05/16/2012 02:47 EDT | Updated 07/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Feds fail to conduct promised review of trade and Colombian human rights

OTTAWA - The NDP and human rights advocates say the Harper government is shirking its responsibility to evaluate the rights situation in Colombia, a task it agreed to undertake when it signed a free-trade agreement with the South American country.

The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2010 and came into force last August. The Canadian and Colombian governments committed to producing annual reports on how trade was affecting human rights, thus earning the support of the Liberals during the last minority Parliament.

But the Canadian report released this week does not include an assessment of the situation. International Trade Minister Ed Fast told the Commons that since the treaty was passed last August, there wasn't enough time to do a proper analysis.

"Our government remains committed to deepening our trade relationship with Colombia," Fast said during question period Wednesday.

"It is only through engagement that we will be able to lift more Colombians out of poverty and inspire them to join the family of nations that respect human rights."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has cultivated strong ties with Colombia, encouraging its transition into a more stable democracy. Colombia is a key partner for Canada in its efforts to make the hemisphere a foreign affairs and trade priority through its Americas Strategy.

The government promises to create methodology and review the state of human rights by next year. The rest of the 2012 report has statistics on Canada's trade with Colombia, but does not include any details on Colombian civil society.

The report was released on the same day as a bomb explosion killed two people and wounded 24 others in Bogota.

NDP trade critic Don Davies calls the report a "whitewash," noting that 17 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since the treaty was signed.

Colombia has been gripped by civil unrest and violence for 40 years, with millions displaced as they found themselves caught in the conflict between the military, paramilitaries and armed insurgents.

"It leaves us to wonder whether the question really is that the government was afraid to table an honest human rights impact assessment because it would show that the human rights condition has not improved," said Davies.

"Canadians want more trade, New Democrats want more trade, but we also want...the partners we trade with to respect democratic values."

But Liberal MP Scott Brison, who used his relationship with a senior Colombian politician to help come up with the idea of a human rights report, agrees there wasn't enough time to assess the situation.

Still, he says he would have liked to see a little more progress on the methodology, by this point.

"I know the Colombian government, with which I continue dialogue, takes this reportage very seriously and actually views it as an opportunity to deepen corporate social responsibility and to increase transparency around human rights and the affect of legitimate trade on actually strengthening human rights," said Brison.

"I hope that the Harper government takes this reportage process as seriously as the Colombians do."

Amnesty International Canada's Alex Neve rejects the notion that there wasn't enough time to assess the situation. The organization and others had unsuccessfully lobbied the government to do a human rights assessment before signing the agreement to create a baseline for future study.

"Given the serious and long-standing pattern of grave human rights violations in Colombia, many of them that happened in the context of economic activity, trade, investment and mining activities, this needed to be taken very seriously and the opposite has happened," said Neve.