IN THE NEWS ~ Canada-Colombia Free Trade: 'Doing business with murderers.'

Canada-Colombia Free Trade: 'Doing business with murderers.'

Juliet O'Neill,
Canwest News Service bureau blog (

While U.S. legislators are said to be stalling passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia, because of violence and human rights abuse, the Canadian government is full steam ahead – again.

Despite support from the Liberal opposition, the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the Conservative government was never passed in the last session of Parliament. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois were opposed. The bill lapsed during prorogation.

Trade Minister Peter Van Loan reintroduced the agreement Wednesday, along with parallel environmental and labour agreements.

The labour agreement requires both countries to respect and enforce internationally recognized labour standards and principles such as freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

Those are nice words when put against such findings as the more than 2,700 unionists killed since 1986, according to Colombia's most prominent labor rights organization.

The Liberals continue to support the bill on grounds it’s more effective to work with Colombia for change.

New Democratic Party trade critic Peter Julian said his party is more opposed than ever.

“We’re talking about very little economic benefit for the high cost in human rights,” he said in an interview. “It’s curious they’re pushing ahead with that when they have other agreements that are less controversial.” He cited Jordan as an example.

“Jordan isn’t the ideal country but it’s nothing compared to Colombia which has the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere and the worst in the world for the killing of trade unionists.”

The government says the agreement will provide greater market access for Canadian exporters of such goods as wheat, pulses, barley, paper products and heavy equipment. And it says Colombia is a “strategic destination” for Canadian direct investment, especially in mining, oil exploration, printing and education.

Rick Arnold of Common Frontiers, a coalition of Canadian labour, justice and church organizations, issued a statement saying the agreement would “reward Colombia’s rulers for the institutional violence that is being carried out with impunity on an almost daily basis.” He cited the widely-reported figure of four million displaced people in Colombia -- about a tenth of the country's population pushed from their homes and lands.

The Council of Canadians issued a statement, citing recent reports by the United Nations and Amnesty International about “the escalating violence against Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, including murder and forcible displacement from communal lands.”

The Council predicted Canadian companies investing in agriculture, mining and resource extraction in some areas of Colombia “will be doing business with murderers, drug traffickers and arms smugglers.”

Juliet O'Neill is a parliamentary reporter at Canwest News Service in Ottawa who specializes in foreign affairs, defence and politics.