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Liberals flip-flop on Colombian human rights; now support FTA without an impact assessment

Last June, Liberal Trade Critic Scott Brison said he’d need to see a human rights impact assessment of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement before his party could support it. It was supposed to be an independent and thorough process. Instead, this summer, he and colleague Bob Rae quietly travelled to Colombia to speak with supporters and opponents of the FTA and they’re now endorsing, praising, almost deifying this free trade deal as THE ONLY WAY to end violence against labour unionists and human rights activists while boosting the Colombian economy. It is a total sham.

From his account of their visit to Colombia, Brison and Rae heard uplifting stories from supporters of the free trade deal, apparently regular people whose lives have been enriched by the Uribe regime but would vastly improve under a “rules-based” trade and investment environment. The opponents are, in Brison’s singular opinion, merely ideological public sector unions who just don’t like free trade. As “good people” in Canada, he says, it is our moral duty to ignore this opposition and recognize that free trade = security, economic prosperity, labour rights and environmental protection.

Brison’s a free trader at heart but his support for the Uribe regime borders on fanaticism. It drew flak in the media from the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Canadian Council for International Cooperation, and the NDP was quick to highlight it during the debate yesterday.


“Mr. Speaker, I sense from the member for Kings-Hants almost a fervent conversion over there to supporting a narco-regime, one of the worst and most corrupt governments in the world,” said Wayne Marston (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek).

NDP Trade Critic Peter Julian added that “According to the comptroller general of Colombia, it is estimated that drug traffickers and paramilitaries now “own” about half of the agricultural land in Colombia. Quite simply, they are pushing off indigenous peoples, African Colombians, from their land and forcing them to be displaced people, four million of them.

“How can the Liberals reconcile a trade agreement that would not protect those people and, in fact, would enforce and enhance corporation rights at the expense of individual human rights that only the NDP seems to be advocating?” he asked Brison.

The Conservatives were less flowery in their reasons for signing an FTA with Colombia. It was about making Canadian companies more money, obviously.

“As oil and gas projects continue developing in the Andes we fully expect this presence to deepen,” said Ron Cannan, a Conservative from Kelowna on the international trade committee. ” Our free trade agreement with Colombia will help secure Canadian investments in the region by providing greater predictability and protection for investors. These investment provisions will directly benefit those Alberta firms which are investing in Colombia.”

The Liberals are complaining about potential NDP support for the Harper government to avoid an election. And yet they are providing the fanatically ideological friendly face to a free trade deal with Colombia that is about working around (tolerating and perhaps even encouraging) the human rights crisis and propping up a highly questionable regime so that Canadian companies can more easily remove wealth from the country and give it to their shareholders.

The Liberals cannot in good conscience support this FTA without giving up their human rights reputation and becoming, entirely, the “Party of Free Trade No Matter The Consequences.” What is so difficult with requiring that a human rights impact assessment — a real one, not another Brison-Rae mini-vacation — be carried out before sending the FTA to committee?

Below is Brison’s account yesterday of his trip to Colombia and change of heart. The debate continues in the House today.

… In late August the member for Toronto Centre and I completed a four-day visit to Colombia. We met with civil society groups, union leaders, trade industry representatives, UN and OAS officials. We met with senators, economists, think tanks, as well as President Uribe and members of his cabinet. We visited a flower production facility and a project supported by the mission to support the peace process, an OAS organization in Medellin. We met with both supporters and opponents of the free trade agreement, and we sought out both sides of the debate.

On balance, most individuals and groups, including human rights NGOs, believe in the ratification of the free trade agreement with Canada. They do not believe this agreement would have a negative impact on economic or human rights conditions in Colombia. Many believe the agreement could in fact improve Canada’s monitoring of labour and indigenous rights through its rules-based framework and the two side agreements on labour and the environment.

We saw first-hand the challenges faced by the Uribe government in its fight against drug production and trafficking, the FARC and emerging criminal gangs.

We met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights representative, Christian Salazar. We discussed with Mr. Salazar cases of false positives or extrajudicial executions. He told us how the UNHCR is working with the ministry of defence towards establishing an independent monitoring system to help uncover other possible cases and prevent future ones. He told us how violence against trade unionists has decreased significantly over the last three years with the demobilization of paramilitary groups. In his view the Colombian government has made progress in its fight against impunity by increasing the number of cases being investigated. At the same time he cautioned us about former paramilitary members regrouping into criminal groups. He welcomes the Colombian government’s recent invitation to participate in the investigation of these criminal groups.

We met with members of the second commission on international affairs of the senate. Some senators were in favour and some were against the FTA, which frankly demonstrates that Colombia has a well-functioning democracy.

We heard from Senator Pinacue. He occupies one of the senate seats reserved under the constitution for indigenous representatives, which is more than we do in Canada for indigenous peoples. He expressed concerns that he has not seen economic progress for indigenous people in Colombia. The concerns he expressed were legitimate, the same concerns we hear in Canada from aboriginal and first nations people: the need to ensure that economic progress comes with equitable distribution. These are the kinds of concerns we are dealing with in Canada as we ensure that first nations and aboriginal communities are full partners in developing resources in Canada. Frankly the challenges we face in Canada around economic engagement of our aboriginal and first nations communities are the kinds of co-operation and dialogue that could benefit both Colombia and Canada. We both face similar challenges on how to ensure that economic growth happens equitably and is shared with our first nations people.

The majority of the senators we met with expressed confidence that the FTA with Canada would help create jobs and prosperity for Colombians. The agreement would help Colombian producers who export to Canada while lowering import costs for all producers, especially the manufacturing sector.

One senator from Cúcuta on the Venezuelan border stressed the need for Colombia to diversify its trade relationships beyond Venezuela and Ecuador in order to mitigate the risk, particularly from Venezuela and the Chavez regime, of shutting its borders unilaterally and ideologically to Colombian exports. Canada faces a similar need to diversify our trade relationships, but for different reasons. We simply cannot isolate Colombia in the Andean region with the Chavez regime being as dangerous as it is.

Most of the senators felt that the FTA would improve labour conditions in Colombia through increased investment and economic engagement with Canada. They see Canada as a positive force. They believe that Canadian companies have been strong practitioners of corporate social responsibility, and they believe there has been progress in the protection of unionized workers and their leaders. Eighteen hundred union leaders are currently under special protection, full-time security provided by the Government of Colombia.

There has been progress in the disarming of paramilitary groups. There has been a reduction in violence overall and specifically violence toward trade unionists. The senators also spoke to us about the tripartite commission in Colombia that is made up of government, unions and employers. This commission, under the supervision of the ILO, is helping Colombia comply with its International Labour Organization commitments. At the 2009 annual meeting of the ILO, it noted that progress is being made in Colombia.

Finally and most importantly, most senators acknowledged that a FTA with Canada would strengthen and improve living conditions in Colombia. It would help reduce poverty, prevent the resurgence of illegal armed groups, and help prevent more Colombians from entering the narco-economy.

We met with a group of Colombian economists who spoke in favour of a rules-based free trade agreement with Canada. They emphasized Colombia’s need to move forward with this FTA, particularly now that countries like Chile and Peru have successfully ratified FTAs with key trading partners including Canada. They stressed the importance for Colombia to diversify its trade relationships, again away from countries like Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. The Chavez threat to Colombia was a common theme repeated to us throughout our meetings in Colombia. We also learned that FARC guerrillas are increasingly being based in Venezuela, that they are being harboured by the Chavez regime to continue their attacks on Colombia and on companies and individuals in Colombia.

The labour movement is supported, in fact, by several private sector unions in Colombia. The labour movement in Colombia represents 6% of the workforce and the opposition to this agreement largely comes from the public sector components of that labour union. As such, these public sector union members in Colombia have nothing to lose in pursuing an ideologically rigid anti-free trade position, but those who have the most to gain from the FTA are the workers currently in the informal economy which represents 56% of the labour force. These Colombians may be able to join the formal economy if Colombia’s exports and foreign direct investment continue to grow.

There is general agreement among the economists that the security situation in Colombia has improved dramatically under the Uribe government and that the demobilization of paramilitaries is on track. During our trip to Colombia, we met with civil society groups focused on human rights. We heard concerns about former paramilitary members in Colombia now reorganizing as criminal gangs involved in the drug trade. We met with a representative from Colombia’s national indigenous organization who spoke about the need for greater consultation with indigenous communities over investment and free trade, and the protection of biodiversity.

Human rights groups told us that Canada’s FTA with Colombia needs to be robust in areas of labour rights. During our trip, we met with union leaders and industry representatives. We learned that much of the narco-trafficking is in large cause because in poor parts of Colombia, particularly in rural communities, there is no other opportunity but the narco-economy and that legitimate trade opportunity is required. Many Colombians feel that the FTAs will lead to work in the legal economy, that trade is the best way to move Colombia forward. They believe that FTAs will not only lead to increased protection of Canadian investment but also increase protection for Colombian workers.

We met with Canadian private sector firms regarding corporate social responsibility. They view the FTA with Colombia as not just protecting Canadian investment but in improving their capacity to effect positive change as Canadian practitioners of corporate social responsibility in Colombia. Our mining and extraction companies in Colombia are guided by strong principles of corporate social responsibility. Canadian companies like Enbridge have won labour safety awards. Enbridge has been recognized for human rights training that is has provided to security personnel which are required to protect its investments and its workers against FARC.

During our trip, we heard repeatedly how the involvement of Canadian corporations in the Colombian economy has raised corporate social responsibility standards in Colombia. Canadian entrepreneurs in Colombia are making a real difference in ensuring that Colombian labour standards continue to progress. The fact remains that labour laws in Colombia are actually stronger in many areas than they are in Canada.

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The challenge is it needs more inspectors. There are only 430 labour inspectors in the entire country, but the Canadian government is providing funding to significantly increase the number of inspectors and that needs to be a priority for us.

Unlike other countries in the region, in Colombia 85% of royalties paid by the Canadian extractor firms go back to local communities. These royalties help these communities pay for social investments like health, education, and infrastructure like roads and safe drinking water.

We met with think tanks in Colombia to discuss the challenges on peace, security and human rights including labour rights. Again, it was felt that Canada could help be a bridge builder, that there is a toxic relationship now between governments and many of the unions, organizations and the NGOs, and that Canada could in fact be a very positive bridge builder between these groups by being a responsible corporate social citizen in Colombia.

Outside Medellin we met with flower cultivation factory workers, 500 workers in fact. As part of Asocolflores, the national flower production association, this flower factory has made a huge difference in providing employment to people who need it, people who were displaced from their lands by the drug trade, people who did not have any other opportunities legitimately until this company provided them, through trade, with legitimate opportunities to improve their living conditions and those of their families and to strengthen their security.

We met with union leaders from the private sector and public sector in Medellin. A majority of them in fact supported the FTA and viewed it as being essential to strengthening Colombia’s standard of living. They characterized their views as not ideological but pragmatic, recognizing that globalization is unavoidable and a rules-based FTA such as this one with Canada can be beneficial.

We participated in a session convened by the OAS mission in support of the peace process with victims, ex-combatants and local institutions. We discussed the need and the important role of the OAS and Canada’s support in terms of the reintegration process in Colombia. Victims and ex-combatants talked about the challenges they face in returning to their communities.

Now is the time for Canadians who are sincerely concerned about the well-being of the Colombian people to economically engage them, not ideologically abandon them. Evil flourishes where good people do nothing. Legitimate trade can help the people of Colombia replace the forces of evil with the forces of hope. Now is the time for the good people of Canada to reach out to the good people of Colombia, to help them build a more peaceful, more prosperous and fairer future.

For the full Parliamentary debate from Monday, click here.