News | Unions oppose future Canada-Colombia free trade agreement

Groups seek investigation into the treaty’s impact on human rights

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) recently joined ranks with Amnesty International, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and other groups that have called for Canada not to renew its the Canada-Columbia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) with Colombia, due to concerns for the treaty’s effect on Colombian human rights.

A proposal to ratify the CCFTA is included in Bill C-2, which was tabled by the Harper government on March 3, despite the recommendations of the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade.

The committee’s report on a similar bill, which expired in its second reading due to prorogation, called for a human rights assessment before ratification of the CCFTA, and that the “Government of Canada develop new social responsibility standards for corporations as regards compliance with universal human rights standards.”

Jen Giroux, an OPSEU executive board member, explained some of the union’s concerns, which range from food sovereignty to land and worker’s rights.

“OPSEU met with 30 groups in August 2009, including indigenous groups and trade union members, and their concerns about human rights abuses led to our call for an independent human rights assessment before the passing of this free trade agreement,” Giroux said.

“Many Colombian farmers face hunger not through lack of production, but because the vast majority of their produce is sold to other countries. Union workers who voice their concerns are threatened by various paramilitary groups, and many have been murdered or disappeared entirely,” she added.

Giroux cited the case of indigenous leader Kimy Pernia Domico, who disappeared in 2001.

Domico testified to Canadian Parliament in 1999, exposing the damage to both his people’s way of life and the environment caused by the Urra hydroelectric dam, which was financed by Export Development Canada. Paramilitaries later acknowledged responsibility for his death.

Berth Berton-Hunter of Amnesty International Canada said the international human rights group has also called for an independent assessment after meeting with various Colombian workers, journalists, and indigenous groups, in addition to Canadian government officials.

Both Giroux and Berton-Hunter emphasized the effects of the free trade agreement on mining and land.

“The main issue here is land. Colombia has many mineral resources and hydroelectric power [sources] that rest on indigenous land. Thousands of people and children have been killed and pressured off of their land by the government and/or paramilitary groups, despite the fact that Colombia claims to have demobilized them,” Berton-Hunter said.

“Passing this deal would only disenfranchise the poor and give more power to mining companies and the economic elite, perpetuating the current situation.”

According to the Canadian government, the agreement is not aimed at lowering import tariffs or widening the market for Colombian goods. The treaty is described as an attempt to secure and increase investment opportunities for Canadian companies in Colombia.

A press release by the prime minister states that “the Free Trade Agreement will provide greater market access for Canadian exporters of products…. In addition, the Agreement will provide greater stability and protection for Canadian businesses involved in oil and gas, mining, manufacturing, and financial services.”

The Canadian government also alleges the CCFTA will improve the human rights situation in Colombia by promoting economic development. According to the web site of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, free trade agreements “promote economic development, which can strengthen the social foundations of countries and contribute to a domestic environment where individual rights and the rule of law are respected.”

If ratified, the CCFTA will include a Labour Cooperation Agreement, which has been included in similar treaties. The agreement will attempt to address some of the human rights concerns through a set of labour standards and a complaint procedure.

Giroux and Berton-Hunter worry that the provisions listed by the government will not be enough.

“Colombia has a better constitution on paper than Canada, but it is routinely ignored or worked around. Many Colombians have told me that they would welcome more economic development in their country, but not with the current issues,” Giroux said.

Berton-Hunter also explained potential threats to those that file labour complaints.

“Those who voice their concerns are continually threatened by paramilitary groups, who often have some connection to the government. At the same time the Colombian government routinely denies any involvement,” she said.

Giroux suggested that along with an independent human rights assessment, the Canadian Government should implement Bill C-300 on corporate accountability. “The Bill calls for corporate accountability in Canadian mining and oil companies when operating in developing nations and also allows local groups to file complaints with the minister of trade,” Giroux said.