Canada closes in on Colombian trade deal while abuses continue

The Canadian Press | 9 November 2007

Canada closes in on Colombian trade deal while abuses continue

OTTAWA — One of Colombia’s most celebrated and provocative journalists is urging Canada to put the brakes on a trade deal with his country, citing unabated death threats and assassinations against colleagues and other government critics.

Hollman Morris, a contributor to the British Broadcasting Corp. and host of a national current affairs program, is on a speaking tour of North America sponsored by Human Rights Watch.

Morris was named human rights defender of the year by the New York-based organization for his work in exposing abuses by all sides of the Colombian conflict.

"I don’t think they told (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) that more trade unionists are killed in Colombia than in any other country in the world," said Morris, who was to meet with officials at the Foreign Affairs Department later Friday.

"What this shows is a blind support. ... I’m not sure whether the Canadian public would accept this from Prime Minister Harper, or whether the Parliament would accept his memory loss."

Morris’s visit comes just as Canada enters a fourth - and possibly last - round of negotiations with Colombia and Peru on a free-trade agreement, with the firm backing of Harper.

Earlier this week, the government announced $1 million in funding to help Colombia enforce and enhance its labour laws.

"We are making very good progress in the (free trade) negotiations," said department spokeswoman Valerie Noftle. "The government is committed to reaching a deal which delivers significant economic benefits to the country."

Conversely, the U.S. Congress has shelved a similar deal, and leading presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared Thursday she would oppose free trade with Colombia because of concern about the violence against trade unionists.

Twenty-seven trade unionists have been killed this year alone, two of them earlier this month.

Harper paid a historic visit to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in July, committing to the trade deal and giving the beleaguered politician a valuable sign of support. Several of Uribe’s closest political allies have been linked to violent paramilitary organizations, including his cousin.

He scoffed at the suggestion Canada should withhold support for free trade because of continuing abuses in Colombia.

"We’re not going to say, fix all your social, political and human-rights problems, and only then will we engage in trade relations with you. That’s a ridiculous position."

Morris says Uribe himself is to blame for the climate of fear that has taken hold of those who promote human rights in Colombia - journalists, opposition politicians, rights advocates and union leaders.

He describes how Uribe went on a popular national radio show two years ago and told listeners that Morris was collaborating with leftist guerrillas in order to film an organized attack for the BBC. Uribe later issued an apology, but Morris and his family received death threats as a result.

Other journalists, opposition politicians and trade unionists critical of Uribe’s government have also been singled out for personal attacks, and have faced similar threats to their lives or even death. He said five reporters have fled Colombia this month because of threats.

"I’m not saying that Uribe himself has threatened us, but his irresponsible signals and his linking of journalists with guerrillas are interpreted the next day as justification for death threats or assassinations."

Morris notes that the Colombian police were exposed earlier this year for the massive wiretapping of journalists, diplomats and opposition politicians. Several high-ranking officers were removed, but nobody in the military has been identified as having ordered the wiretaps.

source: Canadian Press