The Price of Business as Usual

Published: August 21, 2011

In Canada’s free-trade agreement with Colombia, business and profit trump human rights.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper loves the way the government of Colombia operates. Defending the Colombia-Canada free-trade agreement that was passed in 2009 with the support of the Liberals, he ludicrously claims that concerns about human rights in that country are merely protectionism in disguise.

Harper’s dark vision of governance needs to be more widely acknowledged by Canadians.

If murdering trade unionists and human-rights activists, and driving the poor off their land by the millions to make way for “development,” is your thing, then by all means keep supporting Harper. Or, if you’re a Liberal, throw your full support behind interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and the morally reprehensible Liberal MP Scott Brison, who seem to have no difficulty with this sort of thing either.

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If you happen to support human rights, however – and most Canadians are decent folk who do – maybe it’s time to take a stand. Here are some inconvenient truths:
From 1987-2008, more than 2,500 unionists were assassinated in Colombia. In fact, more union activists are killed each year in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. These murders usually go unpunished. And they are continuing to this day.

The country is crawling with paramilitary groups, often working in concert with government forces to suppress the indigenous population, eliminate human-rights defenders, and murder trade-union leaders.

Between three and five million people, mostly from indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant farmer communities, have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

The new government of Colombia, with an eye to international public relations, recently passed a law supposedly permitting people to reclaim their land. But Amnesty International (AI) has exposed it as an essentially toothless piece of legislation, unlikely to reverse the massive dispossession of Colombia’s poorest citizens.

A health crisis is looming in Colombia due to the gold industry’s growth. Read about it here.

Meanwhile, what AI describes as a full-blown “human-rights crisis” in Colombia continues. Here are some examples of what has been happening over the past few months alone:

August 9, 2011: Two Afro-descendent members of a community council in Caracolí, northwest Colombia, were “disappeared” by paramilitaries.

June 19, 2011: Ten NGOs based in Bogotá, and 18 individuals, many belonging to women’s NGOs, were threatened with death by a paramilitary group for “opposing the policies of our government.”

May, 2011: Paramilitaries threatened Afro-descendent and indigenous communities in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó River Basins in northwest Colombia. They have abused women in the area and, in one case attempted to seize a child. The Colombian army, which operates in the area, has deliberately turned a blind eye, and has refused to offer protection to the communities when asked.

In spite of these shocking reports, Global News reports that, when asked what he thinks of critics of the free-trade agreement who cite human-rights concerns as a reason for not wanting to make a deal with Colombia, Canada’s leader had this to say:

We can’t block the progress of a country like this for protectionist reasons, and you [are] trying to use human rights as a front for doing that.”

He’s wrong.

The purpose of a free-trade agreement with Colombia is all business and profit. And nothing spells “profit” like a docile, non-union labour force.

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Global News also reports that Chris Spaulding, Talisman’s Colombia manager, thinks things are improving:

The general trend is that the security situation is significantly improved here.

For years and years and years, the industry knew there were significant resources here, but couldn’t get in to explore, develop, produce because of security problems.

Security issues now are significantly better. The industry can get in, start to progress the projects.

Talisman, a multinational oil company, knows all about “security,” of course, and there’s already a sizeable body count to prove it.

The Colombian government and its paramilitaries, not to put too fine a point upon it, are continuing the bloody traditions of past regimes. Their activities are so abhorrent that even the U.S. Congress can’t bring itself to agree to a free-trade treaty with it, although U.S. President Barack Obama is hoping to ram a bill through later this year.

But for Harper (and his Liberal allies), “Colombia is a wonderful country with great possibilities and great ambition, and we need to be encouraging that every step of the way.”

“Security” will see to that, of course – or, put more plainly, many more dead and tortured bodies. Just the price of “business as usual.”