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Canada-Honduras FTA about mining and sweatshop protection, foreign affairs committee hears

Canada is in a hurry to recognize the controversial regime of current Honduran President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, elected under questionable circumstances in November 2009 following a military coup six months earlier against former president Manuel Zelaya. Before he was made Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent supported Honduras’ re-entry into the Organization of American States (which hasn’t happened). We learned recently that Canada is close to completing a free trade agreement with a country where human rights abuses, disappearances and threats against pro-democracy or anti-coup groups is on the rise.

Yesterday, Parliament’s foreign affairs committee heard from several witnesses that an FTA with Honduras is the last thing the country needs. Unfortunately for Hondurans, Canada’s foreign policy in Latin America puts mining interests first, real economic development last, and human rights somewhere in between.

For a comprehensive report on the context and major players involved with Canada’s free trade push in Honduras, see Todd Gordon’s excellent piece in The Bullet, “Military Coups are Good for Canadian Business: The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement.” For some background on the two truth commissions–one initiated by the Honduran government, the other by a large coalition of Honduran rights organizations, see the Common Frontiers website.

Yesterday’s foreign affairs committee hearing was only two hours long but witnesses were unanimous on the need to address serious human and labour rights violations in Honduras before any free trade agreement is signed.

Bertha Olivathe, general coordinator of the Honduran Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared, told committee “the rule of law in Honduras is broken.” Following the coup, it has become impossible to rebuild a country worthy of its name, or to have a national assembly that could be considered legitimate, she said. The November 2009 elections were not transparent but irregular, with many people murdered and persecuted prior to the vote. Since then, any person who challenges the coup d’etat suffers the consequences, she said.

Pedro Landa, coordinator of the Honduran Centre for the Promotion of Community Development, told committee the conclusion of a Canada-Honduras FTA would be unacceptable. States have a responsibility to make sure the impact of commercial activities are positive, not negative, he said. Landa referred to the Liberal private members bill C-300, which would have promoted better social responsibility for coporations engaged in mining, oil and gas activities in developing countries had it passed in the House of Commons. Absent these protections, signing an FTA under the conditions now in Honduras would be “reprehensible.”

Landa asked Canada not to support the forces that organized the coup d’etat and which continue to perpetuate or ignore human rights violations, including assassinations, illegal detentions and disappearances. “It’s a crime in Honduras even to have an opinion not in line with the current government’s,” he told committee (in Spanish). An FTA would legitimize this. “We’re here to ask Canada to support us and to delay signature of a free trade agreement with Honduras,” he said. The signature of an FTA should be conditional on meeting significant improvement in respct for human rights in Honduras.

Secondly, Landa said, Canada should require Honduras to engage in a transparent process for commercial activities so that all social sectors can be involved, especially affected communities. There have to be fair trade policies that take into account the environment, climate change and human rights. These policies must not just be there to promote wealth creation and economic growth.

The post-coup Honduran regime should have to improve the prosectuion of rights violators before and after the coup d’etat of June 2008, continued Landa. He informed the committee that Canada is increasingly seen aborad as a country “that makes off with natural resources without thinking of the societal impacts.” (The speedy passage here of FTAs with Peru  and Columbia while these deals remain stalled in US Congress on human rights concerns offer galling regional comparisons.)

Maria Luisa Regalado, general coordinator of the Honduran Women’s Collective, told committee about Canadian sweatshop activities in Honduras. Gildan is violating recognized labour standards, she said, with day and night shifts reaching 11.5 hours on average — a violation of internationally accepted labour standards. (Gildan, headquartered in Montreal, has operations throughout the region, including Haiti. As Gordon points out in his article on the Honduras FTA, Haiti was the first coup that Canada actively supported in the region, Honduras being the second.)

The next and final speaker was Craig Scott, director of the Jack and Mae Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights at Osgoode Hall Law School. Scott was part of the True Commission established in Honduras and inaugurated in June 2010 on the first anniversary of the coup d’etat, which is not to be confused with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by executive decree in May 2010.

The latter is supposed to clarify the facts before and after June 2009 in order to report back and avoid a repeat of what happened, explained Scott to committee. Former Canadian ambassador to U.S. Micheal Kergin is one of the commissioners. But there is deep mutual distrust within a polarized society in Honduras, said Scott, so it was not surprising that another commission was constituted, with a mandate to study the coup and the human rights violations following the coup.

Scott is a member of the True Commission, which he said will be looking at structural reforms and desired international help, and which expects to have a final report in October in Spanish and English. The team of staff members had experienced many threats leading up to December but it has quieted down, he said, thanking the Canadian Embassy for its concern. The True Commission will be contextualizing the historical and cultural environment which allowed the coup to happen, as well as the subsequent decline in the human rights situation in Honduras, said Scott.

Since the coup, a wide range of human rights groups have talked about the situation, which includes impunity for rights abusers and problems with rule of law, Scott told committee, emphasizing that the situation is in certain respects getting worse. He concluded that there will be great value to Hondurans and Canadians if both the True and the Truth and Reconciliation committees are considered in assessing the situation. “In the most simplified sense, more truth is better than less,” he said.

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There’s no clear timeline for a free trade deal with Honduras but reports are they are close to completion. Any deal would have to go through trade committee. Unfortunately that committee has proven insensitive to human rights considerations in the Columbia and Peru FTAs, ratified by Canada last year. It is a positive sign that the Honduran FTA is already being discussed by the foreign affairs committee in light of ongoing rights violations against critics of the post-coup regime.

For more information on why Canada is looking to secure investment protections in an FTA with Honduras:

Military Coups, Mining & Canadian Involvement in Honduras (on MiningWatch Canada site)
Canada Seeks to Expand Mining and Maquila Investments in Honduras (Honduras Weekly)