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Harper government ignores Canada’s obligation to perform human rights impact assessment of Canada-Colombia FTA

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Shutter, was in Canada these last two weeks. It was his first visit to a developed country, and the Harper government rudely ignored him and his warning today that “one in 10 families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food needs.” (Read his full report here.) Piling insult onto injury (Harper initially refused to send a cabinet minister to meet Mr. de Shutter then dispatched Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq as he was wrapping up his tour), the Conservatives tabled in the House of Commons yesterday what one human rights activist called a “sick joke” of a first Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

See, Mr. de Shutter is a strong proponent of the HRIA process, or potential process we should say, since the Canadian example is the only one we have so far and a terrible example at that (see below). The UN official told a packed event at the University of Ottawa on Monday night that the HRIA could become an important tool for developing countries in particular to gauge whether free trade agreements with developed countries like Canada or the EU can be implemented without interfering with a government’s obligations to uphold UN-sanctioned human rights. He outlined the guiding principles for performing such an assessment, which were detailed in a report to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year.

The Canada-Colombia free trade negotiations were among the most controversial trade talks in recent memory because of the dire situation in Colombia for Indigenous communities, Afro-Colombians, labour and rights activists. Canadian environmental, labour, human rights, social justice and other organizations united around the call for an HRIA to be performed by an independent body prior to ratification of the FTA.

The Conservatives fought back but the strength of public support for this idea split the Liberal party down the middle, with several Liberal MPs strongly opposed to a deal with Colombia. It took a last-minute suggestion from then Liberal trade critic Scott Brison, which required that a post-ratification HRIA of some kind be performed each year by the Canadian and Colombian governments, to seal the deal. (Brison came up with this idea over a steak dinner and a bit of clubbing with then Colombian trade minister Luis Plata and his wife.)

Well cheers to Mr. Brison because his hard work on the dance floor has produced an utterly useless tool to help the Harper government completely ignore human rights in its new trading partner, which continue apace.

Jennifer Moore of MiningWatch Canada suggests in her Rabble.ca article today that the government may as well have tabled “a comic strip of three monkeys: ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.'” In essence, she writes, the report says over about 20 pages that “there will be no human rights report this year because only nine months have passed since the agreement was implemented.”

I’ve seen the report and it is truly vacuous. It could have been released the day after Canada signed its FTA with Colombia. Half of it is annexes, including the HRIA side-agreement and economic charts pulled off the Statscan website. The UN Human Rights Declaration makes no appearance. Nor is there any reference to Mr. de Shutter’s exemplary report on how an HRIA should be performed. It’s all economic statistics and a few throwaway references to human rights, which we can guess will eventually be defined by the Harper government and not by independent experts, let alone the UN Declaration.

Moore, in her Rabble piece, is vitriolic:

Never mind that the Canadian government agreed to produce a human rights report by May 15 of this year two years ago. Nor that it was precisely this element of the agreement that allowed the free trade pact to pass through parliament, given that Colombia was (and still is) the most dangerous place on earth to be a trade unionist, with the most internally displaced peoples worldwide (between 3.9 and 5.5 million on last count and the great majority from mineral and hydrocarbon rich areasin which the numerous Canadian oil and mining companies operating in Colombia may have investments), with 32 Indigenous peoples at risk of extinction, or that at the time that the free trade agreement was being negotiated the Colombian government was mired in a scandal over close ties with paramilitary leaders, and a “false positives” scandal in which members of the Colombian army were killing citizens and then dressing them up as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat.

Better luck next year, maybe.

You should read it at Rabble.ca for all the hyperlinks to specific examples of the abuses Moore describes. Even after the FTA was signed, they continued to pile up despite assurances from the Harper government, repeated in its May 15 sham HRIA report, that free trade creates “legitimate” economic opportunities for people — opportunities that discourage crime and reduce poverty. For example, writes Moore:

a mere few weeks after the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was ratified in August, Canadian civil society organizations wrote to the Canadian Embassy about the murder of Father José Reinel Restrepo, parish priest of the municipality of Marmato in the western department of Caldas. Restrepo was an outspoken opponent of Canadian mining company Gran Colombia Gold’s proposal to construct an open-pit gold mine that would require the displacement of the entire town. He had recently traveled to Bogotá and spoken openly about this on national television. Canadian groups asked the Embassy to report on this event in its annual human rights report.

Furthermore, she explains, Canada could have followed up on four case studies in the mining and oil sectors involving Canadian investments in Colombia that MiningWatch brought to the government’s attention. Moore writes:

we found that Canadian companies are at high risk of aggravating, causing, or benefiting from serious human rights abuses ranging from dislocation and displacement of local populations, inadvertently rewarding people or groups who have committed human right violations, imposing serious environmental impacts, especially on crucial water supplies, and imposing undue costs to local people’s economic livelihoods and food security.

Amnesty International, which was one of the dozens of organizations campaigning against the Canada-Colombia FTA, issued a statement today condemning Canada’s first HRIA report.

“The document tabled by the government yesterday does not attempt any analysis of the human rights impacts of Canadian promotion of trade and investment in this war-torn country, claiming ‘sufficient trade data is not available’. Instead, the document provides only a cursory outline of steps the government plans to follow in order to prepare future reports, promising that the first will be completed a year from now in 2013,” says the Amnesty statement, which continues:

The human rights situation in Colombia remains dire. More than 259,000 people were driven from their homes and lands in 2011 alone because of violence associated with political and economic interests. Afro-descendent and peasant farmer communities, as well as trade unionists and those who question economic megaprojects, continue to face deadly attacks.

The crisis facing Indigenous Peoples, many of whom live in areas of economic interest, is particularly alarming. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has identified 34 Indigenous nations that are in grave danger of extinction, amidst armed conflict that has been used as a cover for appropriation of their resource-rich lands.

Fundamentally, the HRIA report shows no appreciation of the impact of “legitimate” economic activity, a growing portion of it the result of foreign direct investment from Canada, on UN-obligated human rights. Investment protections are strong and rigid in Canada’s free trade deals, with an investor-state dispute settlement process that Canadian mining and other firms can now use to threaten the Colombian government in the event it wanted to scale back a recent explosion in prospecting and project approval. Environmental and labour side agreements are impotent next to these corporate rights. This is why, according to Mr. de Shutter’s HRIA proposals to the UN Human Rights Council, an HRIA should be performed prior to and after a trade or investment deal is signed.

“First,” says his principles document on the HRIA, “since States are bound by these pre-existing treaty obligations, they are prohibited from concluding any agreements that would impose on them inconsistent obligations. Therefore, there is a duty to identify any potential inconsistency between pre-existing human rights treaties and subsequent trade or investment agreements, and to refrain from entering into such agreements where such inconsistencies are found to exist.”

An HRIA, in other words, could find several reasons why a country would not want to enter into a free trade or investment pact with another country.

Amnesty says “it is imperative that Canada evaluates not only the direct impact of the [Canada-Colombia Free Trade] agreement, but the human rights climate in which it is promoting Canadian investment so as to produce an accurate analysis of how to avoid contributing to abuses,” and that “This is something that Canada should have been doing all along as a matter of international human rights responsibility.”

The Council of Canadians recently urged the federal government to perform a HRIA prior to ratifying an free trade agreement with Jordan and groups will be making the same demands when the Canada-Honduras and Canada-Panama FTAs comes before parliament for debate and a ratification vote. Yesterday’s first report from the federal government does not bode well for the HRIA’s future in Canada. But with a more fully formed set of principles from the UN to lean on, and with more public pressure, we cannot lose hope.

The human rights impacts of Canadian FDI in Latin America, as well as the way Canada’s trade agreements lock in often devastating forms of resource exploitation, will be a major topic this June 1 and 2 in Vancouver during the Council of Canadians’ Shout Out Against Mining Injustice. Find out more and register for the event here.