Colombian president, UK PM pledge to boost ties

November 21, 2011 - 4:50 PM

LONDON (AP) — Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos met with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron Monday to win support for his domestic reform program, with human rights also on the agenda.

Colombia figures highly on Human Rights Watch's list of most abusive countries, with rights and labor groups saying an alarming number of activists have been killed.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he hopes the South American country will continue to prosecute those involved in human rights abuses, and Cameron said he was glad the countries planned to sign a human-rights agreement during Santos's visit.

Santos is in Britain to rebrand Colombia as one of the new emergent economic powers in Latin America in meetings with Cameron, Queen Elizabeth II and senior ministers. He is expected to sign agreements on education, and will meet with business representatives.

Colombia's economy has been growing at about 5 percent this year, due in large part to increased investment in mining and the oil, natural gas and coal sectors, according to government statistics.

There has been greater investor confidence in the country after its security gains of the past decade under former President Alvaro Uribe, including a weakening of the country's main rebel group by the U.S.-backed military.

The country's murder and kidnapping rates have also dropped during that decade, but in the past year they have been on the rise.

Cameron praised Santo's leadership Monday, saying Britain was "very impressed" with the president's economic agenda and thinks there are "great opportunities for growing trade and investment" between the two countries.

"Colombia and the United Kingdom have a very strong partnership, but its a partnership we want to see grow even stronger," he added.

Santos agreed, saying there are many areas on which the U.K. and Colombia can work together — from innovation, technology and education to trade and investment.

"We want to at least double trade between Colombia and the U.K. in the next three or four years," he said in remarks opening his two-day visit to the U.K.

The United States recently clinched a long-sought free trade pact with Colombia, but human rights was a sticking point.

Labor and human rights campaigners, especially in the United States, have long criticized Colombia's failure to punish slayings of labor activists or the widespread killings and theft of land by right-wing paramilitaries.

Human Rights Watch reported last month there has been "virtually no progress" in getting convictions for killings since January 2007, with only six convictions for 195 slayings.

The rights group said 2,886 trade unionists have been killed since 1986, with convictions in only 10 percent of the cases.

Santos and his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, have repeatedly promised to crack down on rights abuses and Santos says he is trying to compensate or return land to farmers dispossessed by the paramilitaries.

Cameron said that the U.K. is planning to start a more structured, high-level dialogue with Colombia starting in 2012.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru contributed to this report.