Free trade with Colombia is the wrong deal with the wrong country

Embassy, November 28th, 2007

OPED

Free Trade with Colombia is the Wrong Deal with the Wrong Country

By Rick Arnold

Sixteen of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s closest associates, including the country’s head of intelligence, are in jail because of their ties with narco-traffickers and paramilitary forces. Another 44 elected members of Uribe’s political party, including the president’s cousin, are under investigation. This scandal is spreading like wildfire in Colombia, and yet the Canadian government is putting trade negotiations with that country into overdrive all the while keeping the contents of the discussions well away from the public eye.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on July 16 that Canada is negotiating a free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru. Though these talks were projected go at least six rounds, or well into 2008, latest indications are that they could be wrapped up later this month at talks to be held in Lima, Peru.

Officially, the Canadian government says it is promoting human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. While Harper himself has had no problem pointing to China’s poor human rights record, he has criticized Canadians who want our government to speak out against the ongoing killings in Colombia. Not even the fact that the United Nations has called Colombia the worst humanitarian disaster in the Western hemisphere because of targeted killings of civilians by that country’s security forces that have risen sharply in the last five years, seems to matter as the negotiations move forward at break-neck speed.

The executive branches of the governments involved in these trade talks are circumventing their own elected officials and are denying their citizens a say. A Colombian trade negotiator recently let slip that the Canadian government told Colombian negotiators to keep the draft labour text secret, well away from Canadian unions and non-governmental organizations. While civil society is being excluded, the Colombian trade minister recently admitted that their negotiators are meeting with corporate representatives.

The trade deal between Colombia and Canada is likely to be a carbon copy of a similar deal already negotiated (but not ratified) with the United States. Canadian negotiators will undoubtedly demand the same concessions that Colombia acceded to in the talks with this continent’s superpower.

Why the rush then to get this trade deal done? The most obvious answer is that the more that Canadians get to hear about Colombia’s unsavory reputation, the more alarm bells will go off.

The Harper government’s renewed interest in the Americas should ensure that our country’s future trade initiatives prioritize support for human rights, food sovereignty, and environmental sustainability. Commerce and investment should not be seen merely as ends in themselves, but rather as a means to ensuring appropriate human development.

If Canada is to take its proposed "good neighbour" role in this hemisphere seriously, our trade policies should be putting people first. In Colombia that means supporting, amongst other things, a land redistribution program to allow many of the 3 million internally displaced people affected by the violence to return to their homes.

The Canadian government urgently needs to halt free trade negotiations with Colombia. It is the wrong deal with the wrong country-a deal that will only serve to benefit large transnational corporations while deepening the divide between rich and poor, in a land where violence and impunity are the rule.

Rick Arnold is the co-ordinator for Common Frontiers-Canada, a 20-year-old multi-sectoral coalition opposed to free trade in the Americas. CF favours alternative trade arrangements in our hemisphere that put social policy considerations ahead of commercial gain.

source: Embassy