THE BLOG

Arcane Parliamentary Process Fails to Put People Before Profit

15/07/2014 12:43 BST | Updated 14/09/2014 10:59 BST

There are ongoing Europe-wide protests against excessive protections in trade deals for investors - the European Commission's website crashed due to the volume of responses to its consultation on investment protection in the EU-US trade deal (TTIP). On Saturday there was a UK mobilisation against TTIP, a major focus of which are the unfair protections offered to big business. Meanwhile, in Westminster, in the face of a treaty with Colombia that contains even more damaging provisions: tumbleweed and crickets.

On Thursday, the UK ratified a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) with Colombia. The BIT will give companies from the UK a broad range of rights when investing in Colombia. These are rights that no domestic (Colombian or UK) company and no community has access to. It includes the highly controversial investor-to-state dispute mechanism, which allows companies to sue countries if a change in policy is considered to have hurt their investment.

The UK-Colombia BIT is particularly offensive. A legal opinion urges the UK government not to ratify, stating that it threatens the ability of the participating governments to regulate in the public interest and is contrary to UK commitments on human rights.

Colombia's record on human rights is abysmal: over the past 25 years nearly 2,800 trades unionists have been assassinated in Colombia and many more have been disappeared. In the last year alone 78 human rights defenders were killed and people in Buenaventura face escalating violence.

The legal opinion goes on to say that the BIT is so poorly worded it creates "significant legal uncertainty". Working out what the wording means will be left to three arbiters, who are generally commercial lawyers: John Ruggie, former UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights has said "the international arbiters are three contract lawyers who don't give a damn about human rights obligations".

This could mean that the gold-plated rights the BIT gives to companies will come before the human rights of people in Colombia. This is particularly worrying at a time when, as part of its peace process, the country is attempting important land reforms. Many communities were forced off their land as it was handed over to companies; Colombia could now face legal challenges if it attempts to give this land back.

Any case against Colombia could cost it millions, if not billions of dollars. Ecuador was recently ordered to pay Chevron nearly $2 billion, Argentina is facing 43 cases to a potential total value of $65 billion. Colombia needs to focus its resources on its peace process, not on satisfying foreign investors.

The EU has recognised the need for reform in investment treaties. While its current efforts fall far short of doing this, they are an improvement on the UK's approach. The UK-Colombia deal was agreed four years ago and there has been no effort to take account of the kinds of reforms recommended by the EU, let alone scrap the deal altogether.

So why did this deal pass? Heavy lobbying by business? A misguided belief that it would somehow help tackle human rights violations? It would seem not. This deal was allowed to pass due to the UK's arcane parliamentary processes. The deal was 'put before' the Houses of Parliament before it was ratified. In theory, this offered an opportunity to take action. Trade Justice Movement members have been attempting to raise the alarm for the past month, to little avail.

Getting information about when the BIT would be before the Houses or what action could then be taken was almost impossible. An Early Day Motion could have led to a debate in the Commons but there was no guarantee that it would be given any time, particularly given the short window to request one. The Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee wrote a report on the BIT and asked for a government response; the FCO declined to give one. One Lord agreed to put down a motion, but was told by the whips that he could only put a motion to 'take note' before ratification; a motion of regret (where Lords get to vote) would only be permitted by the whips after ratification.

There will be a debate in the Lords next week. It will be too late to do anything about the treaty with Colombia. But we still need the vote: the UK has eleven further BITs that it intends to ratify, next up is Ethiopia. The Lords need to send a strong signal that these deals are unacceptable. We then need to consider whether our parliamentary process is fit for purpose when it comes to putting people and planet before profit.