Trade and Human Rights in the Americas

“Poverty is the greatest source of violence in Mexico. To defend human rights, we must change economic structures.” Rocio Culebro, National Network of Human Rights Organizations, ’All Rights for All’, Mexico.

Any (trade) agreement must also guarantee,with enforceable mechanisms, the fundamental and internationally-recognized human rights of all citizens to adequate food, just conditions of employment, fair wages, and access to health care and education, as well as to civil , political and cultural rights. After all, if increased trade…..cannot offer these rights to the people of the Americas, then why encourage it?” Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America.” Canada, 1998)

We have been told by government and business that free trade agreements are ’just about trade”. In fact they are about issues that affect working people and their families both in Canada and other countries with whom we trade. Issues of human rights have to be at the top of the agenda when trade agreements are negotiated. WHAT DO WE MEAN BY HUMAN RIGHTS? Over 50 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration includes everything from the right to life, liberty and security of the person, equality before the law, freedom of thought and religion, to the right to form and join unions and to own property. This concept of basic civil and political rights was expanded in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in the 1970s. These additional rights include, among others: equal rights of men and women to fair wages, healthy and safe working conditions, free and compulsory primary education, and the highest possible standard of physical and mental health. Many people are also demanding the right to an environmentally secure future as well as the rights of peoples and communities. Rights should be universal (available for all) and indivisible (it is not possible to divide one group of rights, such as civil and political rights, from the others.) While we are negotiating trade agreements such as the FTAA, these rights must be recognized as being more important than corporate economic interests.
HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE AMERICAS The record in Latin America Although many countries in Latin America have emerged from the brutal dictatorships of past decades and now have democratically elected governments, civil and political rights are still being violated. In 1998 in Guatemala for example, several years after a peace accord was signed between the government and guerrilla organizations, a Catholic bishop was assassinated for releasing a human rights report that placed responsibility for the vast majority of massacres at the feet of the country’s military. History has shown that it is not the chance to vote that makes democracy work. Rather it is the rule of adequate laws, a functioning legal system, and the healthy participation of civil society in all aspects of social and economic life. Colombia, for example, has enjoyed relatively free elections for years, and yet it is among the three most violent countries in the world. An estimated 97% of reported murders in Colombia are not even prosecuted. The murders of Colombian trade union and human rights workers are at a “crisis level.” And yet in 1999, the United States increased its budget for training and arming the Colombian military. In addition to the denial of civil and political rights in several Latin American states, the vast majority of the region’s population is also being denied basic economic and social rights. Latin America is the region of greatest income disparity on the planet. The United Nations reports that 40% of Latin America’s population lives in poverty – while the number of Latin American billionaires grew from 8 to 39 between 1991-1997. This growing economic inequality shows the failure of the economic and political system to provide people with their right to an adequate living for themselves and for their children.
The record in North America ’The right to life and the right to vote are civil and political rights., But they don’t mean much without the right to food, shelter and an adequate standard of living which are economic and social rights. National Anti-Poverty Coalition (NAPO) In the United States, the richest country of the world, the Economic Human Rights campaign is organizing a march to the United Nations in New York in October 1999 to charge the United States government with violating the economic human rights of its people. They charge that millions are being denied basic human rights to housing, food, education, health care and jobs at living wages. What about Canada? The United Nations Human Rights Commission reviewed Canada’s economic and social rights record in March 1999 and found our country in violation of the rights of low-income Canadians. Among the key recommendations was a call for a national plan to reduce poverty and homelessness and protection in human rights legislation against discrimination because a person is living in poverty. Mexico is a country that has been a world pace-setter in pursuing free trade since the 1980’s. If freer trade will allow equitable development and respect for human rights, then Mexico, as the only Latin American country in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), should be a trendsetter. What does the record show? See the box on page 3.
Mexico’s ‘AFTA NAFTA’ record on human rights • Poverty still affects more than half of the country’s 96 million people; over 26 million suffer from extreme poverty, and 24 million Mexicans suffer malnutrition. • The fundamental rights of workers to choose their own union and bargain collectively are routinely denied. • Cheaper corn imports are resulting in lower prices for small farmers, affecting 15% of people working in agriculture. 700,000-800,000 livelihoods could be lost. (reported in the 1997 United Nations Development Report). • The Mexican government, in compliance with NAFTA, changed Article 27 of the Constitution to allow privatization of communal lands – land owned by communities, allocated to them during the Mexican revolution. This has led to the sale of still more small corn producing plots to larger landowners. • There is growing militarization of the countryside, with the Army given internal security responsibilities for the first time. There is also growing persecution of the indigenous population. Amnesty International’s latest report on Mexico stated that “torture is practised routinely in many parts of the country;” there is a “disturbing increase” in forced disappearances; and illegal executions by security forces are “frequently reported.”
What we want in a trade agreement We need to demand that: • human rights be given more importance than corporate economic interests; • all trade agreements include a ‘democracy clause’, giving all citizens a say in what goes into trade agreements, and how they are carried out and evaluated; • states wishing to join the Free Trade Area of the Americas sign and ratify existing international human rights agreements. These must include the guarantee of social, economic, labour and cultural rights and the prevention of torture.
WHAT YOU AND YOUR ORGANIZATION CAN DO Write to the Prime Minister Send in the postcard included in the Free Trade Action Kit. (see the Common Frontiers box below for details) • You can draw on the demands outlined earlier under ‘what we want in a trade agreement’. Organize a discussion in your union local, church or community group • Purchase the ‘Peace: What Peace?’ video . A workshop kit is included. You can get it from ICCHRLA. (see address below) Available in English only. • Contact the CLC International Affairs Office in Ottawa, Amnesty International or other human rights organization in your area for suggestions of speakers to come to your meeting. Join or support a human rights organization Canadian human rights groups have been calling for trade agreements that ensure the essential human needs of all of the region’s citizens. • Get your local union to link with other groups on rights issues. Learn more about trade and human rights Subscribe to the ICCHRLA newsletter Alerta. Write to: The Inter-Church Committee for Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA) 129 St. Clair Ave. w., Toronto, ON. M4V 1N5 tel. 416-921-0801 fax 416-921-3843 • Request the ICCHRLA brief to the Canadian government on the FTAA hearings. “Any trade agreement should not be an end in itself but rather a means toward combatting poverty and social exclusion and for achieving just and sustainable development.” NGOs, churches and labour organizations from across the Americas at their May 1997 meeting in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.