Late in the day on June 14, the Harper government quietly tabled its second human rights impact assessment of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The government is required to produce these reports—it was a Liberal condition, criticized at the time as insufficient, for supporting the deal in 2010—but the Conservatives are not taking the duty seriously.
Last year, Trade Minister Ed Fast said there wasn’t enough data to produce a full report, which he promised for 2013. This was already seen as a failure. A year later, the government still has no data. Several voices, including at the Globe and Mail, are condemning this second impact assessment for being devoid of any reference to human rights violations in Colombia.
“In a few paragraphs,” wrote Campbell Clark in the Globe, “they decided it’s ‘not possible’ to establish a direct link between Canadian trade and human rights. The rest of the promised information was missing.”
Amnesty International, KAIROS, Common Frontiers and the Americas Policy Group (CCIC) all pointed out that the report also ignores the potential of Canadian mining investment to affect human rights in Colombia.
“There is an elephant in the room – Canadian companies which have joined a resource extraction boom in Colombia without human rights guarantees,” said Kathy Price, Colombia campaigner with Amnesty International Canada. “Canada has deliberately chosen to interpret its reporting obligation in such a way that excludes any examination of the impact of Canadian investment, including oil and gas and mining. This is a lamentable missed opportunity. It begs the question: why is the government evading scrutiny of the sector?”
KAIROS says it is alarming that none of the human rights concerns from its partners and communities in Colombia are reflected in the Canadian report. For example, the ecumenical justice organization says:
There is no reference to the increase in threats against human rights defenders, particularly to those working on land restitution and victims’ rights. Many of you responded to the urgent action related to the death threats to 13 human rights defenders (including our partners) on July 13.
The report is silent on the 35 (out of 102) distinct Indigenous peoples in Colombia who are at risk of extinction, although 89% of crimes against Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians occur in mining and oil-producing regions. (see Amnesty and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) campaign)
Also absent from this report are the increasing and mounting threats against women human rights defenders who are working to ensure justice and reparations for women victims of violence and human rights violations. In Feb 2013 we issued an urgent action in response to threats to the leadership of Organizacion Femenina Popular (OFP) and their families.
An Americas Policy Group op-ed by Rachel Warden and Barbara Wood in Embassy Magazine explains:
Despite the government’s claims that the free trade agreement would improve human rights, labour rights abuses—especially in the oil and gas sector—are still widespread… Last month, two Colombian union leaders visited Canada to denounce violations by Canadian oil company Pacific Rubiales Energy. The company has been accused of union-busting, harsh working conditions, illegal hiring practices, and wages lower than standards set by Colombian labour law and the International Labour Organization. There have also been a series of attacks against unionized workers attempting to negotiate with the company.
Warden and Wood also point out that the federal government had the tools to produce a more thorough human rights impact assessment. Last year’s report included a methodology that would allow sectors, including mining, to be clustered and paired with relevant human rights analysis. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly DFAIT) either didn’t follow through or else the report omits the results.
“This report makes an absolute mockery of the process and exemplifies the incompetence that Canadians have unfortunately come to expect from the Conservative government on trade,” said NDP International Trade critic Don Davies.
There is a an important contradiction in Harper’s trade messaging. The Conservatives promised that free trade naturally improves the human rights situation in countries where it is precarious. Yet their report says it’s impossible to establish that connection. More than that, “there is no evidence of a causal link between reductions in tariffs by Canada in accordance with the CCOFTA, and changes in human rights in Colombia.”
“At best, this conclusion suggests that the free trade agreement and its labour and environmental side deals—and Canada’s Americas Strategy more broadly—are not helping to improve the human rights situation in Colombia as promised,” write Warden and Wood. “At worst, it suggests that our government is consciously turning a blind eye to serious human rights abuses when they benefit Canadian commercial interests.”