Canadians who were part of an international election monitoring mission to Colombia say systematic human rights abuses, corruption and escalating violence casts doubts on whether the country’s May presidential vote will be free and fair.
“We’ve just provided Prime Minister Harper with a copy of our findings which underline the need for an independent human rights assessment before Canada moves forward with the controversial Colombia free trade deal,” says Carleen Pickard of the Council of Canadians.
Pickard was one of four Canadians who spent 11 days monitoring conditions on the ground in Colombia last month ahead of March 14 congressional elections where there were numerous complaints about vote-buying and voter intimidation by right-wing paramilitary groups.
“Our first-hand experience contradicts claims the free trade deal will strengthen Colombia’s democracy,” says Pickard. “We found widespread evidence of human rights violations, corruption, resurgent paramilitary groups, and drug violence.”
“There’s a climate of fear among the population,” adds Pickard, “which makes basic democratic principles that Canadians take for granted – like open debate, freedom of political association and participation in the election process – extremely dangerous for Colombians to pursue.”
Another Canadian on the mission travelled to an area in Colombia where there were 569 selective assassinations in 2009 – the highest number ever recorded. “The victims were primarily local politicians and community, indigenous, and union leaders,” says Barbara Wood, a representative of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
“A wide range of people told us the assassinations were carried out by paramilitaries, despite claims from Colombia’s government that paramilitary forces have been demobilized,” says Wood.
Wood says her group’s findings show the free trade deal being pursued by Ottawa is not the way for Canada to be supporting democracy in Colombia. “Instead, Canadian politicians should be carrying out an independent human rights assessment and demanding fundamental reforms in that country before moving forward with the trade deal.”
The monitoring mission was organized in conjunction with Misión de Observación Electoral (MOE), a Colombian organization, and included 22 observers from the U.S., European Union, Mexico, Panama, and Australia. Other Canadian representatives were Ricardo Miranda, also from CUPE, and Tim Bood, an emergency room physician from Halifax.
A copy of the Colombia election monitoring mission report is available upon request.
For more information, please contact:
Council of Canadians, Carleen Pickard, 613-301-8346
CUPE, Barbara Wood, 604-842-2747