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Canada’s deal with Colombia ignores human rights abuses

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), Canada

Press release

Canada’s deal with Colombia ignores human rights abuses

25 November 2008

Ottawa - The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) has joined with other labour and human rights organizations in condemning the Harper government’s approval of a free-trade deal with Colombia. The union is urging MPs in Ottawa to reject the tentative deal.

The prime minister announced approval of the pact with Colombia while in Lima, Peru, last week to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Canada’s House of Commons has 21 days to debate the deal. It could be enacted in January 2010.

The federal government has pursued a trade deal with Colombia despite horrific human rights violations which have occurred with little opposition, and in some cases the outright complicity, of the Colombian government.

In a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, James Clancy, national president of NUPGE, wrote:

"Since 1991, more than 2,245 trade union leaders and activists have been assassinated in Colombia. Furthermore, at least 8,000 have suffered threats, arbitrary detention, kidnapping, torture and disappearances.

"The Uribe government has done little to quell the violence. Indeed, as recent reports from Colombia indicate, there is growing evidence of links between the government and right-wing paramilitary groups," Clancy said.

"Colombia’s labour and civil rights movements oppose the negotiation of free trade agreements until the government takes meaningful action against the violence and intimidation" and that it is "inappropriate for the Canadian government to ignore the pleas for assistance from some of the most persecuted and embattled people in the world."

Making a bad situation worse

Following an international solidarity mission by the leaders of four Canadian public sector unions, the organizations stated that free trade with Colombia will lead to worse human and labour rights abuses and further devastation of communities at risk.

"We have met with many sectors of Colombian society, including government officials, the United Central of Workers (CUT) and other trade unions, opposition leaders, non-governmental organizations, groups representing indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples as well as the Canadian ambassador," the leaders said at the time.

"We also were present to hear the final report of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal following two years of hearings in six sectors of the Colombian economy. The report condemned the Colombian government and transnational corporations for countless violations of human and trade union rights.

"Our overwhelming conclusion is that a free trade agreement will not help the Colombian people. It will only exacerbate an already horrifying list of human and labour rights abuses that are shocking the world.

"Colombia continues to be the most dangerous country on earth for trade unions and civil society activists. Since the beginning of 2008, 32 trade unionists have been assassinated. We have also observed that Colombia has no juridical framework that permits free collective bargaining.

"On our return to Canada, we will tell our one million members, our government and all Canadians that it is unacceptable to sign a free trade agreement with Colombia as long as trade unionists are at risk and free collective bargaining and other labour and human rights continue to be violated."

The statement was signed by Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and George Heyman, international vice-president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).

U.S. unwilling to sign a similar deal

Canada’s willingness to sign a deal with Colombia is at odds with its largest trading partner - the United States.

In 2007 Nancy Pelosi and other senior leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives issued a statement saying "there must first be concrete evidence of sustained results on the ground in Colombia" before Congress could support a free trade deal with Colombia. Since then, despite continued efforts from the Bush administration, a U.S.-Colombia trade deal has not been approved.

With the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. President, the chances of such a deal are becoming even more remote. Obama has publicly stated that he will not support a U.S.-Colombia free trade deal.

Some Canadian organizations wonder if the Harper government is pursuing this trade deal as a last-minute favour to the Bush administration. NUPGE