Canada’s role in the struggle between human rights and corporate rights

When we think about international development and its goal of improving the standard of living of people in the global south, we really need to start at home and look at how our own country’s policies – particularly trade policies – affect human rights.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland signs the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland signs the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

Canada and the countries with which we have signed International Investment Agreements (IIAs) are also signatories to numerous human rights treaties. Yet in spite of article 103 of the United Nations Charter stating that human rights obligations shall prevail when there is a conflict between human rights treaties and other agreements, it is the trade agreements that enjoy strong enforcement mechanisms.

A strong case in point is the International Investment Agreement Canada implemented with Colombia in 2011. The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCOFTA) is just one of 57 IIAs signed by Canada as of January 1 2015. Like other agreements, the CCOFTA promotes market liberalization, privatization and deregulation, but it differs from the others in that it also requires a yearly report on the agreement’s impact on human rights.

Colombia’s tarnished human rights record includes the dismal status of leading the world in killings of trade unionists. But the country also contains extensive mineral and oil deposits that Canada’s extractive industry was hungering to get a bigger slice of. Adding the annual Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) was the then-opposition Liberal’s price for endorsing the Conservative government’s treaty with Colombia.

A recent report by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation’s Colombia Working Group found that the HRIA reports filed by the Canadian government annually since 2011 do not even examine the human rights impact of Canadian investment in the extractive industry.

The CCOFTA provides generous investment protections for the Canadian extractive industry investment with investor-state arbitration provisions to guarantee those rights, but only voluntary and unenforceable provisions for corporate social responsibility.

With the recent signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to signal a continued commitment to free trade and the enshrining of corporate rights. In his mandate letter to International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, Prime Minister Trudeau states that a priority of her ministry must be to “Refocus Canada’s development assistance on helping the poorest and most vulnerable…” Putting human rights before corporate rights is one way the government could achieve this mandate.

Although International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has cautioned that “There is a big difference between signing and ratifying”, the Liberal Party made clear their support for free trade in their campaign platform. The Government of Canada has committed to consulting with Canadians before ratifying the agreement. If you would like to share your views on the TPP with the government, visit, where the government provides an email for feedback.

Comments are closed.