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Sunday, April 25, 2009

Michael Ignatieff MP
Leader of the opposition
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Dear Mr Ignatieff

Since 1978 I have been the Colombia Coordinator for Amnesty International Canada (English Speaking) and in this capacity I wish to make you aware of why I have grave concerns with respect to an initiative that will soon be discussed and voted on by the Parliament of Canada.

There is currently an issue that is not getting much media coverage and seems to be very much ‘under the radar’ and that is the proposed Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that the government is trying to push through parliament.

The problem is that although the idea of Free Trade seems benign and beneficial, in this case there is every reason to believe that it can do a lot of harm in Colombia, particularly to those who are most vulnerable. The reasons for this concern relate to the appalling human rights situation in Colombia. Just over a year ago the Colombian Vice President Santos came to Toronto and explained to an audience of business men and investors that Colombia has many virtually unpopulated areas with great investment potential but he did not explain why these regions are unpopulated.

What has been happening is that paramilitaries with strong ties to Colombia’s financial sectors including drug traffickers have been invading rural communities and committing heinous crimes like chain-saw massacres to terrorize peasants, Indigenous and Afro- Colombian communities into fleeing from their resource rich lands. Almost 4 million Colombians have become refugees in their own country. It is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis after Sudan. The paramilitaries stole title to millions of hectares of their victims’ land paving the way for foreign investment in mining and oil, and agribusiness such as growing African oil palm for biofuel.

Another important fact is that more labour leaders are killed in Colombia every year than in the rest of the world combined. Trade unionists are terrorized to put a chill on union organizing .This keeps unions weak and wages miserably low. This also makes Colombia attractive for foreign investment; most Canadians would not want to work for only 5 dollars per day.

Colombia’s paramilitaries are also intimately linked to the government. Following very courageous investigations carried out by Colombia’s independent supreme court it has emerged that today 62 mafia-like, ex paramilitary, drug-trafficking, criminal networks control economic activities and political institutions in 23 of Colombia’s 31 provinces.

In what has been termed the para-political scandal these paramilitary criminal networks are also present in the Colombian Congress. More than 60 members of president Uribe’s coalition-20 per cent of the Congress are being investigated for crimes like collaboration with paramilitaries, getting rich from drug trafficking and collusion in election fraud. Thirty of them have been indicted.

Please be aware that although the Colombian Government maintains that it has demobilized over 30,000 paramilitaries in fact the paramilitaries are still very active throughout Colombia, sometimes simply changing their names and in other instances moving into new formations such as the so-called Aguilas Negras or 'Black Eagles'.

Under these circumstances Canada should not be contemplating such a Free Trade Association without examining the situation very critically. The European Free Trade Area (Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) has refused to go ahead with similar Trade deals with Colombia; likewise the US Congress blocked a similar initiative by President Bush. This was because of human rights concerns.

So why is our government pushing ahead with this? In 2008 Canada’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on International trade sent a delegation to Colombia to investigate the issue. The Committee recommended that an independent, impartial and comprehensive human rights impact assessment should be carried out before Canada comes to any Free Trade agreement with Colombia.

Unfortunately our government is simply ignoring all of these recommendations. If Canada goes ahead regardless, it will give an undeserved absolution to a Colombian government complicit in appalling human rights violations. Canadians simply should not tolerate this; it goes completely against what are considered to be Canadian values and harms the reputation of our country.

Mr. Ignatieff please insist upon proceeding with an Independent Human Rights Assessment as a minimum before proceeding further with this. Colombia is not featured very much in the Canadian or most Western Media and I don't believe that most Canadian legislators have any real appreciation of the gravity of the Human Rights situation inside Colombia. This issue needs to be brought to the forefront of the discussion so that parliamentarians and the general public have an adequate appreciation of the human rights situation involved before proceeding further.

Wishing you the best

Yours Sincerely

John C Jones

Dr John Conrad Jones

Colombia Coordinator: Amnesty International Canada (English Speaking)

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