Canadians Prioritize the Economy over Human Rights

A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Colombia and Canada is back under debate, and an assessment of the value of the economy versus the value of human life must be made. Signing a FTA with a country with such a poor human rights record should be out of character for Canada, as a country that usually prides itself on great foreign relations. Yet the legislation is back in Parliament and it has a strong possibility of being passed - something that has the potential to injure both Canada’s reputation as a leader in foreign relations and Colombia’s ability to improve its already vulnerable human rights situation.

On March 26, the Canadian Government brought in legislation to implement the Canada-Colombia Free Trade, Labour Cooperation and Environment Agreements in the House of Commons. Now, in November, the legislation has undergone its second reading and is currently under debate.

The legislation, if passed, will allow for goods to be imported and exported between Canada and Colombia tariff-free. The agreement, however, is highly controversial and is sparking vicious debate between the political parties of the House over the ethics of striking a trade deal with a country that has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere, according to Human Rights Watch, a non-profit organization.

The important question is not are there human rights violations in Colombia - the answer to that is yes there are,” says Bob Rae, the Liberal’s opposition foreign affairs critic. “There are a lot of issues internally in Colombia that have to be dealt with. The issue is, is a free trade agreement or a creation of trade rules … is that more or less likely to have an impact on the human rights situation.”

There are many arguments over whether or not the free trade agreement will worsen or better the human rights situation in Colombia. The Conservative government, who proposed the Bill, feels that the agreement will only help Colombians.

Economic growth through liberalized, rules-based trade and investment will help alleviate poverty and create new wealth and employment opportunities for Colombian citizens.” says Me'shel Gulliver Bélanger, Spokesperson for Trade Media Relations for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. “This growth will also help to solidify efforts by the Government of Colombia to create a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy.”
The Conservatives also feel that the agreement will benefit Canada, despite Colombia only representing 0.13% of Canada’s total trade volume in 2007.

The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and agreements on Labour Cooperation and the Environment will expand bilateral trade and investment and deliver concrete progress on Canada’s commitment of Engagement in the Americas,” says Bélanger. “The FTA will help increase the competitiveness of Canadian exporters and service providers in several sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, financial services, mining, oil and gas. Canada is taking action during these difficult economic times by reaching out to our trading partners and reducing barriers to trade.”

The other controversy over this agreement is regarding Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe. Although some sources say that the human rights situation has improved under his presidency, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) states, “increasing numbers of President Uribe’s close political allies, including the chief of security, personal advisors, and members of Congress have been tied to paramilitary activities. The Colombian government is, thus, looking for international backing.”

Canadian oil and mining companies are well-established throughout Colombia, including in conflict zones”, says the CCIC, “[and] regions rich in minerals and oil have been marked by violence, paramilitary control, and displacement.”

Peter Julian, NDP critic for International Trade, says that in Colombia there is “one rule for the very wealthy and one for ordinary people. If they step out of line, they are killed.”

He has suggested that a Human Rights Impact Assessment be done for Colombia prior to the passing of the free trade agreement. This was also one of the recommendations proposed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on International Trade when they undertook a report entitled Human Rights and the Environmental Considerations of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. They also suggested that the FTA should not proceed without further improvements in the human rights situation in Colombia.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government did not wait for the Committee to submit its report before it concluded negotiations with Colombia.

A similar trade agreement between Colombia and the United States negotiated under George W. Bush was frozen in 2008 under President Obama, given human rights concerns.

The FTA with Colombia is part of a series of bilateral trade deals, which are part of the government’s Americas Strategy.

Canada’s FTAs with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and Peru recently came into force, an FTA with Jordan was signed in late June, and negotiations for the Canada-Panama FTA recently concluded,” reports Bélanger.

The opening of trade negotiations with Colombia were as a result of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new foreign policy on the Americas, promoting “our fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”

[It is] a reward for bad behaviour,” says Julian. “these Free Trade Agreements are not set up for the interest of ordinary people.”

He also pointed out that the trickle-down economic theory that is the foundation for NAFTA, and the basis for many free trade agreements, has not worked over the past twenty years.

Let’s stop clinging to those ideas that don’t work,” he says, “We need to develop a model in keeping with Canadian values, a fair trade model.”

Despite the absence of a Human Rights Impact Assessment, it seems the Liberals are prepared to support the free trade agreement.

It is important for people to keep their mind on the notion that whether we have a free trade agreement with Colombia or not there will be trade, there will be investment, and there will be human rights violations,” says Rae.

The Liberals were against the deal under their previous party leader, Stephane Dion. “Ignatieff is just as conservative as the Conservatives,” says Julian.

Conversely, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois have declared their opposition to the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

[It is] as inappropriate as signing an agreement with the North Korean regime,” says Julian of the FTA.

With the government’s current devotion to expanding trade in the Americas, it becomes easy to question where the line will be drawn as to whom we will not trade with, because being willing to trade with a country with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere sets a precedent for future trading partners. Human life is human life, and we should not be encouraging those who do not treat it as such.

There is no clear answer to whether the FTA will improve or deteriorate the human rights situation in Colombia.

When I was in Colombia at the end of August I found this question to be a very live question amongst progressive think tanks and human rights activists of all kinds and stripes, “ says Rae“ It hasn’t been whistling through parliament and I don’t think it will.”

//Samantha Thompson

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