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May 23, 2012

First Colombian trade deal human rights report is a disappointment

By Brittany Lambert, Raul Burbano
Embassy Magazine

The Canadian government has shirked its responsibility to human rights by
failing to table a serious and credible report on the impacts of the
Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, as mandated by law.

The trade deal came into force in August 2011 after being stalled in
Parliament for nearly three years due to widespread concern that it could
exacerbate existing human rights violations in Colombia.

The compromise that allowed the deal to pass was a treaty requiring both
governments to report annually on the free trade agreement's human rights
impacts. The inclusion of such a provision in a trade deal is a global
precedent, one touted by the Harper government as a meaningful way to ensure
human rights accountability in trade with Colombia.

Olivier De Schutter, the world-renowned human rights expert and UN special
rapporteur on the right to food who crafted the UN Guiding Principles on
Human Rights Impact Assessments for Trade and Investment Agreements, was in
Ottawa last week. He spoke to a concerned audience about how robust human
rights impact assessments can ensure that free trade agreements do not
worsen human rights crises, like the one in Colombia.

Unfortunately, the Harper government's first annual report, which was tabled
in Parliament May 15, does not reflect De Schutter's guiding principles.

While the report provides a strong substantive overview of the economic
relationship between Canada and Colombia, it does not acknowledge the human
rights situation in the troubled Latin American country.

Yet, the human rights crisis in Colombia is severe and there are legitimate
concerns that a free trade agreement could foment and protect investments
that are associated with militarization, violence, and forced displacement.
The Canada-Colombia deal's investment chapter accords investors powerful new
rights, with no countervailing human rights obligations.

Dangerous for indigenous peoples, trade unionists

Colombia recently surpassed Sudan as the country with the highest rate of
internal displacement in the world. More than 259,000 people were forced to
flee their homes in 2011 alone, with the total number of displaced people
now estimated to be as high as five million.

Displacement is often fuelled by struggles over land rich in mineral
resources. The Colombian Constitutional Court recently concluded that a
third of indigenous nations in Colombia face an imminent threat of
extinction as a consequence of forced displacement and other human rights

Colombia is also the most dangerous place in the world for trade union
organizers, with 17 union leaders killed since the free trade agreement came
into force last August.

The government defends the lack of substance in the report by arguing that
the deal had not been in force long enough to conduct a proper analysis of
its impacts.

However, according to best practices outlined in De Schutter's guiding
principles, an assessment of potential impacts should be completed before
the conclusion of a free trade agreement. This is precisely what the House
Standing Committee on International Trade and numerous civil society
organizations called for in the Canada-Colombia deal.

At the very least, the Canadian government could have presented baseline
human rights data in areas of potential impact, to offer benchmarks for
assessing the impacts of the free trade agreement in future years. The
absence of such data is a significant gap and will make future reporting on
impacts more challenging.

The plan to produce baseline data next year suggests that the government
wants to postpone a frank discussion about the impact of its commerce,
particularly in the extractive sector.

The report does make some commitments, including promises to report on key
sectors such as mining, palm oil, and agriculture, and to consult on the
report's methodology.

While these are valuable first steps, consultations with affected
populations must also extend into the human rights analysis itself, and the
government must demonstrate that it is committed to an inclusive and
transparent process-something it has failed to do so far.

Canada seems to hold a double standard when it comes to human rights. In its
trade talks with ideologically distinct competitors such as China, the
Canadian government insists that human rights must be addressed now.
But when it comes to Colombia, it seems, human rights can wait until next

Neither this report nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Americas Strategy
adequately addresses the root causes of human rights violations in Colombia.
The human rights crisis in Colombia is serious enough to warrant discussion
now, not in 2013.

Moreover, the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement's implementation law
specifically requires the government's annual reports, including the first
one, to assess the deal's impacts.

Another highly controversial free trade pact is due for ratification, this
time with Honduras-a country tragically now known as the murder capital of
the world.

The shortcomings of the Canadian government with respect to Colombia
underscore the crucial need for prior and independent human rights impact
reporting. We, as Canadians, must be vigilant: it's a matter of
international human rights responsibility.

Brittany Lambert works for the Canadian Council for International
Co-operation's Americas Policy Group, a Canadian civil society group focused
on development and social justice issues in the Americas. Raul Burbano works
for Common Frontiers, a working group that proposes an alternative to the
social, environmental, and economic effects of economic integration in the

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