Canada aims to push ahead with Colombia trade deal

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada plans to push ahead and negotiate a free trade deal with Colombia despite human rights concerns that have stalled a similar agreement between Bogota and Washington, signed over a year ago.

Trade Minister David Emerson said on Friday that Ottawa sought an agreement with “strong provisions on labor and the environment.”

“Canada is committed, and we look forward to working with our Colombian partners to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion,” he said in the prepared text of a speech in Vancouver.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama oppose President George W. Bush’s deal with Colombia as written. The Democrats want Bogota to crack down on right-wing militias blamed for murdering trade unionists before bringing the deal up for a vote, while the White House is pressing for a spring vote.

Republican candidate John McCain backs the agreement.

Since Colombian President Alvaro Uribe took power in 2002, 470 trade union members have been assassinated, U.S. labor groups say. Some of the killers may be linked to high-level government officials, rights groups say.

Canada’s Conservative government has shrugged off similar concerns at home, arguing it can have a positive influence on countries like Colombia by engaging them through trade and investment pacts.

“It’s about lending Canada’s support to social and political progress. And it’s about using our influence to highlight this progress to the world,” Emerson said.

Navdeep Singh Bains, a member of Parliament for the opposition Liberals, said the Canada-Colombia agreement should contain “enforceable language” on human rights.

He suggested Prime Minister Stephen Harper was rushing to sign the deal in order to support Bush.

“On a few occasions, President Bush has cited Harper and the Canadian government’s willingness to sign a deal very quickly as a means to convince Congress to ratify a deal in the United States,” he said.

“That’s the only logic I’ve heard thus far for why they’re trying to rush the deal.”

Canada began negotiations with Colombia and Peru in June 2007 to knock down tariffs on trade. It concluded an agreement with Peru in January.

Reporting by Louise Egan; Editing by Rob Wilson