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Stephen Harper’s bizarre logic of free trade with Colombia

NUPGE | 13 January 2008

Stephen Harper’s bizarre logic of free trade with Colombia

How can Canada denounce human rights abuses in China while turning a blind eye to the mass political murder of trade unionists in Colombia?

By Larry Brown
National Secretary-Treasurer
National Union of Public and General Employees

Here’s a pop quiz for you:

(1) Who said his government will not abandon "important Canadian values" by toning down criticisms of China’s human rights record to improve trade relations with Beijing?

"I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values. They don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar."

(2) Who said it would be "ridiculous" not to pursue a trade relationship with 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."

If you answered Stephen Harper for both, you are unfortunately well versed in the intricacies of Canda’s current position on trade versus human rights.

If you can explain how these two positions can both be taken at the same time, you are in serious need of counselling - or you are a Conservative cabinet minister.

There aren’t many people who would argue that China has an acceptable record when it comes to human rights. But there are just as few who would argue that Colombia has a satisfactory record. In 2006 there were 72 reported killings of trade unionists in Colombia.

400 murders under Uribe regime

The Escuela Nacional Sindical, a prominent labour rights group, estimates that more than 400 murders by right-wing paramilitary organizations have taken place during Colombian President Uribe’s tenure. Some of these paramilitary organizations have apparent links to Mr. Uribe’s political circle. Although some paramilitaries have been decommissioned, few perpetrators of the killings have been brought to justice.

Since President Uribe came to power, only four people have been convicted of the murder of trade unionists.

The rate of murders of trade unionists has in fact declined - for the awful reason that the brutal repression of unions has resulted in a serious decline in the unionization rate. Colombia has gone from a unionization rate of 15% as recently as 5 years ago, to the current 3%.

Mr. Harper has argued that, since the number of killings of labour leaders had diminished, this is a basis for claiming source of progress in Colombia. This is a frightening logic - put crudely it means that if the right wing runs out of trade unionists to kill, they can take credit for the lower death rate.

Last year, 687 people were kidnapped and more than 17,000 murdered in the country. The total number of murders in Canada in 2006 was 622.

Right-wing death squads

The Colombian President is caught up in a scandal being investigated by Colombia’s Supreme Court. It is alleged two senators in his party as well as one of his cousins are linked to right-wing death squads.

Forty members of the Colombian congress, including senators, governors and mayors within Mr. Uribe’s political coalition, are under investigation for alleged relationships with paramilitary chiefs and collusion in elections fraud. Seventeen have been jailed including the former head of secret services under Uribe. As well, there have been failures in Uribe’s paramilitary demobilization program as paramilitaries are reorganizing, and sustaining or regaining their political influence.

In the face of these dreadful facts, an interesting question arises: which of the “important Canadian values” that Mr. Harper is upholding by talking tough with China have led Mr. Harper to his enthusiastic push for a trade deal with Colombia?

There are only two rational explanations for this amazingly two faced position on the links between trade and human rights. One is that Mr. Harper has decided that even if Canadians don’t want their government to sell out important Canadian values for the sake of the almighty dollar, Mr. Harper himself has no such qualms.

The other possible explanation is that the United States has long been a key ally of Colombia. However, because of the “para-politics scandal” the US Congress has held up approval of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Bush, Harper and Colombia

Mr. Harper’s good friend and colleague George Bush Jr. is very grateful for Canada’s ‘free trade with Colombia’ agenda, because it would amount to a strong endorsement for Uribe at a time when the Uribe administration faces a grave crisis of legitimacy.

Mr. Bush has been known to use Canada’s stance in an attempt to convince the U.S. Congress to endorse the US Colombia deal. And, believe it or not, Mr. Harper has even lobbied in the U.S. for Congressional approval of the U.S. deal.

So, either Mr. Harper is a complete hypocrite, or he is simply doing the bidding, once again, of his mentor Mr. Bush. But, on reflection, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive - both may well be true.

The same cannot be said for Mr. Harper’s position on the link between trade and human rights.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada’s largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring that our common wealth is used for the common good.

 source: NUPGE