On October 1, 2014, Canada legally implemented a Free Trade Agreement with Honduras.
The Conservative government was joined in the House of Commons by the Liberal Party in supporting this measure. The NDP was the only official party in Parliament to oppose it.
In keeping with our long-standing approach, New Democrats oppose signing trade agreements with countries who commit widespread human rights abuses, practice anti-democratic behaviour and foster political violence. We believe that nations who do so should not be rewarded with preferential economic benefits. Rather, they should be required to demonstrate a commitment to meet international norms and make progress toward them as a pre-condition to receiving such advantages.
An examination of the facts about Honduras reveals a disturbing failure in this regard.
In June 2009, the democratically elected government of reformist president Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup. Months later, following violent repression of peaceful demonstrations, a snap election was called while the ousted president remained under house arrest. This election was almost universally regarded as illegitimate.
Since then, a dirty war has claimed the lives of over 100 members of opposition parties and trade unionists, and dozens of Indigenous community leaders and human rights defenders. There has been an average of ten massacres per month and paramilitary squads are permitted to operate freely.
Extra-judicial killings of peasants, faced with eviction by landowners, have led to death counts of over 200 men, women and children. Some 90 LGBTQ and women’s rights activists have been murdered.
According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, kidnappings, death threats, armed attacks and physical intimidation perpetrated against members of the media, human rights activists and opposition groups are commonplace.
General impunity rates hover above 95 per cent as the police and prosecutors decline to investigate or lay charges, and political interference in the judiciary is recurrent. Over 75 lawyers have been killed in Honduras since 2010.
The 2014 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, ranked Honduras 129th in the world, below South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Ukraine under former President Yanukovych. In their 2013 report, they said “the status quo imposed by the June 2009 coup remains unchanged. There has never been any let-up in the persecutions of opposition media and community radio stations.”
Honduras is now considered to be the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 79 per cent of all cocaine shipments originating in South America land in Honduras. Transparency International ranks Honduras as the most corrupt country in Central America, with known linkages between ruling party officials, the police and traffickers. Trade agreements that facilitate the free flow of goods and capital also facilitate money-laundering and wider transmission of illegal drugs.
Honduras is a country with rock-bottom labour and environmental standards as well as Latin America’s highest level of inequality. Extreme poverty rates — already high — rose in the years following the coup, and wealth concentration continues to grow at the top.
Although there has been an election since the coup, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Honduras has fallen from its 2008 designation as a “flawed democracy” to now being considered a “hybrid regime.”
Conservatives and Liberals cannot say that they were unaware of these facts before they voted to implement the Honduras agreement. In an effort to expose the conditions in Honduras to Parliament, the NDP called witnesses to testify to these issues before the House of Commons International Trade Committee.
Honduran human rights defender and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Bertha Oliva described her first-hand experience with the campaign of political repression underway in Honduras:
I would like to tell you about the internal displacement of communities due to the reigning state of terror. Since the elections there have been murders among the political dissident community. What we are talking about is not linked to organized crime or drug trafficking. It really has to do with human rights violations generated by state authorities against political dissidents…
PEN Canada testified before committee about the atrocities committed against journalists in Honduras.
Journalists are targeted for their work and freedom of expression in Honduras has suffered serious restrictions since the ouster of President Zelaya in June 2009. Journalists are threatened, they’re harassed, attacked, and murdered with near impunity, and sometimes in circumstances that strongly suggest the involvement of state agents.
MPs heard from economists and specialists in Latin American politics about the elite-dominated economy and the growing poverty among the vast majority of Hondurans since the coup.
Dr. Ricardo Grinspun, Professor of Economics from York University and former Director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, said that “Honduras is now the country with the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America. Two years after the 2009 coup, 100 per cent of all real income gains went to the wealthiest ten per cent of Hondurans, and the per capita income of the other 90 per cent went down, despite economic growth.”
Pablo Heidrich, Senior Researcher & Economist at the North-South Institute, put it bluntly: “I don’t find signing an FTA at this point to be an effective way of engaging with Honduras if the purpose is to bring development, security and stability to Honduras.”
In terms of significant, strategic value to Canada, there is none to be found here. Honduras is Canada’s 104th export market and 2012 merchandise exports totaled a meagre $38 million.
With the passage of the Canada-Honduras trade agreement, the Conservatives (and Liberals) chose to provide diplomatic and economic backing to an undemocratic regime that commits, or tolerates, wide-spread human rights abuses, political repression, corruption, narco-trafficking and massive inequality.
New Democrats believe that the protection of human rights, social advancement and the promotion of democracy must be key criteria in Canadian trade policy.
It is a stain on Canada’s international reputation to see these values so blatantly ignored in the Canada-Honduras trade agreement.
Don Davies is the NDP Official Opposition Critic for International Trade.
Photo: media coop