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Free trade, human rights top Harper’s Colombian agenda

Globe and Mail, Canada

Free trade, human rights top Harper’s Colombian agenda

By Alan Freeman

16 July 2007

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Free trade talks, human rights and Colombia’s efforts to end its decades-old civil war will top the agenda today as Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets down to business on the first stop on his four-nation tour of Latin America and the Caribbean.

But the brief visit to the Colombian capital, where Mr. Harper arrived last evening, could prove to be the most controversial of his six-day Americas tour. President Alvaro Uribe, the closest U.S. ally in the region, is embroiled in a scandal about reported links between his political allies and right-wing paramilitary groups that have been engaged in a long, bloody struggle with left-wing guerrilla groups.

Canada is intent on signing a free-trade deal with Colombia, a growing economy that despite its internal strife and notoriety as the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer is an increasingly attractive investment destination for Canadian companies, particularly in the mining and oil and gas sectors.

Aside from trade pacts with Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico, Canada has had limited success in signing bilateral free trade deals. The Harper government has signalled its intention of reviving the free trade push in the region, aiming for agreements with Peru, Central America and Dominican Republic as well as Colombia.

In signing a pact with Colombia, a nation of 46.8 million, Mr. Harper would be emulating U.S. President George W. Bush, who signed a free trade pact with Mr. Uribe last November.

Yet the U.S. trade agreement, which has been approved by the Colombian Congress, remains stalled in the U.S. Congress, where Democrats have vowed to stop the deal over allegations that Mr. Uribe’s allies and top generals colluded with paramilitaries who have murdered union organizers, teachers and journalists over the past decade.

Mr. Uribe has been involved in a program of demobilization of the paramilitaries, who have allied themselves with the country’s wealthy ranchers and drug lords against leftist rebels such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Over the past 40 years, the civil war has displaced 3.5 million people internally and resulted in thousands of deaths and high-profile kidnappings of foreigners.

Mr. Uribe’s international reputation has been tarnished in recent months by evidence of links between the President and right-wing death squads. Just last week, Colombia’s Supreme Court opened an investigation into possible links between the President’s cousin, Mario Uribe, and illegal armed militias.

A coalition of Canadian groups ranging from the Canadian Labour Congress to the Canadian chapter of Amnesty International last week called on Mr. Harper to stop all trade talks with Colombia until the issue is fully debated in Canada.

"Canada must send a strong message in the Americas that it puts human rights first - for trade deals, investment, development assistance and diplomatic policy - and expects other governments to do the same," the coalition said in a statement.

Canadian government officials last week tried to play down the emphasis on free trade talks, noting that Canada’s role in the Colombian peace process and human rights will also be a focus of talks with Mr. Uribe, a conservative politician whom Mr. Harper first met at the inauguration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon last December.

Besides private talks with Mr. Uribe, Mr. Harper is to visit a rehabilitation centre for victims of land mines, which is supported by the Canadian government, and will drop in on a roundtable discussion on social corporate responsibility for Canadian investors and business leaders.