Canada must live up to obligations on human rights in Colombia

Date of publication: 
21 May 2014

The federal government’s new report on Human Rights and the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement, quietly submitted as Parliament recessed last week, would have us believe there are no trade and investment-related human rights concerns in Colombia – and no reason to look at what is happening in areas of resource extraction. But deadly realities confronting indigenous peoples in the South American country tell another story.

Fifteen-year-old Génesis Gisselle had just got out of school two weeks ago when the phone rang. An unknown voice delivered a terrifying message: “Tell your family to take care of themselves and of you –because we are going to kill you.”

Not coincidentally, the death threat came as the teenager’s mother Jakeline Romero Epiayu, a well-known Wayúu indigenous leader, was in Europe to speak out about the dire human rights situation facing her people in the resource-rich region of La Guajira.

It’s a crisis fuelled by, among other factors, large-scale, multi-national coal mining that the Wayúu link to environmental and health concerns, militarization of their lands, displacement and intensified violence. Courageously denouncing these impacts and asserting their right to decision-making over the territory essential to their survival has made Wayúu women leaders – and their daughters – targets for paramilitaries often operating with the support of Colombian state security forces.

Across the country in Valle del Cauca, Embera Chamí indigenous leader Flaminio Onogama Gutiérrez and his family has also become a target. On Jan. 1, the bodies of his nephews Berlain Saigama Gutiérrez and Jhon Braulio Saigama were found. The two community leaders had been tortured and stabbed to death. Death threats against Flaminio by the so-called Black Eagles paramilitary group followed.

Today, he is in hiding and many others from the community of La Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”) have also had to flee in fear for their lives. All of them had opposed paramilitaries using tactics of terror to assert control over the area, along with the arrival of mining companies eager to exploit coal, copper and gold deposits.

As horrendous as they are, threats, killing and forced displacement in La Guajira and Valle del Cauca are only the tip of the iceberg. They are just the latest symptoms of a human rights emergency “as serious as it is invisible,” to quote the Constitutional Court of Colombia. In January 2009, the court ruled that 34 of 102 indigenous nations in Colombia were “threatened with physical and cultural extermination” amidst armed conflict, forced displacement and the imposition of resource extraction projects without concern for their rights.

The court gave the Colombian government six months to develop comprehensive ethnic protection plans in coordination with threatened indigenous peoples. Five years later, none had been implemented. Meanwhile, resource extraction has become the mantra of Colombia’s government, the so-called locomotive of economic growth that threatens to steamroll any who stand in its way.

In this context, the United Nations envoy in Colombia warned last month that 40 indigenous nations are now at risk of extinction and pointed a finger at mining development without human rights guarantees as a key factor in this emergency.

There are obvious imperatives why Canada must acknowledge what is happening and be part of the solution, before it’s too late.

Canadian companies figure prominently among the foreign investors that have joined the resource boom in Colombia. Indeed, our government boasts of “rapid and extensive growth in Canadian investment in the Colombian extractive sector. This rapid and extensive growth has been aided by the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, in force since August 2011 and advertised by the federal government as a tool that “promotes greater investment in Colombia through a more predictable, transparent and rules-based environment for Canadian investors.”

Tragically, however, these rules don’t require compliance with international human rights standards and enforceable accountability mechanisms for corporations investing in Colombia. And mandatory annual reporting of the human rights impact of the trade deal has become an empty, meaningless process.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have a long history of both engagement and conflict with resource projects in their territories. Part of the common ground between struggles in Canada and Colombia is the insistence that any such development must ensure respect for and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples as well as free, prior and informed consent and consultation processes with these peoples.

This call for justice should unite not only indigenous peoples but everyone concerned for human rights. Canada has endorsed international human rights instruments like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that set out clear, minimum standards for the “survival, dignity and well-being” of indigenous peoples around the world.

As the emergency facing indigenous peoples in Colombia illustrates so starkly, holding governments and corporations accountable to these standards at home and abroad is a vitally urgent priority.

Alex Neve is Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.

Ghislain Picard is Regional Chief for Quebec/Labrador and leads the international work of the Assembly of First Nations.