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Down with human rights! The Harper government's peculiar objection to European trade deal

| November 22, 2012
Down with human rights! The Harper government's peculiar objection to European trade deal

Strasbourg – The Harper government is throwing the most unusual roadblock in front of its prized Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

During meetings with members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg Tuesday, Blair Redlin (CUPE) and I learned that our government objects to language proposed by the EU in a Framework Agreement parallel to the CETA on the importance of respecting fundamental human rights. This issue is so vital for the EU that Harper's absurd opposition presents yet another threat to the CETA negotiations.

The EU typically signs political framework agreements with all its free trade partners, and EU officials would like to sign such an agreement with Canada at the same time they sign CETA. These frameworks can include security, development, environmental or other issues where the two parties agree to cooperate.

The language on human rights in the Canada-EU framework is apparently very similar to the EU deal with Colombia and Peru, which allows either party to revoke any trade and investment benefits in the event of a serious breach of human rights by the other party. Canada objects to the idea that CETA, an economic agreement, could be suspended for violations of the political framework agreement.

The first article of the EU-Colombia/Peru agreement states:

Respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for the principle of the rule of law, underpins the internal and international policies of the Parties. Respect for these principles constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.

Article 8.3 of the treaty says:

Without prejudice to the existing mechanisms for political dialogue between the Parties, any Party may immediately adopt appropriate measures in accordance with international law in case of violation by another Party of the essential elements referred to in Articles 1 and 2 of this Agreement. The latter Party may ask for an urgent meeting to be called to bring the Parties concerned together within 15 days for a thorough examination of the situation with a view to seeking an acceptable solution. The measures will be proportional to the violation. Priority will be given to those which least disturb the functioning of this Agreement. These measures shall be revoked as soon as the reasons for their adoption have ceased to exist.

 EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht explained in a speech in May that "If a government violates this essential element (Article 1), the European Union, Colombia or Peru would be able to immediately suspend the benefits of the agreement to that government's country."

Why does the Harper government object to this? We were told today that Canadian officials feel that it treads unnecessarily on Canada's sovereignty. But sovereignty to do what if not violate human rights? How else do you interpret this position?

It's unfathomable that of all the ways your typical trade agreement reduces governmental or democratic sovereignty over economic decisions, our Prime Minister is most worried about agreeing that upsetting internationally accepted human rights should have consequences.

Take the Canada-China Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA) for example. It will permanently compromise–as NAFTA does and the EU-Canada investment treaty may one day also–Canada’s ability to manage its resources and energy in more sustainable ways. It does this by granting foreign firms (and even Canadian firms posing as foreign firms) the right to claim that their future profits have been indirectly expropriated by environmental measures, as Lone Pine is claiming in a recent Quebec NAFTA dispute over Quebec's moratorium on fracking.

Investor challenges under NAFTA to Canadian environmental measures (ex. a decision to deny permission to dig a quarry) are all too common. Increasingly, mining companies or their financial backers are using investor-state dispute settlement globally to extort governments for hundreds of millions of dollars when approvals don’t come through, or public opposition shuts down mine or other major infrastructure project.

Some of the European parliamentarians that Blair and I met today, as part of another Trade Justice Network delegation to Europe to discuss persistent concerns with the CETA negotiations, agreed that the the Canada-EU deal should probably not include these excessive corporate privileges. They can see that they are an unnecessary and costly burden on what most of us understand to be a positive aspect of state sovereignty -- the ability to put effective safeguards on corporate activity.

Unfortunately, the European Commission and Canadian CETA negotiators don't seem to mind dismantling barriers to the public good along with barriers to trade. It fits well with Harper's definition of "enlightened" sovereignty, which is supposed to be about creating a world where "we act together for the good of all…. The world we want for our children and grandchildren" (but which is really about avoiding global regulation of financial transactions).

It also fits with news today that Harper's foreign policy will focus almost entirely on trade benefits to Canada and prioritize economic over other types of engagement with foreign governments. A leaked policy paper says, "To succeed we will need to pursue political relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align."

Down with Kyoto! Down with banking regulations! Down with the UN Declaration on Human Rights! Are these the areas where Canadian and European values do not align? European policy makers we have met so far this week are confused. In this last instance, Harper's puzzling position on human rights is creating real problems for the CETA negotiations. Of all the reasons the deal could fall apart, how embarrassing if this was the one.

 

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Comments

On Jan. 11, 1999, while he was on leave from formal politics and running the National Citizen's Coalition, Stephen Harper told the rightwing BC Report newsmagazine that: "Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society... It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff."—rabble.ca, “Harper's hitlist: Human rights taken out of commission,” Murray Dobbin, April 14, 2010

Harper's hatred of human rights is a "known known."

 

Quote:
It's unfathomable that of all the ways your typical trade agreement reduces governmental or democratic sovereignty over economic decisions, our Prime Minister is most worried about agreeing that upsetting internationally accepted human rights should have consequences.

Worth quoting!

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ETA: Thanks to Rolf Auer for reminding us of Murray Dobbin's column. Here's a link to it. 

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