The Canadian government’s third human rights report on its controversial free trade agreement with Colombia, tabled May 16, reads like a marketing brochure for neoliberal economics. 

Once again, the annual human rights impact assessment (HRIA) on the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCOFTA) does little to meet its obligation to analyze the effects of Canadian investment on human rights in Colombia. Instead, the report extols the virtues of pro-market, tariff-reducing free trade policies, with a window dressing of corporate social responsibility.

The CCOFTA came into force in 2011 with the goal of providing new market opportunities to Canadian corporations. (One such opportunity arose after the Canadian government eased its ban on exporting assault-style weapons to Colombia, one of the world’s most violent countries.) The agreement’s human rights component was an afterthought, included only after intense opposition from labour and social justice groups in Canada and Colombia. The solution, developed by then Liberal trade critic Scott Brison over a steak dinner with his Colombian counterpart, was to throw in a human rights assessment without any due diligence or prior baseline study as recommended by world experts.

Nonexistent consultation

Lack of genuine civil society consultation has plagued the HRIA process since its inception, and this year was no exception. A call on a government website for public submissions, posted without prior notice for a mere six days, was the extent of civil society “consultation” in Canada for the 2013 report. Not surprisingly, only two submissions were received.

Both public submissions raised concerns over ongoing assassinations of labour activists, confrontations over resource extraction (oil and mining), and agricultural controversies. They also highlighted opposition to the CCOFTA and other trade agreements by “labour unions, Afro-Colombian groups, campesino farmers and traditional artisanal miners.” But instead of seriously addressing those concerns, the Canadian government’s response was to dismiss them as unlinked to the CCOFTA.


Extraction industry violates rights             

The Canadian mining industry has engendered tremendous opposition among Colombian communities and environmental activists, who accuse Canadian corporations of violating human and labour rights, causing environmental degradation and displacing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. The CCOFTA has given Canadian corporations greater access to Colombia’s natural resources: more than half of extractive companies in Colombia, operating in oil, gas and mining sectors, are understood to be Canadian-based.

In July 2013, death threats were sent to Héctor Sánchez  a community leader and member of the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) in Puerto Gaitán, where Canadian multinational Pacific Rubiales Energy operates oilfields in conjunction with the Colombian state enterprise Ecopetrol SA. USO alleges that Pacific Rubiales is breaching basic workers’ rights, including the right to strike, to free expression, and to associate with unions. Violence and threats against union members became so rampant that USO was forced to close its Puerto Gaitán office until recently.

Last year strikers took to the streets to oppose Resolution 341 of the Agencia Nacional de Minería, implemented in 2013. The resolution grants special status to mining contracts deemed of “national interest” and allows the government to override environmental regulations. This could adversely affect parks and lands that had been protected from mining intrusions.

This watering down of Colombian environmental protections to expedite mining projects, and violations of labour rights associated with Canadian extractive industry, were not mentioned in the Harper government’s HRIA report.

Attacks on labour continue

The CCOFTA’s human rights assessment and its labour side agreement have done little to protect Colombian workers’ rights and resolve the continuing violence against organized labour. The Escuela Nacional Sindical, Colombia’s trade union school, recently reported that anti-union violence rose again in 2013, with 26 union members killed, 13 homicide attempts, and 149 threats against trade unionists.

Trade unionists across Colombia are under constant threat of violence or even assassination. Fernando Flórez Viveros, president of the Expreso Palmira trade union, was murdered in September 2013. Luis Miguel Morantes, president of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia, of one of the country’s largest trade unions, narrowly escaped assassination in February 2013 — after leaving a meeting with government representatives regarding the dismissal of over 400 public workers in Cali.

From its “consultation” with Colombian civil society, the HRIA report mentions that Colombian labour organizations expressed concerns that the CCOFTA was contributing to the problems of “informal work, outsourcing, low salaries and the difficulty to unionize.” Again it’s alarming to see the concerns of affected parties dismissed, effectively shutting down the voices of civil society from the process.

Colombian civil society ignored

Social opposition continues to grow in Colombia against trade-related issues like mining resolution 341 or agricultural law 9.70, which requires farmers to use only certified seeds made by multinational corporations like Monsanto. Colombia saw more protests in 2013 than in the previous 39 years.

“The FTA with Canada, as with others we have subscribed to, practically closes legally and internationally any possibility of changing the development model that has been imposed by violence and that deepens inequality in Colombia.”
— Hector Moncayo, Colombian economist with Instituto Latinoamericano para una sociedad y un derecho alternativos (ILSA)

Canada’s HRIA report for 2013 does verbal gymnastics to focus narrowly and avoid finding any links between the CCOFTA and human rights violations. However, non-government organizations in Colombia reported over a thousand cases of human rights violations that year, including “extra-judicial killings, torture, displacement of local populations, arbitrary imprisonment and social cleansing.”

These problems have plagued Colombia for decades and cannot be solely attributed to one deal, but it is safe to say that the CCOFTA is exacerbating them. The main finding of the HRIA report for 2013 is that concerns raised by civil society are largely irrelevant. It does little to address the CCOFTA’s serious human, labour or environmental impacts on Colombians, and serves mainly to justify the corporate free trade agenda of the Harper government.

If the Canadian government wants to bring any legitimacy to the annual HRIA report, it must demonstrate a true willingness to engage civil society in both Canada and Colombia. And Colombia’s watering down of environmental protections and violations of labour rights associated with Canadian extractive industry must not be ignored — they must be an essential component of any future HRIA reporting.

For more information:

Raul Burbano Program Director, Common Frontiers: (416) 522 8615 or burbano[at]