Posted: Monday, 12 July 2010
The Canadian Labour Congress is dismayed that despite widespread opposition from trade unions, faith groups and development non-governmental agencies, legislation to implement the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement received royal assent on June 30, 2010.
Just two weeks earlier, two more trade unionists were murdered in Colombia. No trade agreement will improve that country's sad record as the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade union leader. Outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's government is arguably the worst human rights violator in the region. Weak parallel agreements on labour cooperation and the environment will not change the daily situation of Colombia's trade unionists and indigenous peoples.
More union leaders are murdered in Colombia for exercising their fundamental human and trade union rights than all other countries in the world combined. Most of these crimes are committed with impunity.
The Canadian Labour Congress actively campaigned to oppose the deal first introduced in June, 2007. Working with civil society partners and New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois Members of Parliament, our activism and advocacy resulted in the deal being stalled in Parliament for two years.
In 2008, under intense pressure from unions, NGOs and others, Parliament’s Standing Committee on International Trade (CIIT) undertook an in-depth study called “Human Rights, the Environment and Free Trade with Colombia”. Following testimony from government, business and a broad spectrum of civil society representatives, as well as undertaking an official mission to Bogota, the Committee issued its all-party report to Parliament recommending that the trade agreement not be signed. Instead, the Committee called for “an independent, impartial and comprehensive human rights impact assessment...[to be] carried out by a competent body which is subject to levels of independent scrutiny and validation". It seemed sensible to analyze beforehand, the impacts that the trade provisions would have on human rights violations given the growing body of evidence of collusion of members of the Colombian Congress with drug traffickers and paramilitary thugs as well as on-going impunity for human rights crimes.
Unfortunately, that all-party consensus fell apart in 2009, with the Liberal Party signalling its support for the government's Bill to implement the trade deal with Colombia. Evidence of labour rights abuses made by the majority of democratic unions in Colombia as well as the Canadian Labour Congress and the International Trade Union Confederation were not enough. The Liberals, through their International Trade Critic Scott Brison, brokered a deal to add another side-agreement to the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement acceptable to both the Canadian and Colombian governments in which the two countries themselves would provide yearly reports on human rights impacts of the trade measures in the agreement – after it was implemented. We criticized this measure as being equivalent to “putting the fox in charge of the hen house.”
During the spring of 2010, our government shut down public hearings at the Committee on International Trade, with the support of the Liberal Members of Parliament on the Committee. The Canadian Labour Congress, Colombian democratic union representatives and many other civil society representatives from Colombia were prevented from providing testimony. The legislation to enact the trade deal returned to Parliament and was passed.
The battle to stop the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement put human rights at the centre of debate on free trade agreements especially in a conflict country like Colombia. By working with progressive opposition politicians and civil society, we raised awareness of tools, like human rights impact assessments, to conduct due diligence in trade negotiations. The tactics worked for two years, stalling a bad deal, and leaving Canadians wondering why our government was willing to sacrifice human rights for trade.
For the Canadian Labour Congress, the battle is not over and our solidarity with Colombian workers and citizens is on-going. We are committed to maintaining our watch on human and labour rights violations and to expose their links to commerce and investment in Colombia and anywhere else that Canada chooses to extend the unfair NAFTA model.