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Central America Foreign Office Priorities

Thursday, January 17, 2008

At a meeting of the Central America All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) held in Westminster Meg gave the following speech.


Thank you for your introduction and to Viscount Montgomery for inviting me here this afternoon. I welcome this opportunity to address the All Party Parliamentary Group on Central America, and your guests from the All Party Group on Latin America.


As you know I am Minister for Central America so shall confine my remarks today to the area from Guatemala to Panama.  I’d like to address three issues:

  • recent developments in Central America,
  • UK priorities in the region for 2008, and
  • resources. 

I have already visited the region, having gone to Panama in September. I met with the team at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and discussed various issues including trade and the Security Council.


Of course, the most exciting point for me was operating one of the locks on the Panama Canal. But you probably didn’t want to know that nor I imagine would any of the ship’s captains coming through at the time!


I am looking forward to further visits to the region this year, as well as meeting Central American Ministers and officials when they are in London. Whilst we are in a world of electronic communication I think face-to-face is the best way for Ministers and diplomats to engage.


I was glad to host a reception at Lancaster House in November as part of the Central American Forum organised by Canning House. The forum brought together a wide range of academics and policy makers to discuss various issues facing the region.


Recent Developments


Central America has come a long way since the 1980s when it dominated the newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons: President Noriega, for example, and his drug-supported regime in Panama, long running internal conflicts in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, and economic chaos.


Some of the press was unfair - states such as Costa Rica continued their economic and political development throughout this period. They, of course, also played an important role in ending the internal wars which de-stabilised so much of the region.


Of course many problems still affect the region. The northern triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is still considered some of the most dangerous territory in the world. It is amongst the world’s highest murder rates, and the region remains a transit route for moving drugs and people from South to North America and Europe. In some parts of the region, there is still widespread poverty and wealth inequality.


In addition we now have the increasing danger brought by climate change. Central America has had recent experience of this - it was hit by two category five hurricanes in the past season when normally the region might suffer from a storm of similar size once in a decade. First, in August, Hurricane Dean passed through, followed by Hurricane Felix. This one caused devastation to the Atlantic Coast of Central America, and in particular the North Atlantic Autonomous region of Nicaragua.


UK priorities in 2008


The Foreign Secretary recently spoke about the Foreign Office’s priorities for the coming year and I want to spell out how these relate to Central America.


I’ve already mentioned climate change. We are working closely with all the states in the region on this both nationally, and through multilateral bodies such as the EU and SICA (Central American Integration System or Sistema de la Integracion Centroamericana).  I will be meeting Carlos Guerrero, President of the Central American Sustainable Development Commission and Environment Minister of El Salvador, during his forthcoming visit to London. We will discuss his plans for the Central American Climate Change summit in San Pedro Sula in Honduras in May. 


The UK will also continue to work on conflict prevention and resolution in Central America. Our primary task will be encouraging the newly-elected Belize and Guatemala governments to hold referendums on taking their territorial dispute to the International Court for Justice. We will also continue supporting confidence building measures between the two countries to help end this conflict. Late last year, the Belize government was able to move the first 8 Guatemalan families in line with their wishes from their settlement at Santa Rosa in Belize into a new community in Guatemala. The Organisation for American States ran this programme but the UK Government funded a significant part of the work. From April this year, our funding to support conflict resolution between Belize and Guatemala will increase.


One of the Foreign Office’s priorities for 2008 is developing a strong international system. In Central America there has been significant progress in recent years as demonstrated by the peaceful transition of government in Guatemala this week. The Central American Integration System (SICA) continues to strengthen its institutions and economic, trading and political links between member states.


There is still much to do in areas such as human rights, especially children’s rights, and strengthening the rule of law. We raise international human rights standards regularly with relevant governments. We also support a range of projects including:

  • child rights training for the police in Guatemala,
  • training for 350,000 children on democratic responsibilities and voting rights, 
  • support for a new video evidence suite for child victims of sexual abuse in Costa Rica, and
  • funding a regional child rights conference in Cuba later this month. 

Of course, supporting the British economy remains one of our key services. The expansion of the Panama Canal provides an important market for British business. The UK is the second largest foreign investor in Panama after the U.S.A. with interests in banking, telecommunications, port management and property development. Current British investment stands at around $2.56bn. A $5.6bn expansion of the Panama Canal is just getting underway with major opportunities for British business.  During my visit in September I was able to support the commercial work carried out by our Embassy in Panama including a visit to see plans for a $405m development project which the  UK company ‘London and Regional Properties’ is shortly to undertake.


One of the reasons I visited Panama last year was to discuss the UN Security Council with the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. As you know, Panama is in its second year of Security Council membership, now joined by Costa Rica. If anyone has doubts about the importance of Central America, this double membership of the Security Council will surely explain why the UK will continue its commitment to the region.




I know there was discontent when we re-structured our diplomatic presence in the region between 2003 and 2005. We did this to ensure our resources were more closely aligned with our global diplomatic priorities, that funds were available to support growing areas of work such as counter-terrorism and climate change.


We are not losing interest in the region. Our four sovereign Posts in Central America: in San Jose, Panama City, Guatemala City, and Belmopan provide cover and have frequent contact with the governments of the countries where we do not maintain embassies. We also have an Embassy in the Dominican Republic which, although not geographically part of Central America is a political member, through SICA. We remain committed to providing a high quality service to British Nationals and have appointed Honorary Consuls in each of the areas where Posts have closed.


We have no current plans to close any further Embassies in Central America.




The UK Government remains committed to the Central America region. We are well-placed, to build on what we have to develop a stronger and more vibrant relationship with the states and institutions in the region. I look forward to working with you on this objective. 

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