IN THE NEWS ~ Is Colombia free enough for free trade with Canada?

Is Colombia free enough for free trade with Canada?
Human rights critics are sounding alarms over a trade agreement with Colombia now snaking through the Commons – with good reason, reports the Star 's former Latin America bureau chief

By Linda Diebel National Affairs Writer
http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/789851--is-colombia-free-enough-for-free-trade-with-canada

If Toronto Liberal Mario Silva is to be believed, the city of Medellin represents the new and improved Colombia under President Alvaro Uribe. Not perfect, but no longer the narco-trafficking hotbed that filled people with terror.

Sure, serious human rights violations in Colombia remain a legacy of an ugly civil war and ongoing drug trade, Silva told a parliamentary subcommittee on human rights last May. But Uribe didn't create these problems. Besides, said Silva, the man's approval rating was at 80 per cent.

"You can walk today in Medellin's downtown, and it's full of people (and that) wasn't the case 10 years ago," vice-chair Silva told the committee. He visited Medellin in 2008.

Silva's upbeat scenario came in response to testimony from visiting Colombian human rights lawyer Yessika Hoyos Morales. She disagreed, to put it mildly. Hoyos told the committee: "The security situation has worsened in Colombia. It has not improved at all."

"How is it possible," asked Silva, "that you can say the situation's actually worse when (Uribe's) popularity is so high and when the people I spoke to on the ground said that they can actually feel some level of security walking down the street, which they didn't feel 10 years ago?"

The quick answer is Hoyos says Silva is wrong. A Colombian National Police report that cites a resurgence of paramilitary (gangs with links to the military) engaging in drug-trafficking, rapes and forced displacement makes special mention of Medellin. In 2009, there was "a dramatic surge" in homicides (2,178), "apparently committed by these groups" as they fought for control. Increasingly, riot police keep order as families are displaced.

But Hoyos did more than detail rights abuse. When she appeared before the committee last May, she cut to a key weapon in the matter of free trade: public perception.

The Colombian media, she argued, makes "all of this `new news,' saying the country is more secure." She doesn't buy it, just as she doesn't believe Uribe's polls.

Rights defenders see a paradigm shift in how the world is asked to perceive Colombia. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, eager to pass its trade treaty and apparently backed by the Liberals, embraces this rebranded and gentler Colombia.

The U.S. Congress, notably Democrats, is still balking due to human rights concerns, and the European Union is divided. So Canada is the test case. Says NDP trade critic Peter Julian: "The (Canadian) government is trying to rush this deal through as a gift for Uribe before the May presidential elections."

International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan told the Commons a free trade deal "will help solidify efforts by the government of Colombia to create a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy. The government of Colombia has taken positive steps towards this goal."

Larry Birns, director of the respected think-tank Washington Office on Latin America, disagrees: "It's a shocking plummeting of Canada's rather elevated status as a sensitive nation that cares about human rights and is concerned about the small print," he said in an interview from Washington.

Birns describes some U.S. officials as "anxious to have you believe the human rights record in Colombia is improving," when, he estimates, 4 million people are being thrown off their lands under the guise of a war on guerrillas and terrorists.

Uribe's changes are "cosmetic," says Birns, pointing to a lobbying effort by the Colombian government to change public opinion. "It shows, if you have enough lobbyists on Capitol Hill, you can paint a pretty picture and create a bucolic and pleasant scene – but it's all a myth."

The Obama administration has a full plate and hasn't made it a priority to bring politicians onside for free trade with Colombia. But Birns believes the lobby campaign on Capitol Hill will succeed because it's backed by support within the Pentagon, state department, intelligence agencies and the White House itself .

Since the Colombian Constitutional Court recently ruled he cannot run for a third term, Uribe must hear the clock ticking on a presidency that began in 2002. The former governor of northwestern Antioquia and mayor of Medellin may regard free trade as a political legacy. Lobby efforts included a trip last June to Ottawa and Montreal.

Critics argue the deal must not proceed without a comprehensive, independent review of its potential impact on human rights. Said Hoyos: If Canada, "known for respecting human rights," goes ahead with the deal, "it will be backing the regime of human rights violators."

The Uribe government portrays Colombia as a "post-conflict" country (in terms of widespread civil war with leftist guerrillas), apart from the war on drugs and terrorism. The death squads no longer exist, goes the mantra.

Kathy Price, Colombia specialist for Amnesty International Canada, says her organization is concerned over "a whitewash of the facts in Colombia . . . where death squads continue to operate with impunity.'' She adds, ``Let no one be under any false impression things are resolved in Colombia."

A recent Amnesty International study found more than 60 per cent of people forced from their homes and land come from areas of mineral, agricultural and other economic importance. "The fighting has provided a useful cover for those seeking to expand and protect economic interests," says the report. "The civilian population continues to bear the brunt of the violence."

Price argues Canada should not allow trade and investment policy to exacerbate the situation by allowing Canadian companies to profit from land grabs. At the least, she argues, a comprehensive impact study is imperative.

Jaime Giron Duarte, Colombia's ambassador to Canada, did not respond to requests from the Star for an interview.

Liberal Scott Brison, the party's trade critic who negotiated a surprise private side deal with Uribe that requires annual reports by both countries on the free-trade treaty's impact on human rights, introduced that plan as an amendment two weeks ago.

"We have looked for ways to strengthen this agreement in order to better protect the people of Colombia and to strengthen our engagement on human-rights issues with the people of Colombia," he told the Commons. "Standing in the way of further progress is poverty, resulting from persistently high unemployment rates in Colombia. That is one area where free trade could help."

In a speech on the free trade bill, Brison said several highly regarded Colombians supported his amendment, including Jorge Rojas Rodriquez, an expert on displacement issues. Within days, Rojas released a statement expressing concern: "The intention to add a human rights amendment is good, but it shouldn't be used by the government to rush through ratification of a free trade treaty."

The NDP's Julian told the Commons: "The problem all along has been the Colombian government's complete lack of ability to deal with these major human rights violations with its connected paramilitaries and its own military arm . . . To say that the government has the magic bullet, because it is now asking the government to report on itself, is absolutely shameful."

Like Uribe, Brison says drug traffickers are the problem. He doesn't believe paramilitaries exist that wage a war of extermination against the government's perceived enemies.

There's no question drug trafficking is a huge problem, but credible accounts blame paramilitaries, corrupt rebel forces, and thugs. In a complex country, these forces often become interchangeable.

There has been progress under Uribe in rooting out government links to paramilitaries but not necessarily by his hand. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch, an international rights agency, lauds Colombia's Supreme Court justices for their "unprecedented progress in investigating accusations against members of the Colombian Congress of collaborating with the paramilitaries."

The report describes the "para politics" scandal, in which more than 80 politicians – mostly from Uribe's coalition – came under suspicion for paramilitary ties. "But the Uribe administration has repeatedly taken actions that could sabotage the investigations, including by issuing public and personal attacks against Supreme Court justices," says Human Rights Watch.

Overwhelmingly, rights agencies document abuses, including extrajudicial killings, attributed to the army. Last year in Canada, Hoyos explained that soldiers capture youths, transport them far away, dress them as rebels and order them to run – before shooting them. "It is not the paramilitaries or the guerrillas but the army of Colombia that is killing our youth."

Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, reported assassinations: "The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military." Uribe continues to argue cases are isolated.

Last year, Hoyos also described the continuing rise in assassination of trade unionists, including her own father, Jorge Dario Hoyos Franco. He was among 2,709 union activists gunned down since 1986 (more than 400 during Uribe's presidency).

That's a big concern for trade deal critics; trade unionists tend to be advocates for working Colombians, an unofficial opposition to powerful political and corporate interests. In an interview, Brison stresses the "Liberal party is the party of free trade and human rights . . . Most of the displacement is because of the drug trade and most killings are because of the drug trade."

Further, he argues Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at Colombia's border, "is a destabilizing influence on the entire Andean region . . . When a democratically elected market-based government is threatened (Colombia), we are very clear on whom we need to align ourselves with. That is the position of the Obama administration as well."

But the fuss over the lack of a comprehensive rights review is puzzling because such a survey easily could have been undertaken. In 2008, the all-party parliamentary trade committee tabled a report urging the government to undertake just such a review.

Soon after, Tory MP Gerald Keddy stood in the Commons to withdraw the support of Conservative committee members for having such an evaluation.

The Star's Linda Diebel won a National Newspaper Award for her reports from Colombia.