Canada-Colombia FTA Gets Human Rights Amendment

31 March 2010

Both Canada and Colombia will be required to conduct yearly assessments of the human rights implications of their new free trade agreement, according to a new amendment to the deal currently before the Canadian Parliament.

Added on 25 March, the amendment was negotiated by Scott Brison, an MP from the opposition Liberal Party, on his own initiative. Brison, the Liberal International Trade Critic, is a good friend of Colombian Trade Minister Luis Plata. The two hatched the idea one night in Bogotá when Plata and his wife took Brison out for dinner and dancing, Toronto's Globe and Mail reported.

After Brison suggested the idea, the two politicians fashioned the details of the amendment over the next few months. Brison then presented the draft agreement to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January.

With Uribe's support, the amendment was approved by Canadian Trade Minister Peter Van Loan on 24 March.

Under the amendment, each country would have to make annual reports to their parliaments on how the agreement impacts human rights. Civil society groups could then use the information as the basis for further assessments and advocacy, proponents say.

"The Liberal amendment makes this the first trade deal in the world that requires ongoing human rights impact assessments," said Brison. "We've set a new gold standard for human rights reporting in free trade agreements."

The amendment will "ensure that on an ongoing basis, we never let the issue of human rights engagement disappear," Brison declared.

Plata has acknowledged that Colombia comes "from a very, very violent past," but he has also emphasised recent improvements in his country's situation, noting that Colombia's crime rate is now lower than that of Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and even Washington, DC.

Plata made an impassioned call for the Canadian Parliament to pass the US$ 1.28 billion trade deal, averring that it could help reduce violence in Colombia.

"Violence stems obviously from lack of opportunity and poverty," Plata said. "So the way we see these trade agreements is that we are not asking Canada for aid or help. We are asking for opportunities for business and trade. And we believe the more trade we have...That's the way we create jobs...and that's the way to really fight the violence."

The trade deal was inked in the fall of 2008 and has been slowly making its way through the Canadian Parliament ever since. With the addition of the Liberal announcement, the government now has enough votes to pass the trade agreement. It will likely land in the Commons trade committee within the next two weeks, and a final vote is expected this spring.

Other opposition parties in Canada are less than happy about the trade deal, even with Brison's amendment. "The problem all along has been the Colombian government's complete lack of ability to deal with these major human rights violations with its connected paramilitaries and its own military arm," said New Democratic Party Trade Critic Peter Julian.

However, the announcement of the amendment has been welcomed by Colombian human rights groups and trade unions.

Passage of the Canada-Colombia deal could put pressure on the United States to implement its own FTA with Colombia. A bilateral pact was signed in 2006 but has yet to be ratified, largely due to US lawmakers' concerns over the Andean nation's record on workers' rights.

ICTSD reporting; "Dancing, dining, free-trade deal making," THE GLOBE AND MAIL, 26 March 2010; "Change to Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Sets ‘Gold Standard' for Human Rights Reporting," LIBERAL PARTY OF CANADA, 25 March 2010; "Proposed Colombia trade pact amended," BILATERALS.ORG, 25 March 2010.

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