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Ottawa's Colombia Problem

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May 28, 2012

Ottawa's Colombia Problem

Canada fails to release human rights report on Colombia following FTA

by Brandon Barrett

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hand with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. April, 2012. Photo: PMO

MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA—The Canadian government's failure to report on Colombian human rights, as promised as part of its Free Trade Agreement (FTA), drew criticism from the country's opposition last Thursday.

The FTA, which went into effect in August 2011, received the backing of Canadian opposition parties when Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed to releasing annual reports on how trade was affecting human rights in Colombia. A report analyzing the treaty was released last Wednesday with no mention of human rights issues.

"As the agreement has only been in force for the last four and a half months in 2011, there's not enough available data to do a comprehensive analysis," said Trade Minister Ed Fast in Canada's House of Commons. "That analysis will be released in 2013."

The report's delay drew the ire of many government critics, who felt the current administration was only seeking profit from Colombia while ignoring its human rights violations.

"Canadians want more trade...but we also want...the partners we trade with to respect democratic values," said the opposition's international trade critic Don Davies. "It leaves us to wonder whether the government was afraid to table an honest human rights assessment because it shows the situation in Colombia has not improved."

Opposition party member Scott Brison, who used his close ties to Colombian officials to propose the joint report, assured Canadians that the South American nation was committed to improving its shoddy human rights record, which has seen 17 trade unionists disappear since the agreement was signed.

"I know the Colombian government, with which I continue dialogue, takes this reportage very seriously and actually views it as an opportunity to deepen corporate social responsibility and to increase transparency around human rights and the effect of legitimate trade on actually strengthening human rights," said Brison.

"I hope that the Harper government takes this reportage process as seriously as the Colombians do," he added.

Numerous criticisms against Canadian mining operations have been lodged by Colombian civil rights groups, according to Jennifer Moore, the Latin American coordinator for Canada-based industry monitor MiningWatch.

"What really worries us is that you put into place a new free trade agreement, you provide new and substantial rights to foreign investors to defend their investments...and there are no correspondingly strong rights for communities to assert their rights when they're being infringed upon by these corporate interests," Moore told Colombia Reports, where this story originally ran.

Complaints have ranged from company representatives entering Indigenous land without permission to overlapping mining operations forcing residents from their homes. Canadian gold mining company Gran Colombia has been the target of heated protest in recent years after its alleged failure to allow "robust public participation" in communities where operations have taken place, according to Moore.

In 2011, a Catholic priest from the historic gold-mining department of Caldas protested his town's demolition to make way for the company's mining operations. He was murdered by unknown assailants shortly afterward. Gran Colombia denied responsibility for the murder, saying it was simply a robbery gone wrong.

"The inclusion of this human rights report in order to justify the passage of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was a whitewash from the beginning and now we're just seeing what a sham it really is," added Moore.

The FTA made news May 7 when Canadian officials claimed Colombia failed to issue duty-free licenses to its exporters in 2011.

The United States FTA with Colombia went into effect on May 15. The agreement has also been fiercely criticized by human rights organizations in both countries due to the ongoing violence against labour activists and union workers.

Brandon Barrett is a journalist and regular contributor to Colombia Reports based in Medellin, Colombia. An earlier version of this story appeared in Colombia Reports and the Media Co-op.

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