Stephen Harper, John McCain and the politics of Colombia Lite
John McCain speaks Friday at the Economic Club of Canada (in Ottawa), during a visit described by Star Washington bureau chief Tim Harper as a backdrop for his campaign for the presidency. Certainly, the Republican candidate sees eye-to-eye with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a range of subjects, including the controversial issue of free trade with Colombia. Like Harper, McCain is a booster, a big booster, as readers can see:
For McCain, free trade with Colombia is all about promoting democracy in the Andean region. Problem is, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, sent to Congress by President George W. Bush earlier this spring, is stalled, essentially put on life-support by Democrats hungry for the White House. Still, the deal faces concerns over human rights abuses, as well as U.S. military spending in a country where the armed forces have been linked to the death squads.
It's too soon to know whether the PM will have better luck than Bush. On June 7, the Conservative government announced the completion of negotiations for its own free trade deal with Colombia, touting significant protection of environment and labour rights, as well as bilateral trade and business opportunies. The deal was announced in spite of human rights protests - and before the parliamentary standing committee on international trade had completed its report. The government must still introduce draft legislation to be passed and implemented - a tall order with summer adjournment looming and likely delays in the fall.
Nevertheless, human rights groups are worried Canada is trying to do what a lame-duck U.S. president cannot - and hurting its own international reputation in the process. Colombia has been torn apart by civil war between government forces and guerrilla groups, largely FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army).
Kathy Price is a Colombia specialist for the Canadian chapter of Amnesty International, based in Ottawa. She maintains there must be a comprehensive and complete examination of the situation in Colombia before Canada commits to free trade. In an interview for this blog, she stressed the question must be asked "Why when the U.S. has pulled back, are we, at that very moment, rushing in?"
During his recent trip to Toronto, Price had a chance to listen to Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderon at a Toronto event. He said his country has moved into what he called a "post-conflict" era." Price stood up to say she didn't know what he meant by that, explaining Amnesty has seen no easing of death threats against, among others, trade unionists, human rights defenders, campesino organizations, religious and indigenous groups. Recent reports detail particular threats against trade unionists by paramilitary groups. The death squads have changed their names over the years - fashionable now are Frente Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles Front) and Nueva Generacion (New Generation) - but their murderous acts remain the same.
Alex Neve, president of Amnesty International Canada has long made the dire situation in Colombia a priority. As well, a report by Human Rights Watch in the U.S. cites human rights abuses, including statistics compiled by an in-country organization that shows 4,000 union members have been killed since President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2000.
A myth of the seemingly endless civil war is that government troops and rebels mostly kill each other. Instead, countless human rights reports indicate the greatest losses have been suffered by civilians. There is little question guerrilla groups have been corrupted over the years, as evidenced by a growing taste for raising money by kidnapping children. There's also little question rebels kill civilians. However, civilians also die at the hands of the death squads and, too often, the paramilitaries have operated with the apparent complicity of the regular armed forces.
I wrote about one such event in the Andes mountain hamlet of La Union in 2000. There, according to three witnesses - nuns from the Missionary Order of the Sacred Heart - a death squad of 20 men in military uniforms with black hoods, lined up six men in the town square, made them kneel and opened fire, maybe 80 rounds, with AK-47s. The area was crawling with government troops and, during the massacre, army helicopters circled overhead. The official report blamed rebels. During extensive coverage of Colombia as Star correspondent in Latin America, I taped countless eye-witness accounts of similar killings by paramilitaries and interviewed rights activists who, shortly thereafter, were themselves assassinated.
Canada can be proud of its human rights defenders. They get too little credit. Over the years, I have seen so many of them working in hot zones at great personal risk, and read exhaustive reports written both to bear witness to atrocities and to educate the public. The Canadian chapter of Amnesty and the ecumenical group, KAIROS, are only two examples. I take their concerns and observations seriously, including an incident recited by Price. She told me of the disappointment in Canada expressed to her recently by a Colombian human rights defender. According to Price, he said: "We used to think of Canada as our friend and supporter at the United Nations, but that isn't the case anymore. Canada has gone off in a different direction."
Given the amazing courage of Colombian rights defenders who struggle every day to build a country free from killing, we should ask ourselves: Is this a direction Canadians really wish to take?