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Human rights report on Colombia panned as ’whitewash’

The Gazette, Montreal

Human rights report on Colombia panned as ’whitewash’

By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News

16 May 2012

OTTAWA — Canada’s free trade deal with Colombia is again threatening to explode into controversy after the Conservative government released a report this week that was supposed to detail the agreement’s impact on Colombia’s human rights situation — but didn’t.

Trade Minister Ed Fast told the House of Commons on Wednesday that the government did not have enough information to conduct a full assessment by the time it was required to submit the report to Parliament.

"As the agreement has only been in force for the last 4 1/2 months in 2011, there’s not enough available data to do a comprehensive analysis," he told the House of Commons. "That analysis will be done in 2013."

But the answer has done little to mollify human rights groups and the NDP, which are again charging that the Conservative government’s interest in the troubled Latin American nation is based purely on profit — no matter the cost.

"This is a profound disappointment and I think Canada has betrayed the people of Colombia," said Amnesty International Canada president Alex Neve. "We’ve missed a profoundly important change and opportunity to show we are committed to human rights."

The Canada-Colombia free trade agreement came into force in August 2011 following years of polarized debate and political gridlock.

The Conservative government, which considers Colombia a key ally in the region, has insisted the deal would promote economic prosperity in both countries and lead to a strengthening of the rule of law and improved human rights.

But civil society groups and the NDP fear the deal will exacerbate the country’s poor human- and labour-rights record by rewarding companies and politicians involved in violations and undermining the protections afforded for indigenous communities.

In an effort to strike a compromise, Liberal MP Scott Brison proposed the annual human rights reports, which became a condition for his party helping push the deal through Parliament.

Brison on Wednesday described the first report as "unambitious," but agreed with the government’s explanation that not enough time had lapsed for a detailed analysis.

"The next report is the one where we would want to see more substance," he said.

But even if that doesn’t happen, Brison said the Colombian government has taken the exercise seriously — and the trade agreement is too important to walk away from.

NDP international trade critic Don Davies described the report as a "whitewash" and questioned whether the Conservative government is trying to hide something.

"It leaves us to wonder whether the government was afraid to table an honest human rights assessment," he said, "because it would show the situation in Colombia has not improved."

An official in Fast’s office said in a statement that the trade agreement "is creating opportunities for Canadians and Colombians alike."

"Our government believes that trade creates new opportunities that help raise standards of living in countries around the world," Rudy Husny added. "In turn, a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy is created, one where human rights are respected."

Last September, a number of civil society groups sent a letter to the Canadian Embassy in Bogota concerning the murder of a Catholic priest who had previously spoken out against a Canadian mining operation in his community.

Jennifer Moore, Latin American program co-ordinator for the Ottawa-based industry monitor MiningWatch Canada, said she has received reports of other incidents involving Canadian mining companies in Colombia, particularly on indigenous rights.

Moore described the government’s report as shameful.

"There’s nothing in this report about human rights at all," she said. "I’m very concerned given that we know there are very serious human rights violations taking place in Colombia right now. The Canadian government is turning a blind eye to that."