Stop Colombian free-trade deal

By  Myles Gough, The Catholic Register
  • February 27, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - The Canadian government will be complicit with human rights violations being committed in Colombia if it proceeds with an already-signed free trade agreement, warned a church-sponsored delegation of Colombian activists that toured Canada in February.

Members of Colombia’s religious community are calling on Canadian churches to help prevent the ratification of the agreement between the two countries.

In an open letter, religious officials say they hope Canadian churches will rally behind their cause and pressure Canada’s Conservative government to revise the current free trade deal. Although Canada has signed the treaty, it won’t be implemented until it passes a 21-day examination period in Parliament.

“These bilateral treaties seek to defend the interests of the multinational corporations and of the powerful, and not the interests of our people,” says the letter signed by several Colombian bishops and religious superiors.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has opposed the free trade agreement since last October, when three indigenous people from an affiliated organization were murdered by paramilitary troops. The three victims were members of the Embara Chami people, an indigenous group opposed to mining on its ancestral lands. That opposition made them a target of paramilitary violence.

“Canada should be warning companies against operating in conflict zones in Colombia, rather than giving them the green light to set up shop in an environment where it is easy to become complicit in human rights violations,” said Development and Peace executive director Michael Casey.

Spokesperson Mary Durran said Development and Peace supports Colombia’s religious community and has already sent letters out to many federal MPs.   

The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in November. Canadian officials say the agreement is expected to improve market access for Canadian exporters and provide a more secure environment for investment.

Many Colombians say a free-trade agreement will threaten the already delicate situation surrounding human rights violations in their country.

In February, a delegation of human rights advocates from Colombia travelled across Canada to draw attention to injustices that continue to plague the most violent nation in the Western hemisphere. It was in Toronto Feb. 19. The delegation said it wants Canada to carry out an independent human rights investigation before finalizing the deal.

Franciscan Brother Omar Fernandez from Bogota said Colombian citizens have suffered through more than 40 years of civil war and continue to live in a very militarized society.   

“The government says it is for security, but for us it connects very much with fear,” Fernandez said, adding that both government and paramilitary troops continue to frequently violate human rights.

When the agreement was signed in November, Harper issued a statement saying Canada would be “helping one of South America’s most historic democracies improve the human rights situation in their country.” But members of the delegation disagree, warning the deal was signed with little regard for workers’ rights, environmental concerns or the country’s current security situation.

Uribe has been presenting a false picture of Colombia living in a peaceful, post-conflict era, said Yolanda Becerra, director of Colombia’s Popular Women’s Organization.

Becerra, who was threatened at gunpoint after two paramilitary soldiers invaded her home in 2007, said death threats, assassinations and displacements are still widespread. Becerra said the free trade agreement will only worsen the situation, and Canada will be complicit — either through omission or intention.

Minister of State of Foreign Affairs for the Americas Peter Kent, who met with the Colombian delegation, said there is always room for improvement with regards to human rights protection, and Canada hopes to play an expanded role.

“We believe that the Uribe government has made great progress. Over the last six years, the personal security conditions of the vast majority of Colombians have improved,” he said.

But human rights advocacy groups like Amnesty International, which helped sponsor the Colombian delegation, strongly disagree with Kent’s assertion. According to its statistics more than three million civilians have been displaced from their homes since 1985.

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