Colombian activists ask Canada to walk away from free trade agreement

Published February 23, 2009

Franciscan priest Omar Fernandez Obregon of Colombia smiles with Adiat Juniad, communications co-ordinator of Kairos, after speaking to a crowd in Toronto.

Four leaders of a social justice coalition in Colombia have traveled across Canada for two weeks warning Canadians that the free trade agreement that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe signed in November will make Canada a party to human rights violations and political violence in Colombia.

The Colombians explained why they had to come to Canada to speak directly with Canadian parliamentarians, civil society and citizens at a press conference on Feb. 20 in the Toronto offices of Kairos, one of several groups sponsoring the tour. (Kairos is a partnership of 11 churches and church-related organizations including the Anglican Church of Canada).

Brother Omar Fernandez Obregon, a Franciscan priest and social activist leader, said the Canadian government echoes what it hears from the Uribe government – that the human rights situation in Colombia is improving and that this free trade agreement will help advance the peace process and the cause of human rights in Colombia. Social justice activists in Colombia hold a view of the agreement that is “very different and very far away from the position of the Canadian government and the Uribe government,” said Mr. Obregon. Human rights conditions in the country have not improved, he said, and the coalition members believe this kind of free trade agreement will not improve human rights and could increase poverty in Colombia.

The Colombians said they came to Canada as a “living testimony” that the human rights abuses that Colombia has been notorious for continue. Yolanda Becerra Vega is a leader of a grassroots women’s movement in Colombia. “In 2007, two paramilitary (soldiers) entered my house. They threatened me at gunpoint; they ransacked my apartment. They threatened my family and gave us 48 hours to leave. I didn’t go after this first threat. Two days later, they threatened my sister who is a teacher, and then my family and I left and went to another city,” she said. A week before she left for Canada her organization received another death threat. “What we are saying is that the free trade agreement is going to make the situation worse, and so by being a part of that the Canadian government is complicit in these human rights violations, either by omission or intention,” she said.

German Casama Gindrama of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia described the violation of indigenous peoples’ rights. Even though the Colombian constitution says indigenous people must be consulted before there is any development on their land, the U.S. mining company, Muriel, recently arrived on reserve land to do mineral exploration accompanied by 200 soldiers, he said.

Maria del Carmen Sanchez Burgos, president of the Colombian health worker’s union (ANTHOC), says the labour movement has also suffered during the years of Uribe’s government, noting that union leaders are killed at a rate of about one per week in Colombia. “In 2007, 39 union leaders were killed; in 2008, 46 were killed, so you can see that it is increasing,” she said. Public hospitals are being closed or privatized, she said, noting that the army sometimes occupies the hospitals in order to displace the workers and hand the facilities over to private enterprise.

The delegation said they were encouraged by the interest in the Canadian media, support from Canadian civil society groups and the number of parliamentarians who opened their doors and listened. A group of church leaders in Colombia has sent a letter to church leaders in Canada asking them to “strengthen and renew efforts to work with agents of change in favour of a fair trade that dignifies life in our communities and not to support these free trade agreements.”

Although Mr. Harper has signed the agreement with Mr. Uribe, it will be examined and debated by a parliamentary committee on international trade that had already recommended that there be an independent and comprehensive human rights impact assessment done before such an agreement was signed, ratified or implemented. “If the free trade deal requires implementing legislation, that will go before parliament for a vote, and it could be voted down” at that point, said Rusa Jeremic, Kairos program co-ordinator for global economic justice.

Mr. Obregon said: “We are returning (to Colombia) with hope because we know something good happened here, but we are also returning with fear because we know our government is intolerant of opposition.”


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

Keep on reading

Skip to content