Thursday, July 10, 2008

Take action on trade negotiations with Columbia

On June 7, the Canadian government announced the conclusion of controversial free trade negotiations with Colombia. The deal was finalized before the parliamentary Standing Committee on International Trade, which was holding hearings into the human rights impacts and travelled to Colombia to interview witnesses, had completed its report.

The government has yet to make public the content of the deal, which it says will happen after a detailed legal review is completed.

Over the past eleven months since the negotiations were launched, Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed concerns about the potential human rights impacts.

Those concerns were detailed in an Open Letter to Prime Minister Harper last June, a letter to International Trade Minister David Emerson in December, and more recently in our testimony to the Standing Committee on International Trade (CIIT) on April 30.

As Secretary General Alex Neve told the members of the Standing Committee: "Amnesty International takes no position for or against free trade per se, or any other particular approach or trading policy. We recognize that trade and investment in themselves are neither inherently good nor bad for human rights, but that human rights needs specific, determined attention to ensure that trade and investment policies do not impair human rights protection.In the Colombian context, there is serious reason to be concerned that such careful, concerted attention and safeguards are entirely lacking and that human rights will inevitably be further imperiled as trade and investment is opened up in these circumstances."

Sadly, the examples are numerous and ongoing. Amnesty International has documented a pattern of grave human rights abuses against Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities defending their land rights in areas of interest for resource extraction or agricultural potential. There are ongoing threats and attacks against trade union leaders in the context of contract negotiations or opposition to multinational companies. Amnesty International also continues to document violations against community leaders and small-scale miners in areas of mineral wealth.

In such dire and worrying circumstances, Amnesty International has called on the government to go no further with the possibility of a free trade agreement with Colombia, unless and until an independent, impartial, and exhaustive human rights impact assessment is carried out. We made the same recommendation to the Standing Committee on International Trade with the caveat that any negative impacts identified by such an assessment would then need to be addressed before advancing with the trade agreement.

The report of the Standing Committee endorses this recommendation.Yet the Harper government is not bound to comply and may well choose to forge ahead regardless, given its record to date.


The government has indicated that once the text of its trade deal with Colombia has gone through a legal review, it will be tabled for debate in the House of Commons for a period of 21 sitting days. The government must also introduce and pass legislation to implement the agreement. In this context, it is very important over the summer to make sure your MP knows how you feel about the situation in Colombia and the need for a human-rights based approach to trade and investment that proceeds only with careful attention to accountability and safeguards.

Please send a short, polite, personally-worded message to your MP. In your first sentence, introduce yourself. Then write several sentences to:

  • Express your concern about the ongoing human rights crisis in Colombia (you may wish to refer to some of the facts mentioned in the background section below) and the need for concerted pressure on the Colombian government to show progress in bringing to justice those responsible for human rights abuses.

  • Call for an independent, impartial human rights impact study that considers the effect the proposed trade agreement will have, particularly on vulnerable sectors of the population like women, campesinos, trade unionists, Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendent communities, and a commitment to adequately resolve any negative impacts before considering implementation of the trade agreement.

  • Urge that any trade agreement with Colombia must be accompanied by legislated enforceable provisions on corporate social responsibility and reporting mechanisms to monitor the implementation of universal human rights standards by Canadian corporations or other entities (such as the Canada Pension Plan or Export Development Canada) investing in Colombia.

  • Underscore the need for explicit reference to the full spectrum of international human rights norms in the main body of any trade agreement (i.e. not a separate side agreement), together with an effective compliance and enforcement mechanism for human rights.


Click here to find the contact information for your MP's constituency office, where he or she can be found during the summer break. Make sure to include your address so it is clear you live in the riding.


Hon. David Emerson
Minister of Foreign Affairs
House of Commons
Ottawa ON K1A 0A6
Fax: 613-943-0219

Also send a copy to Amnesty Canada’s Colombia campaigner Kathy Price


Under international law, economic actors are accountable for the human rights impacts of their activities and responsible to ensure they make a contribution to safeguarding and promoting human rights.

On December 4, Canada’s Trade Minister David Emerson appeared before members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on International Trade (CIIT), some of whom questioned the ethics of entering into a comprehensive trade agreement with Colombia, given its human rights record. This is some of what Mr Emerson had to say:

“With the election of President Uribe, we believe there is a very strong commitment on the part of the Colombian government to improve the situation in Colombia … There are few things we can do for a country like Colombia that are more powerful than a free trade agreement or an agreement that will allow Canadian investors to go into Colombia and make socially responsible but wealth creating investments … We all recognize that there have been some terrible violations of the rights of people and union leaders in Colombia over the years, but I think you would have to admit that the level of incidents has been declining. It is our view that the President is making very strong efforts to control the paramilitary groups that could be involved here.”

Here is some of what Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada said to the Standing Committee on International Trade on April 30:

"Earlier this month, on April 10, an e-mail death threat signed by the Aguilas Negras paramilitary group was received at the offices of the agro-mining federation in Bolívar Department. The same threat was also sent to the offices of other non-governmental organizations and to three Catholic priests, all working in this area rich in minerals. The death threat stated, “You will be killed one by one. Start getting your loved ones ready so they can bury you.”

On March 22, a member of the National Union of Coal Industry Workers, Adolfo González Montes, was tortured and killed. At the same time, other leaders of the union received telephone death threats and reported that their homes were under surveillance by unknown individuals. The killing and threats coincided with preparations by the union to initiate negotiations on working conditions with BHP Billiton, AngloAmerican, and Xstrata, the companies that own the Cerrejón coal mining operation in La Guajira department.

These specific incidents arise in a wider human rights context, which is directly relevant to this proposed agreement. Grave human rights abuses are committed against indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities defending their land rights in areas of interest for resource extraction or agricultural potential. There are ongoing threats and attacks against trade union leaders. Violations against community leaders and small-scale miners in areas of mineral wealth are of great concern. Since 1985, more than three million Colombians have been forced to flee their homes. More than 60% of those displaced have been evicted from lands situated in areas of mineral, agricultural, or other economic interest. These high levels of displacement continue, with 305,000 new cases last year alone, particularly affecting Afro-descendant and indigenous communities.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and the National Liberation Army, the ELN, continue to commit human rights abuses and to violate international humanitarian law, including the deliberate killing of civilians and hostage-taking. There has been a disturbing increase in extrajudicial executions carried out by state security forces. The victims include trade unionists, campesino leaders, members of indigenous communities, and other social activists. Most of these killings have been referred to the military justice system, despite a 1997 constitutional court ruling stating that human rights cases implicating the security forces should be handled by the ordinary justice system. Notably, human rights defenders who have been raising objections about the situation have been publicly accused by President Uribe of working with guerrilla organizations.

Finally, there is mounting evidence of very disturbing links between members of President Uribe's political circle and illegal paramilitary organizations. Paramilitary commanders claim they control 35% of the Colombian congress. More than 60 congressmen from President Uribe's coalition are now under investigation by the Supreme Court. Last week, the president's second cousin and close political ally, former Senator Mario Uribe, was arrested. He stands accused of participating in meetings with paramilitary groups in which land grabs were orchestrated. President Uribe, in response to all this, has proposed mechanisms to set free or reduce the prison terms of politicians who may be convicted of colluding with paramilitaries and has also made public attacks against the Supreme Court and individual judges who are conducting these investigations, thus threatening judicial independence.

Before this committee and elsewhere, the Colombian government insists that Colombia's human rights situation has substantially improved. Amnesty International is extremely concerned that such statements repeatedly only point to the limited improvements there have been in a few areas, such as overall conflict-related killings and kidnappings, and that the wider, very worrying human rights situation is disregarded.

Take, for example, the issue of violence against trade unionists, an enormous issue of concern in the context of free trade negotiations. The Colombian government talks about a reduction of violence. The number of killings was lower in 2007 than in 2006, but the number of failed assassination attempts of trade unionists doubled and there was no reduction in the number of death threats. Indeed, there was an increase by some 22% in the number of forced displacements of trade unionists. Meanwhile, more currently, in the first three months of this year there was an 89% increase in the number of killings, in comparison with the first three months of 2007.

The point here is that there has been no substantive or sustained improvement in the human rights situation faced by trade unionists, nor will there be until decisive action is taken to end impunity, which remains at more than 90%.

The Colombian government also insists that paramilitaries no longer operate in the country. This view has been contradicted by reports from the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the Organization of American States. There is indisputable evidence that many traditional paramilitary groups continue to operate in many regions and that the number of killings committed by them remains high. There is also clear evidence of continued collusion between these groups and the security forces.

The bottom line, sadly, is that Colombia's human rights situation has not substantially improved--in many aspects it has worsened--and that by any measure it remains an absolute crisis."

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