I also remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their utterances at the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite the ambassador to begin. I am sure he has much to tell the committee.

H.E. Mr. Néstor Osorio:

I thank the Chairman and committee members for receiving me and my deputy. As the Colombian ambassador to Ireland, it is a great honour to attend the meeting and have the opportunity to exchange views on the current situation in Colombia, the way we are shaping our future and the important responsibilities and commitments the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has been undertaking. After four years of government, he was re-elected last June for another term of four years, starting in August.

The Colombian Government's main programme has been marked by the clear inclination to put together the best economic and social conditions, while building on the work done in the previous eight years to create conditions of security, thereby creating an atmosphere of trust and confidence for investors and an environment that is friendly to foreigners interested in developing businesses in Colombia. As the Chairman mentioned, we have been trying to move past the difficult years we endured in the 1980s and early 1990s, while projecting a mood of reconciliation and seeking a solution to a conflict that has affected Colombia for more than 50 years. Ours is a well known case and the only remaining internal conflict of this nature. As the committee is aware, a clear resolution of a peace process that will finally give a solution and provide a substantial impulse for the country's economy will represent a major achievement. For this reason, the Colombian Government's political approach, even during the presidential campaign, has had peace at its centre.

Needless to say, in moving ahead with the process in a careful and well prepared way, we made important references to what had happened in this part of the world. Ireland and Northern Ireland's contribution has helped and advised us in determining how to tackle the question of how to begin negotiations with groups that were reputed to be terrorists, drug traffickers and, of course, lawless and that were conspiring to revert the democratic system of Colombia, one of the oldest in the American hemisphere. Our democracy has been very stable.

During the well-known time of military rule in Latin America, Colombia had a minor dictator, compared with the others who were around at the time, for only three years, 1954 to 1957. Today the Colombian people have tremendous hopes of concluding the peace process. I will not go into much detail but simply remind the committee that we managed to agree an agenda of negotiations with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC. The Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN, the other guerrilla group, is also entering negotiations, and there are secret talks to bring them to the table, if not to the same table in Havana, to another one.

Three important points on the agenda have already been agreed but have to be ratified once everything is negotiated: how to deal with the rural problem and reform, how to establish the future of political participation of these groups in Colombian life, and how to deal with dismantling of the coca fields and the drug trafficking in which FARC has been involved. The two last hurdles, which are decisive for the process, are how to establish the ceasefire, organise the rendering of arms and verify the identification and dismantling of mines planted by the guerrillas. The second is how to enter into a process of transitional justice where we can find a common point to cope with accountability and make clear there is no impunity but at the same time work on a reconciliation process that will help unify society again. This is a big challenge for the process because it is well known that the guerrillas have committed, and some of their commanders have been condemned for, crimes against humanity. This is a very serious matter that needs to be recognised. We know the international community is following this process very closely. We will need international co-operation and understanding when we reach an agreement.

When that has been reached, international co-operation will be important for the post-conflict era. President Santos is coming to Europe at the beginning of November where he will visit five capitals in one week to talk to the Heads of State to try to organise and pledge an approach. We need a specific long-term plan to finance, assist, follow and accompany the post-conflict process in Colombia. It is a major task.

As a member of the United Nations Security Council I was involved in part of the process in African countries and other places, for example, in Timor Leste, to make the transition from conflict to post-conflict. We have the advantage, as distinct from some of those countries, that our institutions are very serious, we have a working democracy and an economy that is internationally regarded as orthodox and well-managed. Our rate of inflation is lower than 3%. We have increased the labour force, creating 2.5 million jobs, as formally verified, in the past four years. We are one of the developing countries that can qualify globally as an emerging market, having accomplished all the millennium development goals, established in 2000. We have been at the forefront in promoting the sustainable development goals that will be an essential part of the new world economy model post-2015. This is one of the most important projects in the United Nations. Next year the UN will adopt the sustainable development goals approach for the next generation. Foreign investors are sympathetic to our economy because of how it is organised. Last year we broke the record with $16 billion of foreign investment in Colombia. In the first semester of this year we achieved 5.4% growth and project a sustained 5% growth which, compared with the Latin American average of 2%, is a success story.

Colombia, and the government of President Santos, have placed special emphasis on education and improving the lives of people in poverty. President Santos got more votes in poor places where social work was developed. That is rewarding for a politician because it shows that the government has addressed important issues.

The international community wants to analyse how human rights issues are developing. In a conflict such as the one we have had there have been excesses and violations. That is why President Santos put a clear approach and policy to improve and get this right at the top of the agenda. International agencies, including the UN and an American organisation for the states in the area, have recognised an improvement in the way the unions and human rights issues are addressed. Part of this is included in the framework for the peace process, identification and recognition of the victims, and concrete steps towards recognising their human rights. Three years ago Colombia passed an important law of victim reparation and land restitution. I invited the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to visit when the law was being enacted. He has used this law as a reference point for other parts of the world. I have distributed a document showing how the agencies organising the government work very positively. There is still work to do. We are addressing that responsibly and are moving ahead in order to create the necessary economic, social and human rights environment that meets the highest standards.

We are formal candidates for membership of the OECD. That implies having minimum basic indicators to show that the economy is well managed, social issues are well addressed and people’s rights are fully recognised. I am confident we are moving ahead and that Ireland will co-operate with us in this.

The free trade agreement makes a clear case for us in terms of the internationalisation of the country. President Santos has made clear from the outset the need to have a base for Colombia to act on the international stage.

With the size and capacity of the country we were very privileged when the Government of Colombia was elected to the UN Security Council. I have had the honour of being the permanent representative to the UN and this allowed me to contribute to addressing the substantial problems of the world and be part of many fora. I was elected president of the economic and social council of the UN, another opportunity to put forward the goodwill of Colombia to be a valued actor and participant in the international scene.

When we move ahead with a clear policy of opening up markets, creating free trade agreements and having free trade conditions, we are inviting our partners, such as Ireland, to be part of our development and to contribute to that development. We are inviting investors to do business in our country. We are creating an environment by taking a new approach, and the famous Pacific Alliance - Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, the four like minded countries are in tune on free trade agreements, protection of foreign investment and double taxation. Foreign investors and those who participate in our economic life have the opportunity to access our market individually or the four markets in the group, which together are bigger than Brazilian market, the colossus of Latin America. We have free trade agreements with the United States, Korea and Japan. The expansion of the possibilities of business is substantial. I invite Ireland to give favourable consideration to the accession and the approval of the free trade agreement. At present 17 countries of the European Union have approved this agreement and I hope that Ireland will join these ranks very soon.

I am delighted to be here, and am ready and available to talk to members as many times as they deem necessary. Even if it is not necessary, it will be a pleasure for me to come and have the opportunity to develop this friendship and to continue to work in the cultural, social, educational and economic fields. We know we have friends here and Ireland should know it has friends in Colombia

10:20 am

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank the ambassador for updating us on the current situation in the political, human rights and trade areas

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the ambassador. I apologise for my late arrival but I got the important parts of his presentation.

He emphasised trade, and I know a number of foreign trade agreements have been entered into. We in Ireland have very little trade with South America and it is opportune that he is here because I am sure it is the Government's intention to try to develop our trade with the South American countries, of which Colombia is one.

My interest is concentrated on the peace process in Colombia. Last December I spoke at a conference in Bogotá, at which I was asked to do a paper on disarmament and the decommissioning which was a major part of the peace negotiations in Ireland and its relevance to Colombia. While I was there I had the opportunity to see places, in particular the area around the Independence Memorial. I also visited to Cartagena, which is a beautiful spot. Colombia is a lovely country.

There have been many decades of guerrilla activity. As we found in Ireland, the root cause to some extent of what happened was inequality and ill treatment of a particular section of the community. I think that has been a feature in Colombia. I invite the ambassador to talk a little about that and in particular about the efforts that are being undertaken to ensure greater equality and treatment of people. A colleague, who is not present, told me recently he visited some of the prisons in Colombia and was concerned with regard to the conditions in which these prisoners are being held.

I know that aspects of the negotiations have been provisionally agreed but I think the policy, which is correct, is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This is a sensible approach in these difficult situations.

Will Mr. Osorio give some outline indication as to the detail of the disposal of agricultural land in rural areas, a core part of the campaign of FARC? I understand that the issue of illicit drugs, which I considered a particularly difficult matter, has been concluded. When I studied Colombia, I thought that dealing with the issue of illicit drugs would be particularly difficult. Much of the income of the small landholdings comes from growing the drugs. Obviously we in the western world would like to see that crop outlawed, but how does one provide replacement activities for the people living in those rural areas? When I was in Colombia I had the opportunity of meeting President Santos, who told me he had visited Northern Ireland. He was very committed to bringing the negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion. We encourage him and the delegates present to continue to do that. There will be setbacks along the way and one will face disappointments but above all one must have the perseverance to stay with the process and ultimately have a sustainable agreement that will serve the interests of the people of Colombia.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I propose to bring in every member offering because I am sure most of the questions will overlap as they will be on the same theme. I wish to spare the ambassador the job of repeating himself.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an ambasadóir. It is always good to start with the positive. There are positive signs from what Mr. Osorio, has said about what is happening in Colombia, in particular to the peace process. We should acknowledge the role of Cuba - I know the Cuban ambassador is present - in facilitating those talks in Havana.

I would have been in touch with his predecessor over a number of human rights issues, one of which was the murder of César García and the community in Pitalito who had been displaced, and returned only to be displaced again. I know Colombia is a very dangerous place to be a trade unionist and there has been an alarming number of murders of trade unionists. More recently it was the imprisonment of Huber Ballesteros, the vice president of the Agricultural Workers Union. Some of the trade unions in Ireland have brought campesinos or other Colombian workers, trade unionist or women farmers to Ireland. I met them and know how difficult life is for them. I believe we have a right to peaceful protest but the peaceful protest of the women and the campesinos has been met with violence. I wonder about Mr. Osorio's comment about the role of the army and the police when people try to protest peacefully.

In regard to the trade agreements, is Mr. Osorio satisfied that the human rights clauses in the trade agreements are strong enough for the people of Colombia? I wish to raise questions on the role of multinational companies that are locating in Colombia, as well as on the issue of biofuels, which means that Colombian peasant farmers are losing their land which has fed their families for generations. Between the gold mining and the biofuels, the people are losing their land and moving into towns and cities, which is putting more pressure on services to feed people.

I am interested to hear what the ambassador thinks about the human rights clauses in those trade agreements.

10:30 am

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the witnesses. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. That committee has discussed Colombia and the free trade agreement. I am a member of Sinn Féin and we wholeheartedly welcome the progress in the peace process. The North's Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, MLA, who is a senior member of my party, and the Minister, Mr. Conor Murphy, MLA, have gone to Colombia at the invitation of President Santos. We have also met FARC representatives. We would have policy differences with President Santos, but we welcome that his re-election was an affirmation of the general will within Colombia to achieve peace.

We are being asked to ratify the free trade agreement. Even if we look at the news from Colombia this month, we see that human rights defenders have received death threats. The UN has asked the Colombian Government to dissociate itself from those death threats. We have seen peasant farmers killed by riot police and prisoners beaten up by guards. In recent years, trade unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia have been treated very badly with regard to their efforts to bring to light some of the major social inequalities that exist, and obviously some of the difficulties of indigenous peasants there.

Trade can be a tool to bring about social justice and human rights, but it is not necessarily so. Any free trade agreement needs to contain a mechanism to measure the changes happening in society to ensure trade has a correlation with improvements for citizens within a society. I do not believe this free trade agreement does that in any way. We met human rights lawyers who have been working in Colombia. We also met representatives of Christian Aid, Trócaire, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Justice for Colombia. These highly respected social and citizen organisations in Ireland are calling for the free trade agreement not to be ratified, because they believe the ratification of the free trade agreement would not have the effect of relieving the oppression being experienced by people in Colombia. As late as in 2012, even the European Parliament called for the necessary mechanisms to measure changes to be included in free trade agreements. This agreement has no independent committee or body to measure those changes properly.

I believe Ireland would like to work with Colombia to increase our trade relationship. We would like this major humanitarian disaster not to be a stumbling block. The way to resolve it, from a Colombian perspective and perhaps from a European perspective, would be to ensure the necessary tools and infrastructure are within the free trade agreement to ensure there is a beneficial trend within human rights in Colombia. How can the Colombian Government work towards that before this is potentially ratified?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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When I was in Colombia four years ago, we travelled to Buenaventura on the coastline where a new port was being built. There was some concern at the time over the displacement of the African-Colombian people. They had set up temporary homes on the coast and there was a proposal to displace them. What is the current situation with regard to those people? They were also building new roads from Bogotá to get to this port, which was to be the main Pacific port. Has that infrastructure been put into place? The situation with regard to the mining was also of concern for many people. While the ambassador has been asked many questions, many of them are overlapping and similar.

H.E. Mr. Néstor Osorio:

I thank the members for their questions and especially for following Colombia and being preoccupied with the difficulties and problems of our social life. On the issue of equality, or rather inequality, one of the recognised big problems of Colombia is the tremendous gap that exists and the need to upgrade and create conditions for the poor people of no or very low earnings to go up the ladder and be active citizens. That is why in developing the programme for government and in developing the approach to the big issues of Colombia, President Santos encapsulated his priorities for the next four years by talking about prosperity, education and equality.

This is important in the sense that education is placed at the centre with a clear determination. We have achieved already almost 100% coverage of boys and girls who complete primary school in Colombia. If we pursue this quest of education, we will create the basis for the future for this social upgrading and for a more equal society. As the Chairman has observed, even if our middle class has grown, the distribution of earnings today compared with 15 years ago is abysmal. We still have people who live in extreme poverty. When we evaluate this aspect of the millennium development goals, the eradication of poverty, it is clear that Colombia has managed to get out of this extreme poverty in real terms. It is close to 2 million in these four years and this is with the following of the United Nations standards and analysis. We keep on that and it is a very sensible matter.

Connecting this with the different issues that have been mentioned here, as far as we managed to reduce these gaps, we create more educational opportunities and we open the possibility of new business. At the same time that we are eradicating poverty, I want to mention the need to create wealth. This is the real thing. We need to create wealth and we create wealth with new business and new projects, with public works and with private investments, and that creates employment. There are not separate compartments. At the beginning of the first government we talked about the locomotives - different locomotives that work together and develop the society and the economy in a homogenous way. One of the big responsibilities of the government is how we create educational opportunities and open the country for business with the conditions necessary to be attractive, thereby creating employment and promoting people on the social ladder.

The issue of respect of human rights is very serious. The Deputy said it is very dangerous to be a trade unionist in Colombia, and that has been the case.

There are ways to demonstrate this. The situation has improved, which is something which must be taken into consideration.

One of the tragedies of Colombia during the conflict with the guerillas involved the formation of paramilitary groups which developed their activities during a time in which the capacity of the Colombian state to fight the guerillas was very poor. The capacity of the army was much reduced. In a way, there was a permissive attitude among civilians, especially in rural areas, in organising to protect themselves from guerilla attack, but something unexpected, or unimaginable, developed. These groups of peasants in trying to protect their crops became contaminated by individuals who took advantage of these conditions to take properties illegally and displace people under the pretext that they were co-operating with the guerillas. I invite members to analyse the role of the paramilitaries, acting illegally and at the margins of the law of Colombia. The government has tried to dismantle some criminal bands which developed subsequently. In many cases, it has been proved that it was these paramilitary groups which started to kill trade unionists and violate human rights.

The armed forces have committed excesses, but these excesses have been dealt with before the tribunals. We are having a big discussion to identify the device by which the military forces will be judged by the civil courts and which crimes will be judged by the military. This happens all around the world. There are some areas which are reserved for the military to judge, while there are others which belong to the civil courts. We intend to continue down that path.

I frequently hear about the case of Mr. Huber Ballesteros. He is notorious because he was about to travel to London for a union meeting. According to all of the information I have received and the judicial procedures, there are serious indications that he was suspected of having been involved in providing arms for the guerillas and having been in contact with them. This is something on which I will not make a judgment. I have written many letters to the authorities which have responded to me on the status of these procedures. I have spoken to the NGOs and Members of Parliament in London about the matter which we continue to follow.

It is very important that the government is prepared to recognise wrongdoing. Last December President Santos made a public and international apology and asked for a pardon for a massacre which had taken place in San José de Apartadó in 2005. We went to a committee of the House of Lords with representatives of this community and went through an exercise of reconciliation. That was a very courageous approach to take. There is no obstacle in the President's path and he is prepared to put at the disposal of the judiciary those who have committed excesses or crimes under our criminal code.

The issues of rural reform and drugs are very much inter-linked. It is very clear that a substantial part of the finances of the guerillas came from drugs. FARC has been trying to say it was not involved in the production of crops, that it was just taxing those who were moving the drugs around. However, it is clear that it controlled the territory in which the cocoa fields were located. This has emerged in the negotiations and it has recognised it. The plan is for the total eradication of cocoa fields. We have dismantled more than 30% of the areas cultivated with cocoa crops ten years ago. In the 1980s no more than 5% to 7% of the cocoa fields were located in the country. The cocoa crops were cultivated in Bolivia and Peru where it is an ancestral crop. The drug traffickers and those who developed the cartels were clever and decided to cultivate the crops rather than depend on the Peruvians or Bolivians. That is how 80% or 90% of the cocoa crop in the world was grown in Colombia. There has been an eradication of 60% of it. Therefore, good progress has been made. We will talk about this issue with the international community. However, the point is that if we manage to bring FARC on side to act as a promoter of rural reform, we will be able to develop according to the needs of the regions.

Many members have been to Colombia and know that the topography of the country is better for the cultivation of some crops, including small crops, coffee being one example. I have been involved in coffee production all my life. As I was the executive director of an international coffee organisation and visited all of the coffee producers of the world, I know what I am talking about. There are 2 million people involved in coffee crop cultivation and transportation. Some 500,000 families work together and the average size of a piece of land is 3 ha. Very few have 50 ha. The position is different in Brazil where it is an agri-industry. In Colombia coffee production is a family business. There are other areas such as the plains in the east of the country where, with the development of intensive agri-industries and big investment, it will be possible to develop what we need to develop. Investors from Ireland could play a tremendous role, given the expertise available and developments here. When I presided over the committee of agriculture of the WTO, I was involved in launching the negotiations on the famous subsidies, about which members know. I came to Dublin to meet all of the agricultural producers and the companies which managed them. I know about Ireland's expertise in the matter and to what degree it could help us. This goes to the heart of what we are addressing. We are asking the international community for a contribution and its co-operation. After the resolution of the conflict, we are able to give ownership of the land to the people in question and it will not stop there. The credits will then come - the technical assistance and agricultural practices. It is like a Marshall plan to develop agriculture, with the participation of the people in question who will have the possibility to develop an activity.

One has to bear in mind that the members of FARC must spend their lives in the rural areas. We are not planning to bring them to Bogotá or Medellín, which I do not think would appeal to them. Their reintegration into society will be in the areas with which they are familiar and in which they will feel comfortable in developing activities.

I can offer the example of the coffee industry. When we were negotiating the quota agreements in London in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the drug issue was at the centre of the negotiations. What we put forward to the United States, the European Union and Japan in the negotiations, which were negotiations between producers and consumers, was that if we managed to get a remunerative price for the coffee growers and get them to guarantee production and supply of the product to the consuming countries, they would not be distracted into the drug trade, even if they were paid 50 or 100 times more for the crop of coca. That was the case. There is little drug production in the coffee areas. Some of the drug barons wanted to buy coffee farms to have those farms, but drugs did not become part of them or it was a very small proportion. It was also not land for the guerillas either.

We are convinced that if we manage to create a productive agricultural system in the rural extensions, that are small or big according to crops, we will be able to be part of the very important challenge that humanity faces for the future. In 2040 to 2050 the world population will be 9 billion people and it will consume double the amount of food being consumed today. Colombia is one of the countries that has the potential to be a provider of land and, with our biodiversity, it is also one of the countries that will continue to protect the planet. There are clear indications that by solving the problem of land distribution and drug cultivation we will create job opportunities and social upgrading.

On the issue of illegal mining, this is one of the problems we face. It is not very new but it is also not old. Part of the reconversion of illegal activities by some of these illegal groups has been to move to illegal mining, with risks for the environment as well as the displacement of people and robbery of land. One of the practices of the paramilitary people was to arrive at a place, force the owners to sign the papers and then force them to go to the notary to transfer the land to them. We are making an inventory of this in the country. The members of the committee will see some figures on that in the papers we will distribute. We are making an inventory of who has been deprived of their land and we have already restituted many areas of land to the owners. We will continue to do that in the future.

Another issue on which Colombia has been keen to make progress is gender equality. Special laws have been passed in Colombia to promote women and young girls and to fight one of the most hideous activities in the world, sexual violence. On the Security Council we were at the centre of making proposals for resolutions and initiatives. I convene a women's forum in Europe in the ECOSOC, as the Colombian delegation, and with the co-operation of many other countries. I pay tribute to Cuba, which is hosting our peace talks, and Norway, where the talks have started, as well as Venezuela and Chile, which are the witnesses in the process. They are helping and facilitating us, but we have the ownership and the clarity of the process. We know that the international community is ready to help us and the most appropriate moment for that contribution will be in the post-conflict era.

I refer to the committee's considerations about the free trade agreement. As one helps to create job opportunities and to develop a business partnership, one is promoting social insertion, the creation of jobs and creating a sense of moral responsibility about respect for human rights. Perhaps the human rights processes in the agreements are not ideal or perfect and could be more ambitious, but this is an area that, along with the free trade agreement, we will continue to work on in the framework of the relevant international organisations and the relevant international community fora. It is something we are very clear that we have a responsibility to address.

10:50 am

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Is Colombia still developing the port on the Pacific?

H. E. Mr. Néstor Osorio:

Buenaventura has been the Colombian headache for generations. For many of us it is unacceptable that what has been our main port - a third or half of our coffee is exported from there - has continued to be an area of poverty and neglect. Different governments have tried to develop responses to problems and to upgrade the area. The coffee federation has been instrumental in doing some projects and developing some activities and an integrated plan for the development of Buenaventura is being implemented. The infrastructure works that are planned to be developed in the Pacific area for connection with Cali and the north are in motion, but one of our frustrations, and I expect the Chairman have experienced this, is how the port of Buenaventura continues to be this way. The government is determined to make a change there.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Mr. Osorio must have made everybody happy because there is no second round of questions. I thank Mr. Osorio for being so open and frank. It is clear from his contribution today that he knows the coffee business well. I thank him for taking the time to meet the committee and we look forward to ongoing meetings with him. We will distribute the documents to all the members of the committee. There is a by-election taking place at present and some of our members are attending that count, which is one of the reasons there is not a large number of members present. We have had constant contact with non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and others, and about two years ago the Vice President of Colombia appeared before the committee. Mr. Osorio's predecessor also appeared before the committee on many occasions. The many NGOs operating in Colombia have met us to keep us updated on what is happening.

We look forward to continued contact with the ambassador and we hope he returns to Ireland more often. Perhaps next time he could take his vacation here and see other parts of the country. We wish him well and thank him.

H. E. Mr. Néstor Osorio:

It has been an honour and privilege to be here. I thank the committee for receiving us.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.10 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 October 2014.