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What does the future look like for business and human rights in post-conflict Colombia?

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Three weeks ago I had the chance to be working in Colombia at the same time that the Colombian Congress approved the peace accord between the Government and the FARC, which may effectively end the last armed conflict in the Americas. While the celebrations were not as exuberant as those that followed the signing of the initial agreement (which was later rejected by popular referendum) earlier this year, the feeling of excitement and anticipation was palpable. This revised agreement is of course not uncontroversial, with the opposition (led by former president Álvaro Uribe) still very vocal about their rejection of the text, but the recent decision of the Supreme Court to approve Congress’ use of ‘fast track’ procedures to implement the deal increases the possibility that a durable peace be established in 2017.

Colombians know their country is about to change, as do their government and national and international companies operating in the country. For the latter, there is also no doubt about the fact that the peace will affect the way they do business. The question is: how will they respond? For civil society, including trade unions, the question is whether peace will usher in new ways of engaging with Government and the private sector and whether the violence that has blighted the business and human rights terrain will subside.

Great expectations…

Despite being affected by a brutal war that spanned more than five decades, Colombia has been hailed in recent years as an example of political and economic stability in Latin America. The fourth largest economy in the region, it has enjoyed strong growth in the past decade, partly driven by the exploitation of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, coal, nickel, gold and emeralds.

This performance suggests Colombia’s economy could be about to fare even better once the war ends. Peace will of course bring more security and stability, which is in turn likely to boost investment and domestic consumption. It also goes without question that Colombia has immense human and physical resources. Furthermore, the demobilisation of the FARC will mean that vast territories or land (often in remote parts of the country) currently under the control of illegal armed groups will become accessible again and raise the possibility of investment and development of economic activities.

In these former conflict zones as well as in the rest of the country, a lot of thought has already been given to the positive role the private sector could play in a post-conflict context. The creation of decent work opportunities – especially formal ones, in a country where 48% of the active population is believed to work informally – is a good example, as it will be key to the reintegration into society of former combatants, internally displaced persons and other victims of the conflict, as well as to the livelihoods of isolated rural communities.

…but significant challenges

Peace alone cannot solve some of Colombia’s most enduring problems. Economic growth may have improved living standards, but Colombia remains the second most unequal country in Latin America, after Honduras. At the intersection of poverty and deep societal discrimination, populations such as indigenous communities, afro-Colombians and rural campesino communities are highly vulnerable to various types of exploitation and abuse, including the worst forms of child labour and adult forced labour.

The forthcoming withdrawal of the FARC in some areas also risks creating a destabilising power vacuum in areas that have been long out of the State’s reach. The arrival of new actors disrupting the current distribution of power and influence – whether government, companies, or other illegal groups – may have unpredicted consequences, including a surge in illicit activities.

A test case for the UNGPs

Colombian and international companies that are serious about their commitment to peace and human rights will need to be equipped with robust due diligence policies and processes, and sophisticated stakeholder engagement processes to face this type of environment.

For these companies, inaction is not an option. It is not enough to wait and see what happens; they need to start sending out a strong message about their human rights commitments and how they intend to respect them. Above all, they need to be proactive in understanding the unique dynamics of their operating environment; identifying potential areas of direct and indirect impact arising from their actions, and; putting in place appropriate prevention and remediation mechanisms. While it is never too late to start doing the right thing, the current context would appear to be an ideal moment to undertake such a due diligence exercise: the approval of the accord has undoubtedly created a favourable momentum, but the concrete impacts of its implementation have yet to take effect.

In the context of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the peace is also an opportunity for the State of Colombia to demonstrate leadership on business and human rights in the region by fleshing out a strong ‘Protect’ framework. Colombia is already the first Latin American country to issue a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights in 2015. Prior to that, it had already joined the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and along with a group of companies and civil society organisations adopted the Guías Colombia, or the Colombian Guidelines on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, inspired by the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. However, the lack of effective implementation of these initiatives has been flagged an issue by civil society and other actors, who hope that the peace will bring more concrete government actions on the topic of business and human rights.

These are certainly interesting times for Colombia and at Ergon Associates we are excited about continuing to work with clients and partners in the coming months and years. Please do get in touch if you need more information.