Human Rights Considerations in the E.U.-Colombia Trade Agreement

A new trade agreement between the European Union (E.U.) and Colombia took effect on August 1. [1] Along with deepening commercial and economic ties between Bogotá and Brussels, the treaty is unusually bound with human rights considerations. Due to the high level of reported human rights violations throughout Colombia’s lengthy internal war, the E.U. has asked for several human rights conditions to be addressed before the agreement was enforced. The respect for human rights enshrined in the treaty aims to ensure the establishment of a peaceful context more likely to foster economic growth, and demonstrates that the E.U. is committed to having close relations only with countries that respect a certain standard of civil liberties. However, the treaty also reveals the precariously changed nature of E.U.-Colombian relations, in that Brussels now has the means to interfere in Bogotá’s internal affairs by using economic pressure.

From a Regional to a Multiparty Trade Agreement

At first glance, the “Trade Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and Colombia and Peru, of the other part” appears to be quite different from other regional trade agreements the E.U. has established in the past with Latin American countries. [2] Since European foreign policy traditionally has sought to strengthen regional integration in Latin America, the E.U used to enact commercial agreements with Latin American regional blocs rather than with individual countries. The implementation of the multiparty treaty between the E.U., Colombia, and Peru thus signifies an important shift in E.U.-Latin American economic relations. The treaty could serve to increase economic differences between Andean nations, as only some states in the region will be affected by this agreement.

Before reaching the present trade agreement, the European Union tried first to negotiate a regional trade agreement with the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) – a regional bloc composed of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The E.U. and the CAN first began negotiations in 2007, with the goal of signing a regional agreement based on three main cornerstones: political dialogue, political cooperation, and trade. [3] However, in 2008, the negotiations were postponed due to a disagreement over trade-related issues. The negotiations resumed in 2009, but this time as a multiparty treaty between the E.U. and individual member countries of the CAN. At this point, Bolivia was no longer interested in participating because of the new format of the treaty, while the negotiations with Ecuador also failed. Negotiations with Peru and Colombia, however, successfully concluded in 2010, and in March 2011 the Colombian and Peruvian governments signed the agreement. [4] The European Council and the European Parliament ratified the treaty in 2012. While ratification by E.U. member states is an ongoing process, the treaty can be applied on a provisional basis once Peru and Colombia conclude their internal ratification procedures. Colombia recently announced that this stage was reached, as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos formally signed the treaty on July 16, and the treaty entered into provisional application on August 1.

Potential Effects on E.U.-Colombian Relations

The European Union’s engagement with Colombia was solidified in 2001 when it established a plan to aid Bogotá in the resolution of its internal conflict between the government, rebel groups, and drug trafficking cartels. While the United States has been the most involved international actor in the resolution of the conflict, the E.U. has emerged as “a counterbalance,” offering an alternative plan. [6] The European Union declared that there is no unique and comprehensive solution to promote peace in Colombia. [7] In addition to short- and medium-term assistance, the E.U. contends that the promotion of development, through the expansion of trade, will improve the long-term situation in the country by tackling the economic roots of the conflict. In the “Colombia – Country Strategy Paper 2007-2013” report, the E.U. presents trade with Colombia as an element of the European conflict prevention strategy. [8] Nevertheless, while it is too early to analyze the impact of the agreement, it remains self-evident that human rights considerations will benefit not only Colombia, but also European trade interests.

Economic Considerations of the Bilateral Agreement

Commercial and financial exchanges between the E.U. member states and Latin America have intensified significantly since the early 2000’s. Despite strong opposition to this trade agreement from civil society groups in Europe and Colombia, both parties expect to see significant effects on their economies. Through their partnerships with Latin American nations such as Colombia, European countries are seeking to maximize economic growth and secure access to strategic raw materials. Colombia is also looking for stronger integration into the global economy as a dynamic emerging country; Colombia is already part of the CIVETS, a loose association of global emerging economies (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa). Bogotá is searching for new economic partnerships with a clear preference for countries located outside of the Americas.

Graph 1
Image source: IMF

According to Colombia’s Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo Proexport (Ministry of Commerce, Tourism and Industry), the treaty is expected to have several positive effects on the Colombian economy, such as an increase of 10 percent in Colombian exports to the European Union, an increase of at least 1.3 percent in GNP, a decrease of 2 percent in the unemployment rate, and an increase in the median wage. [9] The Colombian government estimates that approximately 99.9 percent of its exported goods and services are of interest to European countries. [10] Bogotá does have some reason to believe these optimistic projections, as the following products are already included in the trade agreement: petrochemistry and plastics, manufactured goods, agricultural products, and meat. Colombia will especially benefit from the increase in trade of meat, as the treaty mandates that the European Union import 5,600 tons of meat per year, with a of 5 percent annual increase. The agreement would strengthen some vulnerable sectors (such as the agricultural sector), create jobs, and provide additional incomes. However, despite these benefits, the opening up of bilateral trade is also expected to deepen the dependence of the Colombian economy on other countries, making Colombia more susceptible to global economic and financial crises.

According to the treaty, only 16 of the 27 member states of the European Union are supposed to receive Colombian products: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Slovakia, Spain, Estonia, France, Finland, Slovenia, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Sweden. [11] Unsurprisingly, the main targets are strong E.U. economies. These countries would gain a new capacity to influence Bogotá regarding a number of its internal issues (such as ongoing human rights violations) by utilizing trade as a kind of economic weapon.

Despite the expectation that Europe will be able to involve itself more heavily in Colombia’s internal conflict, left-wing European deputies, trade unions, and Colombian and European NGOs have contested the treaty on several key issues. First, opponents argue that due to asymmetrical relations between the European Union and Colombia, the treaty is likely to favor the E.U. economically, at the expense of Colombia. Even worse, they consider that the treaty may have some negative collateral effects on the human rights situation. For example, they fear that investment by European firms in a poorly regulated economic framework will worsen the management of resources, such as land and water. [12] As of yet, these concerns have not impeded the ratification of the treaty. However, other concerns regarding the human rights situation in Colombia have rekindled this discussion.

Human Rights Considerations of the Bilateral Agreement

Based on the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the European Union is committed to signing treaties with countries that meet its values of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. As a consequence, a clause on human rights must always be included in European free trade agreements, and a violation of human rights by any country would warrant suspension, although this has never occurred. [13]

Opponents of the free trade agreement with Colombia have accused the European Union of turning a blind eye to the grave human rights situation that has persisted in Colombia. [14] For example, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) “called European Parliamentarians to condition the vote on the ratification on compliance with essential conditions for the protection of human rights in Colombia.” [15] Indeed, there are still many acute human rights violations, particularly related to the country’s internal conflict, such as forced displacements and disappearances of Colombian public figures. Colombia remains a very dangerous place for labor unionists and journalists, who are often victims of threat and aggressions. According to the 2011 report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, several of these injuries and crimes remain “without proper investigation.” [16] It is clear that the Colombian government still has much to rectify in regard to the human rights issue.

Given the heated debate regarding human rights violations in Colombia, the usual clause on human rights was not sufficient to satisfy opponents of the treaty. Therefore, the E.U Parliament adopted some additional measures aimed at tackling the human rights situation in Colombia. On June 13, 2012, the E.U. asked the Colombian government to define a roadmap to guarantee the protection of labor rights, environmental rights, and human rights. Even if the document is not legally binding, it appears that its adoption was significant in making the treaty’s ratification acceptable. In this context, the new rules defined on September 19, 2012, restarted political dialogue on human rights issues. [17]

While opponents believe that these measures are still seen somewhat ineffective in addressing the human rights crisis in Colombia, the opposition has at least made E.U. involvement in the Colombian situation more visible. Improving the upholding of standards on human rights will be essential for the effective application of the treaty. Seeing as economic interests are at stake for both E.U. and Colombian policymakers, the involved parties may have an impetus to respect the commitment to human rights, at least when they consider it necessary for economic results. Indeed, European concern over the human rights situation in Colombia is more likely to occur if it seems that their economic interests are in jeopardy. It should be made clear that European authorities will prioritize  human rights, which will allow for the realization of a stable and attractive environment for economic growth.

Capitalism and Human Rights

By nature, capitalism standardizes and homogenizes nations and states. Extreme poverty and insecurity hamper the pursuit and development of capitalist activities. [18] In its analysis of Colombia, the Compagnie française d’assurance pour le commerce extérieur (Coface, a French group that analyzes international commerce) lists poverty, uneven distribution of wealth, insecurity, and a large informal sector as economic deficiencies that can impede capitalist growth. In Colombia, zones managed by criminal groups, such as Medellín and Cali, prevent the flow of several raw materials and other miscellaneous resources to the global market. As a consequence, the presence of some rebel groups obstructs economic growth.

Over the years, numerous Colombian administrations have declared their commitment to ensuring a certain standard of living for its citizens in order to create a productive and dynamic labor force. For example, the César Gaviria administration (1990-1994) implemented a development strategy based on economic reforms and financial assistance from international organizations (e.g. the International Monetary Fund). The expected support from the European Union in the framework of the recently ratified treaty seems to follow this method. Nevertheless, Bogotá is allowing the E.U. to infringe upon its internal affairs regarding human rights. Thus, the future relations between Bogotá and Brussels will likely be highly one-sided. Brussels will potentially have greater power to influence Bogotá by suspending some economic exchanges. Even if Brussels does not suspend the treaty,  the threat of suspension remains a means of pressure.

Concluding Remarks

Bogotá ratified the treaty with the clear expectation to improve the economic health of the country, as the current violations of human rights do not allow for the emergence of sustainable economic growth. Brussels’s way of enforcing this issue was to add human rights conditions to the trade agreement. This could be seen as a way for the European Union to interfere in some Colombian affairs with the possible use of trade sanctions, mainly regarding human rights. Though it is still too soon to affirm whether the negative externalities of the free trade agreement will fully emerge, effective implementation of the human rights stipulations by Bogotá and Brussels may avoid such damages. Nevertheless, the European interest for the human rights situation in Colombia seems to not be genuine.

Élise Lefeuvre and Sophie Mouline, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 

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[1] “EU-Colombia trade agreement takes effect on 1 August,” Europa, Communiqué de Presse, July 26, 2013.

[2]  See the official text of the treaty here:

[3]  “Relations de l’UE avec la Communauté andine,” Union Européenne, Action extérieure,

[4] “EU-Colombia trade agreement takes effect on 1 August,“ Europa, Communiqué de Presse, July 26, 2013,

[5] Commission Européenne. Proposition de Décision du Conseil relative à la conclusion de l’accord commercial entre l’Union Européenne, d’une part, et la Colombie et le Pérou d’autre part, September 22, 2011.

[6] Casteñada Dorly, “The European Union in Colombia: learning how to be a peace actor,” Paris, IRSEM : 2012 (3).

[7] Commission Européenne, “Colombie – document de stratégie par pays, 2007-2013,” March 28, 2007,

[8] Commission Européenne, “Colombie – document de stratégie par pays, 2007-2013,” March 28, 2007,

[9]  Datas given by Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo Proexport and Embajada de Colombia en Bruselas.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ALOP, grupo Sur, Oidhac. “Road Map for the UE – Colombia and Peru, FTA, insufficient for the NGOs,”

[13] Claire Dilé,  “L’UE, les Accords de libre-échange et les droits de l’Homme : un jeu quitte ou double ?” Nouvelle, October 7, 2012,

[14] Protection Internationale, “Colombie : lettre ouverte à Martin Schulz, président du Parlement Européen, suite à sa visite en Colombie,” February 21, 2013,

[15]  FIDH,  Colombia : “the European Parliament can contribute to end the commission of international crimes and to respect the work of human rights defenders and trade unionists,”

[16] United Nations, General Assembly,”Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,” January 31, 2012.

[17] See the official document:

[18] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L’Anti-Oedipe (1972 – 1980), Paris, Les Editions de Minuit.

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