Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos makes a speech at a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace. Dominic Lipinski – WPA Pool/Getty Images
The state of visit of President Santos of Colombia to the UK last month was unceremoniously pushed from the headlines by the High Court ruling on triggering Article 50 that happened to coincide with his trip. While the tabloids were preoccupied with undermining the Judiciary, the significance of the three-day visit by the Colombian President and his wife was lost on many.
This was unfortunate, as Britain and Colombia share an important – and often secret – partnership. While the big guns of soft diplomacy were brought out for the visit, including a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, this relationship hinges on co-operation mostly hidden from public view. Funding and assistance from the SAS was provided to the Colombian government in the mid-1980s to establish its special forces, and as a country that is second only to Peru in cocaine production, Colombia is a vital ally in the British counter-narcotics war. Both the Serious Organised Crime Agency and MI6 liaise with Colombian security forces and play a significant role in stopping cocaine from reaching Britain.
The agreements made during the state visit may not have been widely reported, but they were highly significant. Conflict resolution assistance from experienced peacemakers in Northern Ireland was offered to help Colombia end its civil war. Colombia also secured British investment for post-conflict development, notably £1 billion of export finance for its healthcare and renewable energy sectors. Bilateral trade between the countries is currently worth £1 billion per year, and the prospect of a new 5-year oil and gas partnership, plus a double taxation agreement that would encourage British investment in Colombia, were discussed. The stability that UK involvement could facilitate may be important in ensuring the continued success of counter-narcotics operations, and might also create even further possibilities for trade in the wake of Brexit.
The state visit was full of sleek photo opportunities and painted a bright, idealistic vision of Colombia’s future. Santos had had his peace proposal rejected by a mere 55,000 votes in a plebiscite a month earlier, and hoped to instead achieve approval of the accord between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels by Christmas. The accord was ratified this month by the Colombian Congress, yet it faces several challenges to its implementation.
The peace accord faces criticisms from a number of directions. For one thing, although the civil war encompasses several warring parties, right-wing guerrillas are not included in the agreement. At the same time, former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the opposition side in the referendum, continues to criticise the punishments proposed in the agreement for FARC members who committed wartime atrocities in the belief that they are too lenient. Meanwhile human rights defenders and political activists continue to be murdered despite a ceasefire called in June 2016, and drug trafficking presents a further risk to the peace process. FARC’s ties to the drug trade were addressed in the accord, but there is a danger that traffickers may move into former FARC-held territory.
With all this going on, the wisdom of launching major projects and investments while Colombia remains relatively volatile and in a state of fragile peace has been questioned. The aim on the UK side appears to be to encourage post-conflict rebuilding and foster stability for the sake not only of British security but of promoting Britain’s place in the global order. The British government envisages a new role for the UK as a “champion of free trade”, sustained by bilateral deals following Brexit. Rolling out the state carriages for President Santos and committing billions to a nation recovering from a devastating civil war may be viewed not in realist terms but as grasping at an opportunity to demonstrate that Britain is capable of fulfilling this role.
Leaving the EU Single Market (on which a decision has yet to be made) necessitates a robust global trade policy and the negotiation of solid agreements. That means taking a slow and steady approach with nations such as Colombia. Here, commitments to post-conflict development tempered with cautious optimism about the opportunities this country presents would be the ideal posture. Colombia has significant obstacles to overcome in its deeply-rooted conflict and there is a risk of becoming embroiled in its domestic difficulties while we navigate our new political landscape. The civil war lasted for 52 years, killed over 260,000 people and displaced approximately another 7 million: the multitude of risks to a lasting peace must not be overlooked in the pursuit of short-term goals.