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Minister defends Colombia free-trade deal

The Gazette, Montreal

Minister defends Colombia free-trade deal

By Mike Blanchfield, Canwest News Service

30 March 2009

OTTAWA - Parliamentary hearings will allow criticism of Canada’s proposed free trade agreement with Colombia, says the Harper government’s minister responsible for Latin America.

But Peter Kent, the minister of state for foreign affairs, also made clear that he expects the deal to be ratified by Parliament by June, as he accused left-leaning critics of the deal of living in the past, and not giving Colombia credit for progress it has made after years of drug-fuelled carnage.

"We want this to be discussed openly," Kent said Monday from Medellin, Colombia. "Through the hearing process as well as submissions from beyond, we want to hear from folks, positive and negative, and to address concerns."

Last week, a coalition of non-governmental organizations under the Canadian Council for International Co-operation accused the government of trying to force the Colombian pact through Parliament without a proper debate on human rights considerations.

The council said that the agreement would hurt small-scale farmers, expose indigenous people, Afro-Colombians and rural dwellers "to land-grabs by Canadian mining companies armed with new investor rights with no binding responsibilities, and further chill democratic dissent."

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said the labour and environmental side agreements are ineffectual and that the only rights the deal would protect would be those of investors.

Kent dismissed the criticism of Canadian business, saying they are viewed "as models of corporate social responsibility here (in Colombia)."

Kent said that while free trade agreements can have negative effects on local populations, the dispute resolution mechanisms in the deal provide for independent oversight.

Kent said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has demonstrated a commitment to reform and human rights, and is satisfied his government has no links to paramilitary groups, despite what his critics may say.

"There’s no question that all that is required to make this country safe and secure is done," said Kent, who was thanked by Uribe Sunday night for Canada’s support.

A former journalist, Kent said he saw great progress since visiting the country in the 1980s when it was "a free-fire zone run by drug cartels."

"The most aggressive criticisms have come from NGOs which are holding onto stereotypes of trade and the actual situation on the ground in Colombia," said Kent.

"Some NGOs are dealing with history when they talk about the situation in Colombia, and refer to either lawlessness, or abuse of human rights or corruption in government."

Kent said four of five unions that he met with on the weekend supported the free trade deal.

"They seemed to think that their jobs and their members’ jobs would be more secure by opening their markets," he said, of the four private sector unions that represent the textile industry, power and manufacturing.

The only union that opposed the free trade deal was a public sector union, whose workers "don’t have to worry about productivity and profit by their employers."