Free Trade and Human Rights in Colombia – One Year Later

Over the summer we will occasionally be re-posting material fromMCC colleagues and partner organizations. This is from the MCC Latin America Advocacy Blog

Do free trade agreements have an impact on human rights? Canadian and Colombian NGOs are challenging their governments to examine the reality behind the claims that free trade automatically improves human rights conditions. MCC Colombia Policy Analyst, Rebekah Sears reflects on this.

Rice threshed by hand in rural Colombia. Photo by Rebekah Sears

Last August (2011) Colombia officially entered into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Canada(see previous blog). FTAs are strong relationships, giving each country easier access to trade and to the other’s resources and economic interests. But these agreements usually extend beyond pure economics. They stress the importance of mutual accountability and support on areas such as poverty reduction and human rights. This was the case with the Canada-Colombia FTA as well.

Prime Minister Harper: FTAs Spread Democracy and Promote Human Rights

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially announced the Canada-Colombia FTA last August he claimed that in addition to boosting the economic and trade sectors in both countries, such an agreement would also promote good human rights practices.

“Colombia is a key regional partner with Canada in important objectives – spreading democracy, promoting human rights and improving hemispheric security.”[i]

Within the FTA, the Government of Canada has agreed to conduct an annual human rights impact assessment. This is supposed to include the status of human rights within contexts where Canadian companies are working, noting the impact of these companies and actions. This report is due in May every year.

Inadequate Canadian Government Report

But this year, several opposition MPs and human rights and development organizations were thoroughly disappointed with the quality and content (or lack thereof) in the human rights report tabled in May 2012. The Government claimed that since a full year had not passed since the implementation of the Canada-Colombia FTA that there was insufficient information for a full report (another blog about this).

In the Parliamentary Committee on International Trade, NDP and Liberal trade critics, Don Davies and Wayne Easter respectively, claimed that the Government was backing away from obligations for an annual report, and that the fact that a full year has not passed was no excuse.

The human rights and development organizations who testified at the committee had similar reactions. Alex Neve, Director of Amnesty International Canada argued that since the UN requires human rights impact assessments before the implementation of FTAs, as well as after, that there was more than enough time to submit a full report.

Panning for gold. International gold mining companies are displacing artisan mining in Colombia. Photo by Rebekah Sears

NGOs publish Alternative Human Rights Assessment

So, in response the NGOs decided to take action and matters into their own hands. Recently this coalition of human rights NGOs published a shadow report. The 155 page report is identified as the beginning of such an assessment, recognizing that there is still a lot of work to do on gaining a full assessment. The methodology, for example, at this point looks mainly to qualitative interviews and assessments. But as a reaction to the insufficient report tabled by the Government only a couple months ago, it is a good start. Plus the work is not done.

The report focuses on the situation concerning labour and union prospects, as well as case studies where Canadian mining and other companies are working within or near communities. The preliminary results are worrying to say the least. They note the insufficiencies of human rights monitoring systems, both on part of the Colombian Government and the Canadian Government’s lack of initiative, plus the potential dangers for several communities in close proximity to Canadian mining projects.

More assessments are needed, but this shadow report by the coalition of NGOs is a positive step in terms of promoting and protecting the human rights elements of the Colombia-Canada FTA when the Government of Canada remains silent.


[i] Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, “Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada in Bogotá, Colombia,” News Release, Prime Minister’s Office (August 10m 2011).

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