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Amid trade talks, MPs visit Colombia’s refugees

CBC, Canada

Amid trade talks, MPs visit Colombia’s refugees

12 May 2008

CBC News

A group of Canadian MPs travelled to Colombia Monday to get a first-hand look at one of the hemisphere’s most volatile countries before Ottawa finalizes a free trade deal with its government.

The dozen members of the parliamentary committee on international trade are in Colombia for the next three days to discuss the controversial trade negotiations with the South American country, which has faced international criticism for its human rights record and its handling of the plight of internally displaced refugees, known in Colombia by the Spanish term desplazados.

Amid heavy security, the MPs spent the morning at a shantytown in Los Altos de Cazuca, on the high hills circling the capital, Bogota.

The group travelled in a security convoy escorted by sharpshooters and bomb experts. Armed federal police were on guard at the United Nations office in the hilltop town when the MPs arrived.

Liberal trade critic Navdeep Singh Bains said the group was warned against travelling too far from the capital.

"The security situation in Bogota has improved drastically over the past few years, but as you leave the city, especially in the rural ridings, it’s very challenging.... We’ve been told not to travel there," Bains told CBC News.

"We have select spots we are going to with the tremendous amount of security that will be escorting us. So that speaks volumes."

40-year civil war

Most of the shantytown residents moved to the site after being forced from their homes during Colombia’s brutal 40-year civil war, which has pitted the government against leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries, both funded by the drug trade.

More than a million Colombians are considered refugees in their own country, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Colombia ranks second behind Sudan in the number of internally displaced refugees, the agency said.

During the MPs’ visit, UN workers and local government officials told the group what a daunting job they have trying to feed, house and educate hundreds of thousands of mostly rural peasants now living in the shantytown.

Matthew Brook, a Canadian who works for the UN refugee agency in Los Altos de Cazuca, told the MPs that Canada gave $3 million to the agency’s Colombia mission this year. Most of the aid goes to benefiting children.

"We really appreciate your visit here as members of Parliament, showing the commitment of Canada to Colombia and to the United Nations system," he said.

Outside the meeting, women filled every container they could muster with water, which had just arrived by truck for the first time in a month.

"If we could ask these Canadian politicians for anything, we would ask them to build us a water pipeline," said resident Ruth Parevelo, as she and her neighbour filled containers.

Rights record under fire

Conservative MP Lee Richardson asked local officials Monday whether a free trade deal will help the situation of the residents, the CBC’s Connie Watson reported. They said investment would be welcome, especially in roads, schools and jobs for the displaced people - 40 per cent of whom can’t find work in the city.

In a recent interview, Trade Minister David Emerson said he is "cautiously optimistic" a trade agreement with Colombia can be reached by September.

Proponents of a trade deal between Ottawa and Bogota contend it will improve democracy and human rights in Colombia, as well as bring economic prosperity its citizens. But critics say Ottawa should halt bilateral trade negotiations with President Alvaro Uribe’s government over Colombia’s record of widespread human rights abuses.

Those against a trade deal cite as reasons the frequent violence and threats against journalists, human rights activists and indigenous peoples, as well as the high number of killings of labour organizers. Human Rights Watch says more than 400 trade unionists have been killed during the six years Uribe has been in power, with few of the perpetrators ever being brought before a court on charges.

A similar proposed trade deal between the United States and Colombia lauded by U.S. President George W. Bush is currently stalled in Washington over concerns the deal wouldn’t improve the country’s human rights situation.

With files from Connie Watson