Wrangling over Colombia trade deal continues

Embassy, June 25th, 2008

Wrangling Over Colombia Trade Deal Continues

A sharply divided Commons’ trade committee has taken a hard line on the Canada-Colombia free trade pact, but supports an eventual agreement.

By Michelle Collins

Although free trade talks with Colombia have been wrapped up, political wrangling over the morality of the deal and what provisions should be included are showing no signs of abating.

As the House prepared for summer break last week, the Commons’ international trade committee tabled a report following a two-month study into whether an agreement would actually help Colombia to improve its human rights situation.

The study’s completion comes about two weeks after the government surprised everyone by announcing on June 7 that negotiations had been concluded.

Despite this, the committee last week tabled its report with eight recommendations-including that the government not sign an agreement until after an independent, impartial and comprehensive human rights impact assessment is carried out by "a competent body."

But like the deal itself, the report has become embroiled in political controversy; its recommendations have been denounced by at least one Conservative member of the committee, and added on to the report are highly critical dissenting opinion statements from each of the opposition parties.

Government Should Wait

The first of the eight recommendations made are that the government should not sign and implement a free trade agreement with Colombia until it has "taken into account the recommendations contained in this report, including those of the dissenting reports."

Further to the government waiting for a human rights impact assessment, it was recommended that legislated provisions accompany the trade agreement. Such provisions would ensure that Canadian entities investing in Colombia adopt corporate social responsibility principles and reporting mechanisms to monitor the implementation of universal human rights standards.

Reflecting the concern that some members hold over Canada implementing a trade agreement with a troubled country, it was also recommended that, in the future, studies about the impact on rights and the environment as a result of economic agreements with "countries at risk" be studied by an independent body.

However, the report does support an eventual agreement because it would assist the government’s broader foreign policy objective of re-engagement in the Americas and for "supporting an ally."

"Concerns have been expressed that if the current government in Colombia is not supported by its allies in the West, then Colombia could become vulnerable to a fate similar to that of its neighbours, further destabilizing the region and undermining Canada’s foreign policy objectives in the Americas," the report states.

The report also takes note of the U.S.-Colombia agreement, which has been signed but not ratified as it has been held up in Congress by the Democrats. The committee report supports an agreement to ensure Canadian companies maintain an even playing field in Colombia with their American competitors.

Attached to the report were dissenting opinions from each of the opposition parties.

In their dissenting opinion, Liberal members strongly urged the government to ensure that concerns over human rights and environmental issues "are addressed in a meaningful way" and that a free trade agreement with Colombia be accompanied by the legislated provisions recommended in the report.

The Liberals accused the government of rushing the deal through and alleged the government’s goal of deepening its engagement in the Americas "mirrors [the political agenda] of U.S. President George Bush and appears to be more focused on signing deals as quickly as possible no matter what the cost."

In their dissenting opinions, both the Bloc Québécois and the NDP strongly opposed signing any agreement with Colombia no matter what steps are taken, citing concerns and disapproval of the country’s human rights record, particularly when it comes to labour unionists.

Although the Conservatives and proponents of the agreement have said it will likely help Colombia in improving its labour standards, the NDP said the Conservative government has not provided any "conclusive empirical evidence to support their claim that Free Trade will have a positive impact on human rights."

The NDP took particular issue with a side agreement on labour co-operation that stipulates a country will have to pay up to $15 million in any one year into a fund for labour rights violations, such as killings.

Bloc members stated that by aligning with Colombia, Canada will be seen as unfit to play a role of honest broker and facilitator in the Americas.

Conservative members did not attach a dissenting opinion, but in the House last Friday, Gerald Keddy, a member of the committee and parliamentary secretary to the trade minister, lambasted the report for being biased and accused opposition members of using it to play partisan politics.

He said Conservative members of the committee were opposed to the report and did not align themselves with the recommendations made.

"It is clear that this report does not accurately reflect the views of all the members of this committee, nor does it reflect the testimony of the majority of the witnesses who appeared before the committee," Mr. Keddy said.

The committee has asked for the government to table a comprehensive response to the report.

The Good, the Bad, and Reaction

In an interview Monday, Colombian Ambassador Jaime Duarte said he was disappointed that the committee’s recommendations were largely critical and based on a snapshot of the country’s situation, rather than the full picture of the advances made he had hoped the committee would see.

He said the recommendation for an independent assessment body is vague and he noted that both the UN and the International Labour Organization have offices in the country.

Mr. Duarte said he is also concerned about how such a body would be created and who would be involved.

"How [do we] get an independent group of organizations that [would] satisfy both those that are against the agreement and those that are in favour of the agreement?" Mr. Duarte said.

Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-opreation, however, called the report a "breath of fresh air."

"It’s remarkable that the committee is as forthright and robust as it is about prior conditions necessary before any appropriate free trade arrangement with Colombia," Mr. Barr said.

He said the report is impressive because it "hit it on the head" and it was evident the messages from the human rights and international development community had resonated with members.