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Three years after Canada signed a free-trade agreement with Colombia saying our country was committed to helping Colombians live “better, safer lives,” human rights activists came to Ottawa this week with a different message: Their nation is spiralling toward genocide, and some Canadian companies are reaping the benefits.

Colombian deputy justice Federico Guzman Duque and an indigenous rights defender, who said she was afraid to have her name publicized, are here to draw attention to ongoing human rights abuses — including what they say are crimes against humanity, war crimes, even genocide — against indigenous Colombians.

Canada, they said, has a particular responsibility to take action because of its free-trade deal with Colombia and the prevalence of Canadian extraction companies doing business there . Since the free-trade agreement, Canada has also begun selling fully automatic weapons — the kind banned in Canada — and light armoured vehicles as part of “a strategic framework for the growing defence relationship between our countries,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in 2012.

On Thursday, the activists said Canada has the power to help indigenous Colombians, to pressure the government for change and to draw the world’s attention to what they call an invisible crisis.

“No one really cares what happens to the indigenous in Colombia. It is invisible in the world in general. Part of our struggle is to make this visible,” said Duque.

Sen. Romeo Dallaire, who watched as the world failed to react to warnings of a pending genocide in Rwanda when he was head of the UN mission there, said Thursday that the activists are not wrong to raise the spectre of genocide when it comes to violence against indigenous groups in Colombia.

“When you look at what (indigenous groups) are going through in regards to the internal displacement, the brutality against them and the exploitation of their territory, you are meeting a bunch of criteria that can be defined within the genocide convention,” Dallaire said. He raised the issue in the Senate on Thursday and said he would press for the federal government to become more active on the issue.

Colombia’s high court concluded that as a result of systemic violence from state armed forces, paramilitary groups and leftist rebels, 35 of Colombia’s 102 indigenous communities are at risk of “physical and cultural extermination.” There has been a call for intervention by the United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

But Duque said little has happened to stop the violence or protect the groups.

Duque described the forced recruitment of indigenous child soldiers by rebel groups, describing children as young as six who he said are being forced to kill their friends or be wired with explosives.

He talked about systematic rape and torture of indigenous women as a tool of conflict. And, he said, there has been a campaign of displacement of indigenous communities, whose land is later granted as part of a mining concession — often to Canadian companies.

In some cases, he said, government forces bomb indigenous land and later grant extractive companies rights to it.

Canada’s strong mining and extractive interest in the country — it helped write Colombia’s new mining law — is a key reason the activists say Canada has an obligation to speak out about the violence and take action.

Some Canadian-owned corporations there are associated with armed groups who protect them in lands that have been de-populated from their indigenous population, he said. “Or they are simply profiting from that situation.”

Either way, he said, the Canadian government should make sure Canadian companies understand the context of the land they are operating on and “know what is going on down there.”

Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Caitlin Workman said Canada has provided more than $161 million for human rights, security and justice-related projects since 2006.

“Canada recognizes that robust trade and strong economic growth help to create jobs and a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy where human rights are respected,” Workman said.

“The promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of Canadian principles foreign policy.”

Under the free-trade agreement, both countries are required to produce annual reports “on the effect of measures taken under the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the Republic of Colombia.”

The most recent Canadian report concludes: “It is not possible to establish a direct link between the CCOFTA (Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement) and the human rights situation in Colombia. There is no evidence of a causal link between reductions in tariffs by Canada in accordance with the CCOFTA, and changes in human rights in Colombia.”

Amnesty International, which brought the human rights activists to Canada, and the activists say that is neither in the spirit of the free-trade agreement nor enough.

“We think that including mention of this situation and a serious report on the very serious human rights crimes that have taken place and with which Canadian corporations are associated in a report to Parliament could help make a difference,” said Duque.

A representative from the Colombian embassy did not respond to a request for an interview.

The Ottawa Citizen

Elizabeth Payne