June 9, 2008 / 9:28 PM / 11 years ago

Canadian opposition slams Colombia free trade deal

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, June 9 (Reuters) - Canadian opposition legislators on Monday strongly criticized Ottawa for agreeing to the terms of a free trade deal with Colombia, suggesting it had only done so because the move would help U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper unexpectedly announced on Saturday that it had reached a deal with Colombia and worked out agreements on human rights and environmental issues, both areas of concern to critics.

The news came as a surprise to a Canadian parliamentary committee that recently visited Bogota and was in the process of writing a report on whether an agreement should be signed.

"The Prime Minister has made no secret of his support for George W. Bush on Colombia — they’ve been quoting each other for months," said Navdeep Bains, the international trade spokesman for the official opposition Liberals.

"What I never expected was for the government to subvert the work of Parliament."

In Washington, Democrats have delayed a vote in the House of Representatives on a U.S. free trade deal with Colombia on the grounds that Bogota has not done enough to stop murders of trade unionists.

The Bush administration hopes the Canadian deal will give it new leverage to press for a vote in Congress this year on the U.S.-Colombia pact. It argues that U.S. exports to Colombia will be put at a disadvantage if Canada has a free trade deal and the United States does not.

"Canada is pushing ahead with a trade agreement simply to satisfy George Bush and that is entirely inappropriate," said Peter Julian of the left-leaning New Democrats, calling the signing "a horribly bad move."

Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson dismissed the idea that Ottawa had been trying to help Bush with the agreement.

"No, that’s ridiculous. Colombia may have had an interest in having Canada do a deal with them to encourage the U.S. Congress but our interests are Canadian interests," he told reporters.

In 2007, two-way merchandise trade between Canada and Colombia totaled C$1.14 billion ($1.12 billion).

Harper said the process of signing and ratifying the deal would take months.

"We think this agreement ... will be an important part of integrating (Colombia) into further prosperity and democratic governance," he told a news conference.

Julian also said the draft agreement included a clause that stipulated the killers of a trade unionist in Colombia would only be fined.

"There’s still a lot of work to be done to put this into a legal text and as we get into that I am sure there would not be that kind of clause," responded Emerson.

($1=$1.02 Canadian) (Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty)




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