Well-brewed diplomacy

If you cut one of Nestor Osorio veins, you’ll probably find coffee. “Coffee is part of my essence,” says the Colombian Ambassador to London, the city that has been his home for more than 25 years.

The Ambassador first touched down in the capital in 1978 as part of the Colombian delegation to the International Coffee Organisation, then headed by the current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Osorio has seen six British Prime Ministers – from Callaghan to Cameron – move in to Downing Street. He’s also seen the world of coffee diplomacy change dramatically.

When he started at the ICO, the focus was on negotiating prices and quotas between producing and consuming countries. By the time he was elected Executive Director in 2002 – the first non-Brazilian to hold the position – export quotas had been suspended and coffee producing countries were in the grips of the Coffee Crisis.

“My task was to reorientate the ICO,” explains Osorio. “We negotiated a new agreement under my stewardship to turn the organisation into more of development agency, to help improve the quality of the coffee and the living conditions of the coffee growers.”

The second pillar of his campaign was to grow domestic demand in the producing countries. “This is now a new reality of the gobal market,” he adds.

In between his terms at the ICO in London (as a representative and then as Excecutive Director) he was the first Permanent Representative of Colombia to the WTO in Geneva. During his tenure he presided over the committees on Commercial Policies, Textiles and Agriculture. The end of the multi fibre agreement has transformed Asian developing economies, but an agreement on agriculture remains elusive. “It’s the key that cannot be unlocked to allow the WTO to perform the way it should,” says Osorio.

“I was there at the Seattle debacle. We wanted an agreement that would get rid of subsidies to level the playing field for developing countries but we were confronted by an omnibus of protectionists.” Instead, the failure to complete the Doha Round has seen the proliferation of bilateral and regional agreements, he adds.

The intensity of ICO and WTO negotiations were but a dress rehearsal compared his next posting as Ambassador to the UN. Colombia was elected as a non-permanent member of the Security Council (2011-12). He took over the presidency in April 2011, as the Syrian Crisis began to unfold. “It was non-stop,” he says. “You could feel the weight of responsibility at a very difficult time when we were discussing the implications of the Arab Spring, the  secession of the Sudan, Israel-Palestine negotiations …”

Also on the agenda were crises in some African countries, among them Cote d’Ivoire. Here Osorio’s coffee  experience proved helpful since this was a country he knew well.

After two caffeine-fuelled years, Osorio was elected president of  the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC) at a time when this important body was in need of a reform to undertake the preparations for the post-2015 development agenda. “The challenge was to transform the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) into a more ambitious, comprehensive and inclusive programme with responsibilities for developed and developing countries. The result was the concept of Sustainable Development Goals which is a new development model for the world to be adopted by the UN next year.”

Now Osorio is back in London, this time to supercharge UK-Colombian bilateral relations. Cooperation is already extensive, in areas such as education, science and technology, climate and environment protection. Britain has also played an important supportive role alongside the US in Plan Colombia, offering intelligence, equipment and training to crack down on the drugs cartels and the guerrilla insurgency.

The effort has paid off, says Osorio. “Colombia and conflict were once synonymous but this is in the process of being written out of the script.”

For the last two years negotiations to achieve long lasting peace have been in motion. “There have been some hiccups” he admits, “ but I believe we are approaching the final phase of the negotiation.” This includes the toughest problems such as weapons decommissioning, demining, dismantling the coca plantations and assisting rural development.

The thorniest issue is likely to be balancing justice and peace, he adds. “The concept of pardon and reparation is at the centre of President Santos’s philosophy, but there cannot be impunity when crimes against humanity have been committed.”

Peace dividend
While these delicate talks continue, the Ambassador is wasting no time preparing the ground for the peace dividend.

“As we approach the end of the conflict the more confident we can be to promote the country for tourism, investment,” says Osorio who explains the ambitious plans to triple bilateral trade and investment by 2020. And direct flights to Colombia since July will encourage more investors and visitors to travel there.

Tackling corruption and upgrading infrastructure long neglected due to the internal conflict will also be a priority for the government and the jobs created by new investment will start to narrow the gulf between Colombia’s rich and poor, which is essential for the post-conflict agenda.

It’s an agenda that will require energetic diplomacy – so it’s a good thing the Ambassador Osorio has coffee in his veins.

Elizabeth Stewart, the editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the Ambassador of Colombia on 19 August, updated on 12 December