The Harper Index

Human rights rhetoric contradicted by rush for Colombia trade pact

Despite death squads, Harper government set to endorse Uribe government with deal.

Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona of Colombia (left), with Canadian supporters - Common FrontiersOTTAWA, November 22, 2007: A parliamentary showdown is coming over a proposed trade deal with Colombia. Next week the opposition parties plan to introduce a resolution to the parliamentary committee on international trade calling for a halt to trade negotiations unless human rights issues are addressed.

Meanwhile, the Harper government is moving rapidly to tie up the details of a deal that could come as soon as Monday, November 26, the date of a negotiating session in Lima Peru.

"Stephen Harper says trade must not trump human rights for China, but he's rewarding the worst human rights offender in the Americas," according to Hassan Yussuff, Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress. The Congress is coordinating rallies across Canada against the proposed deal because, they say, it condones the violent repression of dissent and because almost all the thousands of murders of trade unionists there have gone unpunished.

Harper and trade minister David Emerson, however, have ignored the protests of human rights organizations, the labour movement and opposition parties in pushing forward with the deal. "We're calling on the government to halt negotiations and look at a human rights framework for any discussions around trade agreements," said NDP trade critic Peter Julian in a telephone interview. "Human rights have to be front and centre in any trade agreements," as he says, has been the practice among Europeans nations.

Julian says there are indications the Harper government wants to move forward fairly quickly, as does the Colombian government. For the Colombians, "these are seen as endorsements. With David Emerson, it's the photo op that counts." He says Emerson pushed through the "softwood sell-out" trade deal with the US despite advice against it. "For him, the act of signing something is the important thing. He gets a photo opportunity out of it."

In July, Harper visited Colombia and scoffed at the suggestion Canada should withhold support for a trade deal due to human rights abuses. "We're not going to say, fix all your social, political and human-rights problems, and only then will we engage in trade relations with you," said Harper, at the time. "That's a ridiculous position."

Julian calls the proposed deal "a major endorsement of a government that is associated with gross human rights abuses," and says that those who speak out there fear for their lives. This week he met with Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona, leader of the Methodist Church of Colombia, who made it clear he feels his life is endangered by speaking out for human rights.

"If Canada were to assess the real impact of a trade deal on the lives of Colombians, I believe it would change its mind on the advisability of continuing negotiations," the bishop said in a news release issued by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

Since the US rejected a similar deal with Colombia on account of human rights concerns, the bishop said "...naturally, the government is desperate for a deal with Canada. It's like a stamp of approval. But we say stop the killing of innocent Colombians, disarm the paramilitaries, and protect human rights before any deals are made."

Illegal executions of civilians by the Colombian military and paramilitary forces took 955 lives in the past five years, according to the release. "Most affected are indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, trade unionists, human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians. Real justice for those responsible is almost unheard of."

This year, 27 trade unionists have been killed, two of them earlier this month. During the administration of the current president, Alvaro Uribe Velaz, 560 union officers and members have been murdered. Trade union organizers are hunted down because unions are considered to be subversive, and organized workers make demands for better working conditions.

Julian is particularly concerned about the closed-door nature of negotiations. As the Colombian Action Network in Response to Free Trade put it on the website of Common Frontiers, "...it is not so surprising that these governments of ours are restricting citizen participation in these negotiations. If the word got out about horrifying implications of signing such a deal, people wouldn't support it. The Canadian government has gone so far as to ask Colombian negotiators not to share the labour texts with Canadian unions and non-governmental organizations..."

By contrast, when trade deals are negotiated in Europe, there is extensive consultation with the parliaments and citizens of the nations involved, according to Julian.

Another voice against a trade deal with Colombia is Liliana Uribe [no relation to the President], a Colombian human rights lawyer who visited Canada in October. In the past she has had to flee Colombia to escape death threats, and she is constantly at risk. She is urging Canada not to allow its trade interests to overshadow its human rights concerns about the growing number of illegal killings of civilians by Colombian security forces, and the continuing impunity of most of the perpetrators. According to The Lawyers Weekly, while in Ottawa she told Mps that Prime Minister Stephen Harper hurt the cause of human rights when he publicly congratulated the Colombian government for its paramilitary demobilization efforts during his official visit last July to launch free trade negotiations.

She told the publication "It's a very dangerous message. To say that: 'You have made advances' is essentially to say 'I am supporting you, even though your armed forces are killing civilians... even though you have paramilitaries who continue to act, and who continue to be infiltrating... the Congress and the government.' The sad reality is that the Canadian government at the moment is supporting a government in Colombia that is in fact implementing policies that are violating human rights. The Canadian government is supporting a demobilization process of paramilitaries in Colombia that is not real... because paramilitaries continue to have political, military and economic control in Colombia."

She says that judges and human rights lawyers have been shot, while government prosecutors who dared to investigate paramilitary abuses have had to flee to other countries, including Canada. Advocates like her work under "a permanent environment of intimidation - itÂ’s absolutely continuous. Our phones in the home and in the office, our cell phones, are intercepted. We know that we are followed. And there are unknown people who are always watching our office."

A prominent supporter of the deal is George W. Bush, who has used Harper's proposed trade deal to justify a similar Amercian initiative. "As Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada put it," Mr. Bush told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in October, "If the United States turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin American dictator could hope to achieve. By its bold actions, Colombia has proved itself worthy of America's support-and I urge Congress to pass this vital agreement as soon as possible."

To inoculate itself against criticism, earlier this month federal labour minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn announced $1 million being given to Colombia under the International Program for Professional Labour Administration (IPPLA). "This funding will help the Colombian Government to strengthen and enforce labour laws on behalf of workers here, and will support good governance by building capacity for the effective administration of labour legislation," Blackburn said. In spite of Blackburn's efforts, Canadian and Colombian unions remain firmly opposed to this agreement.

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Bush and Harper retain close ties

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Free trade, corporate rights / Democracy, accountability
  Overlooking death squads in the name of progress / Human rights
  Photo opportunities / Informed public, parliamentary process
  Closed doors / Transparency, openness

Links and sources
  Profits for transnational corporations and poverty for people, by Colombian Action Network in Response to Free Trade
  Canada closes in on Colombian trade deal while abuses continue, The Canadian Press, November 9, 2007
  Why a Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is a Big Mistake, Canadian Labour Congress, November 7, 2007
  U. S. Labor Activists Petition to Stop Free Trade Push, OneWorld US, November 21, 2007
  Harper goes South: but has he done his homework?, Common Frontiers, July 12, 2007
  Lawyer braves death, jail in battle for human rights, The Lawyers Weekly, November 9, 2007
  Bush Invokes Harper's Comments on Colombia, Embassy, October 24, 2007

Posted: November 22, 2007

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