Evidence of meeting #42 for International Trade in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was colombia.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Kerry Buck  Political Director and Assistant Deputy Minister, International Security, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean Branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Jean-Benoît Leblanc  Director, Trade Policy and Negotiations Division I, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Alex Neve  Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada, Amnesty International
  • Hassan Yussuff  Secretary-Treasurer, Canadian Labour Congress

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Holder London West, ON

How do you measure that?

12:10 p.m.

Political Director and Assistant Deputy Minister, International Security, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean Branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Kerry Buck

You measure the legislative framework. You see it in the UN reports too. You see it in our reports for consultations. You look at important pieces of legislation, for instance, land restitution. You look at all the institutions of governance. Are the judges implementing the law? Is there respect for the rule of law? When police are prosecuting and arresting people, are they respecting human rights norms? Is there training for police as they move forward?

Of course, there are human rights challenges in Colombia. We recognize it, they recognize that others, and the monitors who watch the situation recognize it, but there's really important progress, and that's what we're hearing. That's the high-level message.

Then we get into some really detailed conversations in our bilateral conversations and consultations with them. What can we do to help you better build community policing, for instance, consistent with human rights? What can we do to help your judges better understand Colombia's human rights norms and obligations?

So it's a pretty intense dialogue and it covers the waterfront. I would add our political dialogue and our security consultations too, in which we talk about human rights all the way through. Throughout the course of a year we'll be speaking to Colombia about human rights many times, at many levels.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Holder London West, ON

Thanks very much.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much for coming in and sharing that with us. We look forward to next year's report. You can see the interest around the table.

With that, we will suspend as we set up the next group of panellists. We will not take very long on this. We'll move forward very quickly with the next round.

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rob Merrifield

We'll call the meeting to order. We have with us, from Amnesty International, Alex Neve, and from the Canadian Labour Congress, Mr. Yussuff.

We will start with Mr. Neve.

The floor is yours, sir.

12:15 p.m.

Alex Neve Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada, Amnesty International

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. Good afternoon, and good afternoon, committee members. Thank you for the opportunity to be here.

Let me begin by succinctly capturing what Amnesty International's overarching message will be. It is a message about the crucial importance of due diligence and accountability with regard to Canada's human rights obligations, particularly with regard to the duty to ensure that Canada's economic and investment activities do not in any way contribute to human rights violations.

Amnesty International testified before this very committee, on numerous occasions, in fact, before the signing and implementation of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. We argued then that given the particular context of widespread human rights violations in Colombia, many of them linked to the appropriation of areas of economic interest, it was imperative that the free trade agreement not go through without first having an independent, impartial human rights impact assessment conducted to identify any negative impacts and to provide an opportunity to address them before proceeding.

This recommendation was, of course, echoed by a report from this very committee in 2008. But the government did not follow that recommendation. Instead, implementing legislation for the agreement was passed by Parliament, which included an amendment calling for an annual report on human rights impacts to be prepared by both governments, the Government of Canada and the Government of Colombia. As you all know, the first such report by the Government of Canada was tabled on May 15, as required by law.

Amnesty International is deeply disappointed by the nature of the report that was tabled, as well as by the lack of transparency with respect to the process leading up to the preparation of the report. On repeated occasions, Amnesty International and many other civil society groups that have an interest in following and contributing to this requested information from government officials about the process by which the report was being prepared, the standards and framework being used for the report, and what opportunities there would be to provide input. We never received any information. Thus, regrettably, we were unable to make any contribution or participate in the process of preparing that report.

The report that has been submitted does not provide any analysis of the human rights impacts of the Canadian promotion of trade and investment in this war-torn country. It indicates that it is the government's view that sufficient trade data is not available. Instead, the document provides only a cursory outline of steps the government plans to follow to prepare future reports, with a promise that the first substantive report will be completed a year from now, in 2013.

Minister Fast has stated that since the agreement has only been in force as of August 2011, there is not enough available data to do a comprehensive analysis.

Committee members, what I want to share with you is that in our view, that position is not in keeping with emerging international norms. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended back in a 2004 report to the UN Commission on Human Rights that “States...should undertake human rights impact assessments of trade and development rules, policies and projects, both during the process of policy and project formulation as well as after a period of implementation”.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food issued the “Guiding Principles on Human Rights Impact Assessments of Trade and Investment Agreements” in December 2011. And those guidelines provide that, “[a]ll States should prepare human rights impact assessments prior to the conclusion of trade and investment agreements”.

You see that UN experts call for human rights impact assessments of trade agreements not only after they've come into effect but also before they've come into force. As such, in our view, the assertion that a few months into an agreement is too early, simply cannot be sustained.

The failure to carry out a full impact assessment at this early initial stage contravenes Canada's responsibilities for due diligence under international law and, importantly, denies Canadian corporations working in Colombia the information they need to avoid implicating themselves in the possibility of grave human rights violations.

There is no shortage of information about the human rights situation in Colombia, as relevant to the promotion of increased Canadian trade and investment. Certainly the situation remains dire. More than 259,000 people were driven from their homes and lands in 2011 alone because of violence associated with political and economic interests. In fact, Colombia has now surpassed Sudan as the country with the highest rate of internal displacement in the world, with the total number of internally displaced people now estimated at between 3.9 million and 5.3 million.

Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities, as well as trade unionists and those who question economic megaprojects, continue to face deadly attacks. The crisis facing indigenous peoples, many of whom live in areas of economic interest, is particularly alarming. Colombia's Constitutional Court has identified 34 indigenous nations that are in grave danger of extinction, amidst armed conflict that has often been used as a cover for appropriation of their resource-rich lands.

In Colombia, human rights abuses have long been committed as a means of forcibly removing civilian communities from areas of economic interest. Much of the land targeted for intensive development, such as plantations, mines, and oil and gas development, is land that is inhabited by indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Forced displacement has particularly tragic consequences for these communities, since their close relationship to the land is not only the foundation of their cultures and way of life but is also essential to fulfilling their rights to subsistence.

Killings and threats have often taken place as part of efforts to weaken the resolve and capacity of indigenous communities to oppose economic projects. In this context consultation exercises have been conducted that fall short of the rights of indigenous peoples to free, prior, and informed consent as enshrined in international law. In many cases, mining licences have been issued before the initiation or completion of any genuine consultation with indigenous or Afro-descendant communities, and without their consent.

What do we want to see now? What are Amnesty International's recommendations, given where things stand?

I'd like to make a few comments with respect to two particular dimensions. The first is the preparation of the 2013 report, but the second is some recommendations on action that needs to be taken now.

With respect to the 2013 report, Amnesty International believes it is imperative that Canada evaluates not only the direct impact of the agreement, but also the human rights climate in which the two governments are promoting trade and in which Canadian companies are making investment decisions. What is needed for the Canadian public, but certainly for Canadian companies and others contemplating trade and investment in Colombia, is an accurate analysis of that climate such that decisions can be made to avoid contributing to abuses.

There will be other witnesses who appear before you who will have much to say about the methodology for impact assessment reports. I'd simply return to some of the important work done by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in the guidelines that have been submitted to the UN Human Rights Council. Those guidelines recommend that in order to be credible and effective, the assessment should be guided by a human rights-based approach that observes the following conditions: independence, transparency, inclusive participation—including by the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population and women—as well as expertise and funding.

Therefore, it's crucial that indigenous and Afro-descendant organizations, as well as organizations involved in attempts to regain stolen land, trade union organizations, and women's organizations, all have the opportunity for meaningful participation.

Obviously May 2013 is a year away. Canada needs to be cognizant that there are pressing human rights concerns that need attention now and cannot wait a full year for action and an opportunity to address them.

Finally, we'd very much highlight that even now it is crucial that Canada demand, forcefully and consistently, that the Colombian government take decisive action to devise and implement a plan to guarantee the protection and rights of indigenous peoples at risk, in compliance with rulings of Colombian's own Constitutional Court and UN recommendations.

Canada must also ensure that the conditions for true, free, prior, and informed consent exist for indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, and should ensure that our policies towards Columbia are in line with such crucial international standards as the International Labour Organization Convention 169, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Lastly, it's very important to flag that millions of hectares of lands have been appropriated, stolen mostly by paramilitaries over many years but also by insurgents and armed opposition groups, as a result of grave human rights abuses in Columbia. It is imperative that Canada ensure that its policies, Canadian funding assistance, and investments do not contribute in any way to the process of de facto legalization of stolen lands, and that Canada builds safeguards to guarantee that Canadian companies are not benefiting from this situation, deriving profits from lands that were misappropriated through human rights abuses.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much for that.

Now we go to Mr. Yussuff with the Canadian Labour Congress.

The floor is yours.

12:25 p.m.

Hassan Yussuff Secretary-Treasurer, Canadian Labour Congress

Thank you very much. I want to thank the committee for the opportunity to appear before you here today to discuss the annual report on human rights and free trade between Canada and the Republic of Columbia. We think this is an important issue that we are discussing here. We care about workers in Colombia and we work very closely with our counterparts in Colombia.

Colombia was rewarded with a free trade agreement with Canada in 2011. The situation was grave before, and we need to know whether or not the situation has improved.

The report that has been tabled to Parliament, unfortunately, is inadequate for a meaningful discussion of whether or not Colombia is enforcing its own labour laws and, of course, whether or not it is protecting human rights within its country.

Is Colombia refusing to enforce its labour laws to encourage trade or investment, or not? How do we know?

Since it has signed this agreement, has Colombia upheld its international obligations on freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, forced labour, child labour, discrimination, conditions of work, and migrant workers? This report is unable to tell us any of this.

Here is a specific example. What is deeply troubling about this report is it that contains absolutely no data on the human rights violations in either country. Yesterday, the International Confederation of Trade Unions issued a report. Colombia is still the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. There were twenty-nine murders of trade unionists in 2011, and most remain unsolved. There have been 17 murders of trade unionists in Colombia since the free trade agreement with Canada came into force. There have been 254 human rights violations against trade unionists since that date. In 2011, the ILO sent a mission to Colombia to make specific recommendations, many of which are still to be implemented.

Our colleagues tell us that in spite of some of the new legislation requiring some labour inspections, most companies that hire their workers through temporary services companies still violate labour rights.

A labour ministry has been created, and I will say that's a positive thing, but there are serious problems with the administration and legal protection system for workers, including an unbelievable backlog facing labour inspectors.

The ITUC report shows that there is severe anti-union discrimination and criminalization of strikes. One example is the Campo Rubiales oil fields' case, where there was a strike by subcontracted workers facing terrible conditions. There workers are employed by the Canadian multinational company Pacific Rubiales. We know these workers face appalling working conditions. Workers faced brutal police repression during the strike in July. Even before the Canada-Columbia Free Trade Agreement went into force, their labour rights were not being respected. They continued to face serious health and safety issues. On September 18, 2011, their second strike was joined by 11,000 workers from 16 companies.

My point is that labour rights are human rights. It is impossible to separate labour rights from human rights, and the labour cooperation agreement is an integral part of the FTA. How does the government intend to measure human rights in an effective and meaningful way?

In conclusion, the government must incorporate a role for civil society in the evaluation process, especially representatives of Colombian workers. We need accountability and evidence-based discussion of these serious issues. To date I think we have had none of this in the report that's been filed before Parliament.

Thank you so much.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rob Merrifield

Thank you both for those presentations.

We'll now move to Mr. Davies for the questions, then answers. The floor is yours. You have seven minutes.

12:30 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you to both witnesses for being here today and for your ongoing work in the human rights field, not only in Canada but around the world.

Mr. Neve, has Amnesty International regularly forwarded reports on its human rights monitoring, including concerns associated with Canadian trade and investment, to the Department of Foreign Affairs or to the embassy in Columbia?

12:30 p.m.

Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada, Amnesty International

Alex Neve

We have regular contact both with the embassy in Bogota and officials here. And we certainly make sure that any time Amnesty International has a new report or press release or an urgent action, it is brought to the attention of government officials. We've not been in a position, we simply don't have the resources or capacity or presence in Colombia, to have been able during this time to do our own on-the-ground research with respect to Canadian companies themselves.

Nothing in my remarks today has been to point to any particular indication of a decision made by this or that Canadian company as to an investment or operations in Colombia and the human rights violations that flowed from that. What we're talking about is the wider context, a clearly well-documented and established wider context of human rights violations that are very often associated with economic related issues.

12:30 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies Vancouver Kingsway, BC

As one of the premier human rights organizations in the country, were you consulted at all by DFAIT on the preparation of this first report? Was there any contact made with your organization?

12:30 p.m.

Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada, Amnesty International

Alex Neve

We were not, and as I said in my remarks, we actually asked for the information several times. What is the process? How can we make contributions? How can we tell front-line grassroots organizations with which we have relationships within Colombia how they can participate and contribute? None of that was forthcoming.

June 7th, 2012 / 12:30 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies Vancouver Kingsway, BC

I want to get to the heart of the matter. The matter before this committee today concerns the specific issue of the legislation passed by this Parliament. It required the preparation of a report, to be tabled by May 15 of this year, containing an assessment of the trade agreement provisions and the impact they would have on human rights. As we know, there's none of that in this report.

You've heard the previous testimony. The government has basically said that they didn't have enough time. The government knew in 2010 that human rights impact assessments were going to be called for. They knew that human rights was a major issue in terms of the desirability or not of entering into a free trade agreement with Colombia.

This agreement came into force on August 15, 2011. The rationale given is that from August 15 to December 31 was not long enough for the government to have produced a sentence, even a sentence, on what impact the trade agreement may have had, in any way whatsoever, on the human rights situation in Colombia.

I want to put that to you. Do you accept that as a legitimate excuse?

12:30 p.m.

Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada, Amnesty International

Alex Neve

No, we don't feel that it's a legitimate explanation for why there's no human rights analysis in this report. As I said in my comments, international best practice, coming from such experts as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur, who has submitted guidelines on human rights impact assessments to the UN Human Rights Council, is that the process of developing that sort of assessment should begin even before the trade deal comes into effect.

If best practice is that it's possible to do meaningful and important impact assessments even before the trade deal is in force, then certainly it is feasible and important to be doing it five or six months after a trade deal has come into effect.

There's a wealth of information available, and it's a shame that it wasn't drawn upon.