Friday, May 01, 2009

LibCon 2009: bridges and transitions

Transitioning from the PSAC Convention to the Liberal Convention just upstairs at the Vancouver Convention Centre proved to be less than serene--mild culture shock set in almost immediately.

It appears that I'm the only non-Liberal blogger here, but I did run into Impolitical, and Danielle Takacs of Galloping Around the Golden Horseshoe, Steve V., Woman at Mile 0 and Runesmith, inter alia, as well as the helpful Jason Cherniak, so I do have some people to talk to on occasion.

I took in some of a policy panel called "Canada and the World: Earning our Place at the Table," chaired by Bob Rae and Denis Coderre. Bill Graham spoke at length about "Liberal values," which appear to mean in this instance being above the fray and helping to "bridge irreconcilable differences." Then I went outside into the sunny air and discovered what he meant.

A demonstration a few meters from the Centre, small but passionate, was in full swing. Its theme: Just Say No. It seems that the Harper government, with Liberal support, is poised to ratify a free trade agreement between Canada and the murderous narco-state of Colombia.

Speaker after speaker noted the rising number of killings at the hands of Colombia's roving paramilitaries and regular forces: trade unionists, aboriginal leaders and human rights advocates are fair game for this regime. Of all the trade unionists killed around the world, 70% of them are Colombian. The government of Alvaro Uribe deigns to investigate about 3% of them, as a public relations gesture.

Uribe has extradited some of the most notorious Colombian paramilitary leaders to the US, but there is more to this than meets the eye. Ensuing trials will conceal much more than they are likely to reveal, including the close links between the Colombian government and its extra-judicial death squads.

More than four million of the poorest Colombians have been displaced, their land stolen out from under them by government forces, to make way for lucrative tourist resorts. Some of the tactics used to eliminate inconvenient civilians have been inventive, such as the "false positives" initiative, in which victims of the Colombian armed forces are dressed up in guerilla uniforms after they are murdered. Indigenous peoples find themselves between a rock and a hard place, targeted by FARC (the guerillas in the country) and government forces alike.

Harper claims that it's foolish to demand that human rights issues be resolved before trade relations are established, and the Liberals have traditionally been open to that kind of argument as well. Bilateral and multilateral agreements to enrich business--which is what free trade really amounts to--is alleged to improve the human rights climate under oppressive regimes.

Someone's going to have to draw me a map on that one. Given that countries like Colombia are presently improving business conditions by smashing trade unions, murdering or imprisoning their leaders and activists and creating a docile labour force by these and other means, it's hard to see why increased trade opportunities should offer anything to those workers but more of the same, and no examples to the contrary ever seem to be forthcoming.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have sounded the alarm about the worsening conditions in that country, not only for trade unionists but for activists of all stripes. The House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade has recommended that a human rights impact assessment be carried out and the findings addressed before the FTA with Colombia is ratified.

But don't hold your breath. Former human rights advocate Michael Ignatieff has a bridge to build.

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