July 5, 2008

Giving George Bush a hand on Colombia

An excellent analysis of the recent Standing Committee report, "Human Rights, the Environment and Free Trade with Colombia" by Linda Diebel for the Toronto Star. Look forward to hearing more about the Standing Committee's recommendations in the days, weeks and months ahead... La Chiva.

Written by Linda Diebel,
Originally published in Toronto Star Blog - Political Decoder,
27 June 2008

Canadian human rights activists accuse Stephen Harper of rushing through a trade deal with Colombia at the expense of workers in both countries in order to please George W. Bush. The U.S. President can't get his own deal through Congress over Democratic objections and "he's just trying to help Bush out," says Rick Arnold, co-ordinator of Common Frontiers, an organization focused on international relations in the Americas. The terms of Harper's agreement are so hush-hush, Arnold tells the Decoder, rights groups in Colombia are hearing negotiators there were told not to talk about it under any circumstances - especially with Canadians.

It looks like there's a good reason for the gag order. Very worrisome details were leaked by NDP MPs, who refer to a "kill a unionist, pay a fine" deal. Last month, NDP critics Peter Julian (trade) and Libby Davies (labour), as well as Hassam Yussaff from the Canadian Labour Congress, denounced the deal at a press conference.

Take a look at the NDP press release:

According to the negotiators' testimony, the Colombian government would be required to make a token monetary payment into a "cooperation fund" when a Colombian trade unionist is murdered.

"The weakness of this so-called labour protection measure amounts to the decriminalization of murder," said Julian. "Fines are the type of penalty given out for speeding or parking violations, not for murder ... This deal leaves the door wide open for continuing violence against workers and activists."

It's worth noting 28 trade unionists have been killed so far this year in Colombia, where the army has been linked to rights abuses.

The deal-making process has been absurd. Earlier this month, the Harper government announced its agreement before the parliamentary standing committee had finished its report. All parties agreed to table that review in the House of Commons, which occurred on June 18. The committee recommended no agreement be signed with Colombia without a comprehensive human rights review.

Two days later, as Parliament was about to adjourn for the summer, the Conservative on the committee had a change of heart. According to Hansard:

"Mr. Gerald Keddy (South Shore—St. Margaret's, CPC): Mr. Speaker, my Conservative Party colleagues on the Standing Committee for International Trade respectfully dissent from the report "Human Rights, the Environment and Free Trade with Columbia (sic)".

It appears, by then, he'd read his committee's recommendations.

The Bush Administration has been pushing hard for its own deal, as has Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who dropped by Ottawa a week ago. Arnold says an interesting section of the standing committee's report - all over the map except for clear recommendations - could have been written by the White House:

Concerns have been expressed that if the current government in Colombia is not supported by its allies in the west, then Colombia could become vulnerable to a fate similar to that of its neighbours, further destabilizing the region and undermining Canada's foreign policy objectives in the Americas.

Indeed, the goal of supporting a key ally in the Americas was one of the considerations behind the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA).

The United States government believes that approving and implementing the CTPA will be a "critical signal of America's support for the Colombian people, who have chosen to strengthen ties with the United States in the belief that reciprocal market access will contribute to the overall growth and development of their nation."

The aforementioned neighbours are Venezuela and Bolivia.

The NDP, Bloc and Liberals approved the committee report with dissenting opinions. Arnold, who's watching the drama unfold from the perspective of someone who really knows what's going on in Colombia, observes: "The mind boggles to think how the Conservatives are going to 'sell' the Colombia-Canada FTA to the House come the fall. And will the Conservatives wish to bring this all to 'public' attention?"

It may be that by year's end it won't matter, if the Republicans lose the White House. But don't bet on it. There's no guarantee Barack Obama would take a different stance. U.S. policy on Latin American over the last - well, since Manifest Destiny - has been consistent, no matter who's president.

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