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Sold Out: Trade Trumps Human Rights in Canada’s Relationship With Colombia

By any measure one of the most entrenched and distressing human rights tragedies in the Americas has been the decades of conflict and abuse in Colombia. The statistics are staggering. Highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Most dangerous country on the planet to be a trade unionist. Amidst an enduring crisis that has impacted virtually every part of Colombian society, the plight of the country’s Indigenous peoples is particularly harrowing. Their fate has become so alarming in fact that UN experts and the country’s own Constitutional Court are starting to talk about extermination and possible genocide.

By any measure it should be a preoccupying concern for Canada; for no other reason than the simple geographic, shared-humanity fact that we too are part of the Americas.

But all the more so given that the Canadian government has set out to forge a much closer relationship with Colombia in recent years; in particular closer trade and investment. That has very real and dramatic – possibly deadly – implications for Indigenous peoples in Colombia. From around the world, mining and petroleum companies have set their sights on Colombian oil reserves and mineral deposits, much of which lie within Indigenous territories. Many of those companies are, and will be, Canadian. Indigenous peoples very understandably fear that the rush into their lands will bring more violence than peace; more exploitation than benefit; and more repression than security.

It is all the more significant then that a free trade deal between Canada and Colombia entered into force in August 2011 after several years of negotiations. Cognizant of the very troubling human rights context to such a deal, certainly including the concerns about Indigenous peoples, Amnesty International and many other groups pushed for strong human rights safeguards. In particular we insisted that there be an independent human rights impact assessment of the deal, both before it entered into force and periodically thereafter, along with a legal requirement that any shortcomings surfaced by the assessment be resolved.

We didn’t get that. We did get something, however. There would not be any kind of assessment before the deal came into force. And there would be no ‘independent’ assessment at any time. But there would be a yearly report tabled in Parliament by each government, laying out the “effect of the measures taken” under the deal on human rights. Never before had there been any human rights provisions associated with a Canadian trade deal. It was something. Or was it?

The first report was due on May 15, 2012. It would be an overstatement to call it a sham, for there was no human rights assessment of any kind included in the report. The government instead blithely stated that the deal had not been in force long enough to carry out an assessment. Imagine how that felt to Indigenous peoples; for the 1/3 of Indigenous nations in Colombia who are on the very brink of survival? Too soon? How about, too late?

The second report was due on May 15, 2013; but because Parliament was not sitting on that date, a loophole allowed for the tabling of the report to be delayed. It did not materialize until June 14, 2013, only a few days before the parliamentary summer break. This time the report doesn’t duck the question; perhaps better that it had. It is stunning in its disregard for very real and obvious human rights concerns in Colombia.

First, though, a word about consultations. For months organizations like Amnesty International had asked the government to share information about the process and timeline that would be used for preparing the report; who would be consulted and how to provide input? At every turn those entreaties were met with silence or answers that provided no information.

It could not be more galling, therefore, to see in the report an assertion that the government did, on May 7, 2013 (8 days before the report was due to be tabled), issue a public call for submissions, followed by a lament that “no submissions were received through this consultation mechanism.” It is the very definition of bad faith. No human rights or development organization following this issue, all of whom are well known to the government, had any knowledge of any such “public call for submissions” which, coming with less than a week to go, was obviously not particularly heartfelt.

So, how about content? The report provides a few paragraphs describing efforts to determine whether the deal had any human rights effect in the sugar and cut flowers sectors. There we are simply assured that global macroeconomic trends are much more consequential for those industries than any measures taken pursuant to this trade deal.

That is as far as it goes. Nowhere in the body of the report do the words mining, extractive, or Indigenous appear. Nowhere.

Instead, there is simply a confident assertion that it is “not possible to establish a direct link between the CCOFTA and the human rights situation in Colombia. There is no evidence of a causal link between reductions in tariffs by Canada in accordance with the CCOFTA, and changes in human rights in Colombia.” The assertion in 2012 that it was too early to make an assessment was less damaging than this year’s disingenuous white-wash.

And do not forget that this has all run in parallel to the government’s determined effort to resist an important legislative effort a few years ago to establish a legal framework to hold Canadian extractives companies accountable for their overseas human rights impact. Bill C-300, private members legislation proposed by Toronto area MP John McKay, came close but was ultimately defeated in the fall of 2010.

That has left us with no clear legal standards and processes for holding Canadian companies responsible for human rights abuses associated with their overseas operations. Combined with a clear willingness to gut the Canada/Colombia deal’s human rights report of any meaning and effect; we are left with few tools to ensure that when they operate abroad Canadian extractive companies will be ambassadors for human rights improvement and not agents of human rights harm.

Lost in the middle of all this was an announcement at the beginning of 2013 that Canada was now prepared to add Colombia to a list of approved countries for possible sales of automatic firearms by Canadian companies. Too early to assess human rights in 2012. No interest in doing so responsibly in 2013. No attention at all to the deepening human rights crisis faced by Indigenous peoples, some aspects of which have a clear trade and commerce dimension. But at the same time, the government doesn’t blink about giving a green light to possible sales of fully automatic firearms with high capacity magazines?

No surprise therefore that we are seeing an increase in lawsuits launched in Canada by individuals and communities alleging that the activities of Canadian mining companies have contributed to human rights violations. There is nowhere else to turn. And the government has clearly shown that is focus is on ducking responsibility rather than strengthening it.

Through the courts and through federal and provincial lawmaking; this has to change. The world is smaller. The global marketplace is smaller. Canadian mining and petroleum companies, of which Canadians want and deserve to be proud, abound. But if we do not start to take the human rights dimension of mining and of Canada’s trade policies more seriously, pride risks giving way to disgrace.

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Comments

  1. David Collier-Brown

    When I was in university (and when dinosaurs roamed the world) we already had a bad reputation in the Caribbean.

    People at home would ask my fellow students “why would you want to go to university in Canada? is from there …”

    –dave

  2. David Collier-Brown

    Whoops, I wrote “aluminum company x” in angle-brackets and it disappeared (;-))

    The last sentence should say:

    why would you want to go to university in Canada? Aluminum company X is from there …

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