Prime Minister Stephen Harper and I were recently in Colombia. We visited youth programs in a marginalized urban neighbourhood, met with business leaders, and talked with Colombians about the new Canada–Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which went into effect Aug. 15, 2011.
Before you start to wonder about this, let me clarify: Harper and I did not visit Colombia together, but, oddly enough, we were there at the same time, and did many of the same things.
Harper toured a youth project in Soacha, a sprawling neighbourhood south of Bogotá (the capital city) Aug. 10; I visited youth projects there Aug. 9 and 11. I toured a lunch program for some 200 children and youth operated by the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church, and a school run by Colombian Mennonite Brethren churches – both Mennonite Central Committee-supported projects.
While Harper spoke with Colombian business leaders in a luxury hotel in Bogotá, I visited a small rice production and processing cooperative in a remote village in the Choco region, and talked with the coordinator of a microcredit program for street vendors in Bogotá – both programs operated by MCC partners.
While Harper marked the inauguration of the Canada–Colombia FTA with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in the National Palace, I talked with community and church leaders about its expected impact at the community level.
Free trade agreements: good for everyone?
Canada already has FTAs with five Latin American countries and is currently developing them in eight more. The Canadian government believes trade agreements generate economic growth, and that this growth will benefit people living in poverty, strengthen democracies, and foster respect for human rights. However, historical evidence suggests this is questionable.
Trade and investment have played a significant role in many countries’ progress toward greater economic prosperity and equality – but not through rapid liberalization of markets, particularly between
countries of unequal industrialization. These agreements more often cause increased economic instability, loss of livelihoods among vulnerable populations, and undermine the capacity of national economic sectors in the less economically developed country.
The strongest evidence against FTAs is the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA – the FTA between Canada, the U.S.A., and Mexico), in effect since 1994. It has had particularly devastating effects on small-scale farmers and wage labourers in Mexico, and led to related increases in out-migration, organized crime, human rights violations, and social instability.
A global precedent: monitoring human rights impacts of the FTA
The Canada–Colombia FTA was drafted in November 2008; however, parliamentary and public objections over Colombia’s dubious human-rights record prevented it from being passed until now.
For more than 50 years, Colombia has been the site of a complex armed conflict between the government, paramilitary forces, guerrilla movements, and drug cartels. As a result, Colombia has the largest internally displaced population in the world (about 5 million people) according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and a very poor human rights record.
Because of these concerns, the Canada–Colombia FTA was passed with a clause that both countries must track the agreement’s effects on human rights and annually
report the results to their legislatures. The first reports are due in May 2012.
Both countries will monitor whether vulnerable populations affected by the agreement experience gains or losses in their right to such things as food, livelihoods, and a clean environment.
Monitoring the human rights effects of a trade agreement is a global precedent. Canadians, Colombians, and the world will be watching to see if inclusion of human rights monitoring can foster the recognition that states have an obligation not only to follow international trade rules, but also to respect human rights of all citizens, including economic, social, and cultural rights.
Mennonite Brethren churches are involved in various social and peace projects in the cities, as well as isolated areas of Colombia. They will also be looking at how the new economic activity will affect their communities.
Maybe a year from now, Harper and I will have the opportunity to visit Colombia again. Hopefully, we’ll observe that the Canada–Colombia FTA has furthered respect for human rights, rather than merely advanced the power of an economic elite and increased the suffering of the majority.
The Mennonite Brethren Churches of Colombia have 45 congregations with some 2,500 members/attenders. Mission work began in Cali and the Choco region in 1945, and the Colombian MB conference is now a sender of missionaries through MB Mission, with couples serving in Mexico, Panama, and one having just completed service in Peru.
The Colombian conference works in conjunction with MCC, MEDA, and Mennonite World Conference – which will open an office in Bogotá when general secretary-elect César García begins in January 2012. The MBs also collaborate with the Mennonite Church in the social service agency Mencoldes (Colombian Mennonite Foundation for Development), and CLARA, an Anabaptist resource ministry.