01/04/2012 05:29 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST

Canada-Honduras Trade Deal On Track, Critics Decry Worsening Rights Situation

OTTAWA - A Canada-Honduras trade deal is coming under renewed fire following a spate of abuses by police in the Central American country, including the recent beatings of protesting teachers, the intimidation of journalists and the murder of two university students.

Trade Minister Ed Fast, who was not available for comment this week, highlighted the conclusion of trade talks with Honduras as one of the federal government's accomplishments in 2011. The prime minister lauded the deal during a trip to the struggling nation last August.

But human-rights abuses and soaring crime continues to plague the country.

Police used water cannons and tear gas on hundreds of teachers who protested missing paycheques in December. The same month, journalists protesting the deaths of 17 colleagues over the last two years were beaten with batons.

Journalists and university officials investigating the deaths of two students, allegedly at the hands of police officers, have reported being intimidated by other police officers.

In the northern part of the country the police and military have been accused of intimidation and violence against local farmers who come up against business interests.

The current government of Porfirio Lobo was elected following a military-backed coup in 2009. Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the election results, while some other Latin American countries did not.

"My position, my feeling is that this trade agreement with Honduras was done because of the political climate, which includes weak laws and rights for the political opposition, the political climate is conducive to Canadian investment," said Todd Gordon, a political science professor at York University and frequent traveller to Honduras.

"I don't think the Canadian government cares that much deep down about human rights in Honduras."

Both houses of the U.S. Congress voted in favour last month of a measure that would withhold 20 per cent of the estimated $1.8 million Washington sends to Honduras for policing and military assistance until the secretary of state can ensure the Lobo government is taking action against abuses. The U.S. Peace Corps is withdrawing its volunteers from Honduras this month because of security concerns.

"Honduras needs assistance, but it also needs to be held accountable," the Los Angeles Times wrote in its editorial Monday.

The Canadian government has taken a different approach. With Honduras, as with other countries including Colombia, it has argued a direct link between free trade and the improvement of human rights.

"In Honduras, a country which is seeking to escape a troubled past, Canada has recently completed negotiations on a free-trade agreement which provide an opportunity for that country to lift its citizens out of poverty," Fast said during an October speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade.

"At the same time, our engagement seeks to draw Honduras into the family of nations which respects basic human rights and the fundamental principles of democracy."

The Embassy of Honduras said Wednesday it did not have anybody available to comment on the agreement.

The government of Porfirio Lobo has made some changes within the higher echelons of the police service, and recently gave the military policing powers to try to combat rampant crime and corruption. Honduras, like other countries in the region, has struggled against the powerful drug cartels that move product across the borders.

Critics say Canada should not be finalizing any trade deal with Honduras until it sees improvements in how that government deals with abuses.

NDP trade critic Brian Masse said he'll be recommending his party vote against any legislation to ratify the trade deal if and when it comes before the House of Commons this year.

"I don't think we should be entering into an agreement with Honduras yet, we should be benchmarking some human-rights changes, we could even look at doing that with Congress, looking at what they're calling for," said Masse.

"Trade deals don't automatically improve human rights."

Carlo Dade, a research fellow at the University of Ottawa and expert in Latin American development, says the reality is that withholding a trade deal is unlikely to make much of a difference to Honduras.

The government there is just trying to keep its head above the surging wave of crime — the United Nations rates Honduras as the murder capital of the world.

Canada's minister of state for the Americas, Diane Ablonczy, announced last summer $5.2 million in security assistance for the entire Central American region. Canada simply doesn't have much leverage because it doesn't contribute much to the issue, Dade says.

"You really can't say anything unless you're putting the resources out. Pointing out the issue and condemning it, yeah, but Honduras realizes what's happening, everyone in the hemisphere realizes what's happening," Dade said.

"The question is what can you do to help?"

Honduras has been identified as a priority country for the Canadian International Development Agency. In 2009-10, Ottawa spent $26 million on various aid projects there.