HL Deb 12 January 1995 vol 560 cc288-90

3.18 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the United Kingdom has not applied for observer status at the Organisation of American States.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, we are keeping the question of applying for observer status under active consideration.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, in the light of that somewhat disappointing reply is my noble friend aware that the recent summit of the Americas designated the OAS as the principal instrument for implementing the newly proposed American free trade area? Furthermore, is my noble friend aware that 25 nations already have observer status at the OAS and it hardly behoves us to be lagging behind in this matter especially in view of our new found and very welcome interest in Latin America?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am very well aware of my noble friend's great interest in Latin America; it is one which the Government share. Certainly, the OAS is now a much more effective organisation than it used to be and its role in supporting the democratic process and protecting human rights has grown. It is beginning to promote regional trade, environmental protection and technical co-operation. It is beginning to be a very good organisation. That was why I used the words "active consideration" about something to which we shall no doubt return. It is in Britain's interests that we have much closer links with Latin America. After all, our trade exports have gone up by more than 50 per cent. in the past two years.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, in the light of what the Minister says about the importance of the work of the Organisation of American States, including, for example, monitoring human rights in the current situation in Haiti, can she tell the House what will determine whether we seek observer status since it is under active consideration? It would be helpful to know what is currently holding us back and what would encourage us to make a request for observer status.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the matter is under active consideration at this very moment. I am not in a position to give your Lordships a specific answer today. However, I made clear in answer to my noble friend's Question that I believe it is a good thing. The permanent observer status which the noble Baroness seeks to persuade us to take up would give us even greater commitment to the region, which is changing rapidly for the better. We have an increasing influence in the region, specifically on difficult issues such as human rights, because we now play a much more active role. I hope that I shall have good news soon.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, given the numerous reasons that my noble friend the Minister has enumerated, and given also that the OAS is an organisation to which all the Latin American, Central American and North American countries belong and that 1995 has been designated by both the Foreign Office and the DTI as a year in which they will give a push to British industrial and investment activity in the region, would it not be a timely moment to give the active consideration a further push? If resources happen to be a problem, is there any reason why the task should not be covered from our embassy in Washington?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend is very perspicacious. Next week at CBI headquarters we have the launch of the Latin American trade campaign by the Foreign Office and the DTI. We are considering all these matters. Certainly, we would need to take great care in our representations, even as permanent observers in the organisation. A way will be found to make sure that we do that as soon as possible.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, is not a further good reason for our having an observer the fact that we still possess overseas territories in the western hemisphere, in the Caribbean?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that is obviously a further consideration. We look after both our dependent territories and other members of the Commonwealth in the Caribbean without membership of any specific organisation other than those covering the Caribbean. However, trading links between the Caribbean dependent territories and their mainland neighbours are also growing. It behoves us to see how we can help those Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean through our links with Latin America.

Baroness Young

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that great interest has been expressed in all parts of the House in this matter? Outside the House, among the business community, great importance is attached to sending an observer to the OAS. When she considers the matter within her department will my noble friend draw attention to those facts? Will she also express the importance of giving support to the new secretary general of the OAS, the former Colombian president, who took up office last September?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. We very much welcome the election of former President Gaviria as secretary general. We shall give him such support as we can. While we are not as yet permanent observers it may not be long before we become so.

I underline what my noble friend said about business support for the development of trade. I mentioned the increase in our trade exports over the past two years. It is also noticeable that our investment is increasing by leaps and bounds: £3.1 billion in 1991, £5.2 billion in 1992, and further increases in 1993 and 1994. I believe that, with the conference next week and all the other efforts that we are making, this is an area of great opportunity for Britain and that we should seize it.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, finally, and very importantly, is the noble Baroness aware that the strong Welsh settlement in Patagonia is also very much in favour of our making such an application?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, all the reasons seem to be positive. That augurs well.

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