IN THE NEWS ~ Harper's Colombia cover-up

Harper's Colombia cover-up
How the PM betrayed his own MPs to sign trade deal with unionist-murdering regime
By Andrew Cash
http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=171984

A flash of deja vu hits me as i sit in the beautiful Victoria College Chapel at U of T on October 20 last week listening to the Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow talk about free trade.

My first awareness of this human rights champion was during the great debate in the 80s over Canada’s free trade deal with the U.S. I can’t help feeling a little nostalgic for that simple time when the story was a bit clearer: you were either for or against closer ties with our huge neighbour to the south.

But Barlow and fellow panellist Sid Ryan tell the almost 200 people in attendance that while 20 years ago there were very few bilateral trade deals, there are now 2,600 around the world.

“You cannot be literate about the economy without being trade-literate,” Barlow says.

Indeed, the Canadian government and the provinces have embarked on a dizzying agenda of behind-closed-doors inter-provincial and international trade deals. Among the least remarked upon is one in process between Ontario and Quebec. Pay attention to this, because the Council of Canadians believes it could leave sub-national governments (provincial, municipal and even universities and hospitals) open to trade challenges from multinational corps.

Such a pact, free trade critics argue, could affect everything from university buy-local policies to large-scale plans like Quebec’s public daycare system.

But what’s bugging most trade pact activists these days is Canada’s attempt at an agreement with unionist-murdering Colombia.

In July 2007, Stephen Harper announced that Canada was in negotiations with Colombia, though Parliament and civil society were far from the action. A year later, the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade was sufficiently concerned that it issued a report calling for an independent human rights impact assessment before any deal was signed.

Harper, however, beat the committee to the punch by announcing in June 2008, just before the report was tabled, that an agreement had already been reached.

This angered the committee, but Conservative members who had voted for the independent study feigned confusion and fell in line with their boss. The NDP and the Bloc still aggressively oppose the deal until the independent assessment. And get this: the Liberals, at the time headed by Stéphane Dion, supported the committee’s position.

Not any longer. Under the rightward tutelage of Professor Iggy, the Libs are once again gung-ho free-traders and have backed away from an independent investigation. The NDP and the Bloc have attempted to stall the deal’s ratification by Parliament, where it’s currently in second reading.

Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae doesn’t dispute that there are human rights abuses in Colombia. But he asks, “In what ways would this deal lead to the continuation of human rights deterioration in Colombia?”

Citing other deals Canada has either concluded or is in the process of finalizing, he says he doesn’t think singling out Colombia is fair.

He reminds me that the Conservatives have a deal on the books with Peru, the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Norway) and are negotiating one with the European Union. But union leaders in Liechtenstein aren’t being murdered. I ask Rae if the Colombian situation shouldn’t give Canadian free-traders pause. He isn’t buying it.

“It isn’t up to us to prove that the economic and political situation has improved,” he says. “It’s up to us that trade is fair and reasonable. With or without free trade, Canada has engaged in a number of conversations with Colombia on human rights.”

Contrast this with what the Democrats are doing in the U.S. While George W. Bush negotiated a pact with Colombia, the Democratic-controlled Congress held up ratification, concerned about assassinated trade unionists. The impasse continues to this day.

Colombia, says, Rick Arnold of Common Frontiers, an umbrella of civil society orgs, has one of the worst human rights records in the Western hemisphere. There’s plenty of evidence that paramilitary organizations with ties to President Alvaro Uribe’s government have instituted a reign of terror over Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups in rural areas as well as unionists.

According to recent human rights reports, 474 of the latter have been murdered since Uribe came to power in 2002, over 40 of them in the first eight months of 2008.

“While the killing of unionists is well documented, others point to the fact that so many more indigenous people have been murdered,” says Arnold.

Any investigation would probably show, he says, “that lands of interest to foreign resource companies are being cleared of the indigenous population. There’s a total of 4 million displaced people in the country [of 45 million] already.”

Says Ilian Burbano, a Colombian ? Canadian with the Toronto-based Latin American Solidarity Network, “A free trade deal with Canada is great political capital for Uribe. It gives his regime a stamp of approval and allows him to go to the U.S. Congress and say, ‘Look, progressive Canada has signed this. You should, too.’”

Okay, if we’re saying Canada is comfortable enough with egregious human rights violations to ink a deal, maybe we should ask what’s in it for us. “Good question,” says Arnold. “Less than 1 per cent of our exports go to Colombia.” Doesn’t sound like much.

“I think that depends on what your definition of Canadian is,” says Barlow. “If you are a Canadian mining, pulp and paper or private water company, this is great. It isn’t going to benefit regular Canadians. This is a deal for investors.”

Indeed, 2007 StatsCan numbers show that investment by Canadian companies in Colombia doubled from the previous year to $739 million. But some estimate that the number is closer to $3 billion.

According to Canada’s Foreign Affairs department, the big Canuck players include TransCanada Pipelines, Pacific Rubiales (oil), Nexen (energy) and Kruger Paper.

Peter Julian, NDP international trade critic, says trade deals have very little backing outside of Canada’s tiny economic elite.

“There has been no impact analysis on the economic results of this deal for Canada,” he says. “And since the Bloc and the NDP are against it, it’s Toronto Liberals, the bulk of the Liberal caucus, who will decide whether it happens or not."

Andrew Cash is the NDP candidate in the federal riding of Davenport.