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Canada Should Put Democracy Before Free Trade in Colombia, Say Returned Observers
OTTAWA - February 18 - An international mission returned from Colombia this week, after spending 10 days investigating pre electoral conditions in the lead up to the congressional elections on March 14. The mission was coordinated by the San Francisco based human rights organization Global Exchange in collaboration with the Misión de Observación Electoral (MOE), a Colombian civil society organization that has been working to promote democracy in Colombia through electoral observation and analysis. Canadian members of the mission are available for comment on their findings.
The international mission included 22 representatives from the United States, the European Union, Mexico, Panama, Australia, and from Canada, Barbara Wood, member of CUPE 1004; Ricardo Miranda, President, CUPE local 4095; and Carleen Pickard, Director of Organizing, Council of Canadians.
The mission spoke with hundreds of Colombians from diverse sectors including government authorities, political candidates and their party representatives and members of civil society including indigenous people, Afro-Colombian communities, human rights groups, displaced people and the media.
"Under President Alvaro Uribe's watch, more than two million people have been displaced from their resource rich territories, while thousands of trade unionists, peasants, indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians and activists have been killed by the state and affiliated paramilitary organizations," says Wood. "At the same time, the government is mired in corruption, electoral fraud and complicity with drug lords and death squad leaders."
The findings of the mission underscore the need to prevent the ratification of the proposed Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until a full and independent human rights impact assessment can be carried out.
Chief among the mission's findings is that human rights violations continue unabated and contribute to the environment of fear that remains prevalent among much of the population. Re-organized paramilitary groups are responsible for the majority of these abuses despite government claims that the paramilitary forces no longer exist. In the northern department of Cordoba where one part of the mission traveled for example, the number of selective assassinations in 2009 was over 500, the highest number ever recorded there. The victims of these acts were primarily local community leaders such as city councilors, indigenous leaders and trade union leaders. The widespread violence and the fear that it continues to generate is seen by the mission as an obstacle to open debate, freedom of association, and democratic participation.
Related specifically to the March 14 congressional elections, the mission was told of widespread corruption and fraud including misuse of public funds or services, vote buying, voter coercion and ballot stuffing. In each of the four regions the mission traveled to they heard that candidates allied with current president Alvaro Uribe told poor people who receive subsidies from the government that if they did not vote for President Uribe, that those funds would be cut off. In a country where extreme poverty affects more than half the population, such threats are effective.
"The upcoming election in Colombia is an opportunity for the Harper government to correct the impression that it doesn't care about democracy at home and abroad," says Pickard. "This is also an opportunity for Canadian MPs to support democracy in Colombia by voting against the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement if it is reintroduced in the next session of Parliament. An FTA is simply not the way for Canada to be supporting democracy in Colombia."
The full report on the mission's findings will be released on March 7.