The human rights situation in Colombia is improving or it isn’t. There may be many ways to skin a cat, but the answer to this question is limited to the realm of yes or no. And as it pertains to pending free trade agreements, this duality is as clear as mud.
While Representatives and Senators continue to send letters to U.S. President Barack Obama urging him to move forward with the stalled United States-Colombia agreement, NGOs make the opposite case, and the specter of midterm elections ensures nothing but token promises to conclude it can be expected in the short term. In Canada, however, things are a little different.
To understand the status of Bill C-2, “An Act to implement a free trade agreement between Canada and the Republic of Colombia,” it helps to understand the dynamics of Canadian politics. The Canadian House of Commons is shared by four political parties: the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois. The first two are the only two that have ever governed the country and are generally compared—fairly or unfairly—to their Republican and Democratic counterparts in the United States. The other two major parties— the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, share a socialist ideology and similar opinions on almost everything aside from independence for Quebec. So when it comes to liberalized trade, the divide is fairly predictable—but in the partisan zero-sum game of politics, it can never be that simple.
As it stands, the Conservatives form a minority government, which means they have no choice but to try and get along with the opposition parties. With the clear ideological divide on Bill C-2, this means getting friendly with the biggest threat to their power. Aside from the filibustering of the opposition seen thus far, the combined forces of the two parties should mitigate dilatory tactics and expedite its passage—but how did they manage to agree? The supposed panacea is an amendment to the Bill by liberal trade critic Scott Brison.
The amendment is a requirement for annual human rights assessments, an idea he discussed with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and previous to that with Brison’s good friend, Colombian Minister of International Trade, Luis Guillermo Plata. But can the Colombian government be trusted to perform an honest self-evaluation? According to Peter Julian, NDP member of the Standing Committee on International Trade, the idea is preposterous. At the May 4th meeting of the Committee, Julian made that clear: “we are supposed to accept the idea that an amendment where the Colombian government reports on itself, and the Canadian government rubber stamps it, as being somewhat significant in some way.”
The Committee continued this week with a witness from Project Accompaniment and Solidarity Colombia (PASC), an organization desperately opposed to the agreement on the grounds of the forced displacement of indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians through the collusion of the Uribe government and paramilitary groups. In addition, the Canadian Union of Public Employees is urging a “tweet-in-for-Colombia to stop the Conservatives and Liberals who are trying to rush through a harmful free trade agreement with Colombia without properly assessing its potential impact on human rights, workers and the environment.”
So who is right? Minister Plata, who told the Committee on May 4 that despite the issues that remain in Colombia, he is “pleased to report” what’s being done, what’s being improved—or NGOs such as PASC that maintain “nothing has changed in Colombia.”
The numbers suggest the argument is over, and it very well may be. But as of yet, there is no clear verdict in the court of Canadian public opinion, and that may the last chance for those who argue there is more at stake than an increase in two-way merchandise trade that totaled an estimated $1.3 billion in 2008.