Press Responses: July 12, 2007

Trade talks to start soon with Columbia

Observers say Canada should wait until Uribe government has better human rights record

Jul 12, 2007 04:30 AM
Allan Woods
Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA–A free trade deal likely to be launched between Canada and Colombia next week will go beyond the usual focus on dollars and cents to spell out the ethical responsibilities of Canadian companies seeking to exploit the South American country's untapped resources.

A senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday the way has been cleared for trade talks to begin between the two nations.

A trade official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ottawa will insist on the inclusion of the principles of corporate social responsibility when it signs future trade agreements with other countries.

The United States and the European Union already take such measures when negotiating trade deals.

"All I've been told is that it would be for future negotiations and I would consider that to be future because it has not formally started yet," said the trade official, speaking of talks set to take place next week.

The official said Canada would insist on the inclusion of non-binding references to corporate social responsibility in new trade deals. Those references will likely be found, for now, in the preamble to the agreements, signalling the spirit of the new framework without tying the hands of Canadian firms.

"I don't see it as being more than that at this stage," the official said. "It's just basically to raise the visibility of it."

Word of the twist on Canada's trade deals comes as human rights groups spoke out ahead of Harper's visit to Bogota on Monday for a meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Activists object to the fact that Harper and Uribe would even talk about trade while human rights violators are greeted with impunity and Colombia's right-wing government teeters under scandalous allegations that it is cozy with paramilitaries. Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International Canada, said Harper needs to express the country's disappointment at the lack of progress on human rights.

Others, such as Guari Sreenivasan, of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, said Harper should halt any trade talks until there are stronger efforts to address human rights.

"For the Canadian government to approach the Uribe government and offer a preferential trade agreement sends a very strong signal about what we think about the current human rights situation and whether their record has been adequate or not adequate," she said.

Karen Keenan, of the Halifax Initiative, which keeps an eye on Canadian investment in developing countries, said corporate responsibility standards should guide behaviour in areas of environmental performance, human rights, public reporting and transparency. She said an oversight body should be created to conduct independent investigations and resolve conflicts.

A senior adviser to the Prime Minister said Harper would be sending a "balanced message" of encouragement for the Uribe government.

"The Colombian government has made some real progress in terms of bringing peace and security. That's not to underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, so the message will be one of support, the message will be one of encouragement to stay the course," the adviser said.

Harper will also travel to Chile, Barbados and Haiti on the five-day tour of South America and the Caribbean.

The Conservative government has made it a foreign policy priority to improve relations in the region.