Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good morning, committee members. It's a pleasure to be in front of the committee again in the context of your study of Canada-South America trade relations.
I was before the committee back in April 2008 as part of your study of free trade negotiations at the time between Canada and Colombia. At that time, I detailed what we described as a disturbing human rights situation in Colombia, one that was nothing short of a crisis. During the 19 months since, Amnesty International has continued to carry out detailed monitoring of the human rights situation in different regions of the country, and we have had numerous on-the-ground fact-finding visits.
The evidence we've gathered continues to paint a dire picture, certainly not in keeping with claims by the Colombian government and others that the country has overcome its troubled human rights past.
Some indicators of conflict-related violence, such as kidnappings and hostage-taking, for instance, have improved. This means that the security situation for some has perhaps gotten better. However, other important indicators of conflict-related violence have deteriorated.
One of the most worrying trends is a dramatic increase in the number of Colombians forced to flee from their homes. As many as 380,000 people were forced to flee their homes in 2008 alone, an increase of more than 24% from 2007. That brings the total number of internally displaced people in Colombia now to somewhere between three and four million, amongst the highest in the world. Additionally, at least half a million Colombians have fled to other countries. Displacement has become an extreme crisis.
Many of those displaced have been deliberately targeted by guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, or state security forces as part of strategies designed to remove whole communities from areas of military, strategic, or economic importance. The great majority of those affected are small farmers, Afro-descendants, or indigenous peoples, many of whom live in areas of economic interest.
In particular, threats against and killings of indigenous people by all of Colombia's warring parties have increased over the last several years. More than 1,000 indigenous people have been killed in the last six years alone.
As the committee may know, in July of this year, James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples visited Colombia. His preliminary report repeats some of the conclusions described by his predecessor five years earlier, in 2004, particularly that “Colombia's Indigenous people find themselves in a serious, critical and profoundly worrying human rights situation” and that “this description still applies”, despite some initiatives by the Colombian government.
Among concerns he draws attention to are ongoing violations committed by FARC, such as the massacre of Awá indigenous people, which Amnesty denounced as well in February. He also warns that “extensive corporate interest in the natural resources in Indigenous territory often threatens the rights of Indigenous peoples”.
He highlights that lack of regard for free, prior, and informed consent, as stipulated in international law and Colombia's own constitution, remains a persistent problem.
Amnesty International has issued a series of recent urgent actions about threats and attacks on vulnerable Afro-descendant communities and indigenous peoples that appear aimed at securing control of areas of economic potential.
For instance, on October 9 we issued an urgent action after three indigenous leaders from two reservations in Risaralda received a threat that said “You have 5 working days to withdraw...otherwise we will kill your families”. It was signed the “Southern Bloc”. The threat from this paramilitary group came a few days after the Risaralda Indigenous Regional Council had launched a report in which the indigenous communities said they are being driven out of their lands by powerful people looking to exploit the area's significant mineral resources. The indigenous leaders fled from the area in order to protect the lives of their families.
Then, on October 22, a fax signed by the paramilitary group Black Eagles New Generation arrived at the Valle del Cauca office of the Trade Union Congress, known by its acronym CUT. It warned that members of the CUT in that area were now military targets. The threat stated, “it is necessary to expand the fight against those who hide in social organizations such as CUT Valle, human rights defenders, NGOs.” It specifically accused the trade unionists of stopping economic development and progress by opposing “entry for the multinationals”. The death threat named others as well, including the group the Black Communities Process, whose leader, Carlos Rosero, I believe you heard from on Tuesday of this week.
These and countless similar cases make it abundantly clear that paramilitary groups continue to operate in many parts of the country, sometimes in collusion with sectors of the security forces, despite government claims that they had all laid down their arms following a government-sponsored demobilization that began in 2003. In fact, Amnesty International's information suggests that these groups, which have adopted a variety of names, appear to have become more organized and consolidated over the last year.
We have also documented a worrying increase in the use of death threats against human rights defenders, again attributed mostly to paramilitary groups.
In March, a fax signed by the Capital Bloc of the Black Eagles paramilitary group arrived at the office of the internationally respected Colombian Commission of Jurists, accusing one of their lawyers, Lina Paola Malagon Diaz, of being a “bitch guerrilla working for the defence of trade unionists”. The note said that paramilitaries were looking for her and for members of her family. She was given this warning: “Leave or we will kill you. You have one day to leave Bogota and do not come back.” She did flee the country. Notably, she had produced a report about human rights violations against Colombian trade unionists by all sides in Colombia's armed conflict, which was used in a hearing in the U.S. Congress a few weeks before that.
More than a dozen human rights defenders and 46 trade unionists were killed in 2008 alone. The scope and gravity of ongoing attacks and threats against trade unionists or those who speak out about violations of the rights of trade unionists is clear. It does not come down to a mere matter of statistical analysis. I think much is always made of the numbers when we talk about these issues, but I would urge you to recognize that this is about quantity and quality, not just quantity. I would urge you to keep that in mind as you analyze arguments you hear from other witnesses, for instance, who do bring it down to simply a statistical consideration, many of whom do not have particular expertise in the area of human rights monitoring.
We and others remain gravely concerned about what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described in her March report, that “The worrying practice by some senior Government officials of publicly stigmatizing human rights defenders and trade union members, as biased and sympathetic to guerrilla groups, continued.”
This same concern has been highlighted following recent high-level UN human rights visits to Colombia, including by the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in September and the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions in June.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also stressed that such comments from senior government officials not only increase the risks that human rights defenders face, but “could suggest that the acts of violence aimed at suppressing them in one way or another enjoy the acquiescence of the governments”. Indeed, death threats, attacks, and even assassinations have often followed such public statements.
As this committee will know, human rights defenders who are under threat have long enjoyed a comprehensive program of assistance from the government. But in April of this year, a media investigation revealed that the civilian intelligence service, the DAS, which answers directly to the Colombian president and was the agency responsible for providing bodyguards and other protection to human rights defenders, has for at least seven years carried out a massive illegal espionage operation—including surveillance and wiretapping—against human rights defenders and others, including opposition politicians, judges, and journalists, with an aim to “restrict or neutralize their work”. Members of the diplomatic community, the United Nations, and foreign human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, were also targeted.
There is much more at play as well. The “parapolitical” scandal continues with 80 congress people, most belonging to parties from the ruling coalition, under criminal investigation for alleged links to paramilitary groups. Several magistrates investigating that case have been threatened, placed under surveillance, and had their communications intercepted.
Revelations in 2008 that the security forces had extrajudicially executed dozens of young men have now led to investigations by the attorney general's office of some 2,000 extrajudicial executions carried out over the last two decades. However, lawyers working on these cases, as well as a number of witnesses and family members of those killed, have been threatened and attacked.
Those are the immense challenges of confronting impunity in high-profile cases. More widely, justice remains the exception and impunity the norm, giving a green light to those who continue to abuse human rights.
So considering all of these concerns--and there's much I've left out--in the context of the free trade agreement, Amnesty International's key recommendation has remained the same for several years. We believe it is of critical importance that the agreement be subject to an independent human rights impact assessment, certainly before passage of Bill C-23, and that any negative findings be adequately addressed before proceeding further with the legislation and the entry into force of the deal.
We were pleased that this committee also called for an independent human rights impact assessment in its June 2008 report. We also have recommended that the deal not be finalized and that Bill C-23 not be passed until we have in place enforceable standards for Canadian companies operating abroad, which we of course hope will soon be the case if Bill C-300 becomes law. I must stress that we do not consider the hearings you are conducting now nor the more comprehensive hearings on Bill C-23 that would follow second reading of the bill to constitute that independent human rights impact assessment. The assessment would be an expert process that would take place outside of the parliamentary context. We would, however, very much urge that any body conducting such an assessment report back to Parliament.
In the context of grave and systematic human rights violations in Colombia and a pattern of ongoing serious abuses in areas of economic interest, an independent human rights impact assessment of the provisions of the trade agreement is, in our view, an essential step of due diligence. While it is not yet standard practice, there is growing interest in this tool, and there is a growing body of practical examples, analysis, proposals, and academic work to draw upon. Notably, even at the World Trade Organization, there's now significant discussion about this. In September, there was a session at the WTO's public forum in Geneva, moderated by counsel at the office of the WTO director general, entitled “Human Rights Impact Assessments: A Pertinent Tool for Informing and Improving Trade Governance?”
In 2006, Thailand's National Human Rights Commission considered the potential future human rights impacts of the free trade agreement that Thailand had been negotiating with the U.S. In 2007, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, in collaboration with the FoodFirst Information & Action Network, commissioned studies to consider the impact of trade liberalization on the right to food for rice farming communities in Ghana, Honduras, and Indonesia. The European Union systematically conducts economic, social, and environmental impact assessments of all major multilateral and bilateral trade negotiations. These are known as sustainability impact assessments. And over the last decade the United Nations Environment Programme has developed an impact assessment methodology that incorporates integrated environmental, economic, and social assessment.
Finally, I do want to highlight that Canadians are concerned about this. For instance, I have here a copy of a photo petition put together by a member of Amnesty International in Edmonton. She gathered the pictures of hundreds of Canadians from communities across the country, of diverse backgrounds, all of whom believe an independent human rights impact assessment is essential. This petition has already been sent both to the Prime Minister and to all three party leaders in the opposition.
In ending, I do feel I must signal some disquiet and concern about the way in which debate about the Canada-Colombia deal is progressing. It is certainly our hope and expectation that sessions held as part of this committee's general study of Canada's trade relations with South America will not in any way substitute for thorough and rigorous consideration of Bill C-23 itself when it is referred to committee. At that time, we urge that the committee hear from a full slate of balanced witnesses representing all relevant stakeholders, certainly including the most vulnerable sectors of Colombian society likely to feel the impact of this deal. Among others, Amnesty International would welcome an opportunity to appear at that time and offer specific recommendations with respect to Bill C-23 itself.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Those are my comments.