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Emerson defends Colombia, says Korea trade talks could fail

Canadian Press

Emerson defends Colombia, says Korea trade talks could fail

24 March 2008

OTTAWA - Free trade talks between Canada and South Korea have hit some serious roadblocks and could end in failure, Trade Minister David Emerson said Tuesday.

But the trade minister was bullish on reaching a free trade agreement with Colombia despite opposition from human rights group that the country’s government is behind attacks and assassinations on union leaders and activists.

"Our mission (in Bogota) is doing a lot of monitoring...and at some point you have to make a judgement about the president himself and our assessment is that President Alvaro Uribe is trying to improve human rights there," he said in an interview following his presentation before a House committee.

Speaking to the committee late Tuesday, Emerson unveiled an ambitious plan to expand trade links throughout the world, including Russia, Asia, South American and Africa.

But the long-awaited free trade deal with South Korea appears further away than ever, the minister said, in part because South Korea, having signed a deal with the U.S. and currently negotiating with Europe, Japan and India, has moved on.

"I’m not sure the appeal in Korea is as strong as it was six months ago to do a deal with Canada," he said. "At the moment ... we’re not even close to a free trade agreement with Korea."

Emerson said Canada stands to lose $1 billion in trade once the U.S. ratifies the Korea pact because Korean exports to the U.S. will start supplanting Canada’s, particularly in the auto sector.

But he faced the most fractious questioning from the committee on the government’s intention to negotiate a trade deal with Colombia.

The NDP’s Peter Julian blasted the minister for characterizing human rights abuses in the South American country as happening in the past, saying the current government is implicated in continuing abuses.

"We’re not talking about human rights abuses 15 years ago, we’re talking about human rights abuses this year," he said, noting that "dozens" of union leaders had been killed in 2007.

As well, several members of Uribe’s party and administration have been found to have connections with the paramilitary death squads. Earlier this year, Uribe’s former chief of intelligence and security was jailed for handing paramilitary leaders and narco-traffickers lists of labour and human rights activists.

Emerson said he would be "less inclined" to sign an agreement with a government that did not represent democratic values and was not attempting to improve its human rights record.

But while the political situation in Colombia is "murky," he said he believed Uribe was trying to do the right thing.

"We recognize there have been some terrible violations, but you would have to admit the level of those incidents have been declining," he said. "We recognize it’s a long way from perfect, but that doesn’t mean we should leave them economically vulnerable to takeover by the paramilitary groups.

"That’s the worst thing we can do," he said.

Guari Sreenivasan, a policy officer with the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said Canada signing a free trade deal with Colombia would be the equivalent of giving the country a political seal of approval for its continuing human rights violations.

She said if there has been some improvements lately, it has come because the Democratic Congress in the U.S. has held up ratifying a trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration until it improves its record.

Emerson said the House of Commons would have to approve a trade deal with Colombia for it to go into effect.