Freedom of Association Needs to Be Protected for Colombia to Reach a Just and Lasting Peace

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Statement by Lisa Haugaard, Director, Latin America Working Group Education Fund at AFL-CIO Event on Labor Rights in Colombia, May 16, 2016

The Colombian government and FARC guerrillas are advancing towards a final peace agreement—we hope in the near future. The Colombian government and the last remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, recently announced they were launching formal talks. The Latin America Working Group applauds the Santos Administration for its persistence and dedication to ending this bitter conflict in which over 220,000 Colombians have died and over 6 million have been displaced.

But peace is not achieved merely by an agreement on paper. Colombia must rise to the challenge of creating a nation in which political opposition, and civil society organizations, including labor unions, human rights groups, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and community organizations, women and LGBT groups, can organize without receiving death threats, without losing their jobs, without being blacklisted, without being arbitrarily detained, without being disappeared, without being displaced, and without being killed. Colombia is still far from achieving these very basic guarantees for freedom of association and freedom of expression.

The peace agreements signed so far between the Colombian government and the FARC specifically speak to this issue: the political participation accord addresses the rights of opposition political parties and also of the rights of civil society organizations to organize freely. Without real guarantees for political opposition and civil society organizations to organize, any peace agreement can unravel and the hopes raised by the peace accords with be dashed—hopes for a Colombia in which those who have been excluded, ignored and discriminated against can truly safely and fully participate in political and civic life.

As my colleagues will detail, despite the promises of the Labor Action Plan, violence against trade unionists continues, with 99 trade unionists assassinated since the Colombia-US trade agreement came into force. Violence against human rights defenders more broadly also continues. In 2015, according to the monitoring group Somos Defensores, assassinations of human rights defenders increased 13 percent, from 55 defenders killed in 2014 to 63 defenders killed in 2015—despite 2015 being the year of lowest political violence in recent decades. 2015 saw an increase in attacks on human rights defenders from paramilitary groups, organized crime and unknown sources. Few of these attacks and virtually none of the threats against human rights defenders are successfully investigated and prosecuted.

Strengthening freedom of association in Colombia, as well as of course the specific right to join a union, means: successfully investigating and prosecuting threats and attacks against human rights defenders, labor leaders and members of political opposition. It means improving Colombia’s protection program, which underwent a corruption crisis but we hope is now on the mend. It also means seriously going after and dismantling the structures of violence, including the financial and political backers of paramilitary and organized crime networks which are behind a substantial part of the threats and the violence.

Strengthening freedom of association also means providing guarantees for expression of social protest. Too often, social protests, by unions, peasant associations, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and others are met with excessive use of force by the ESMAD riot police and the army. As Colombia implements peace accords, it will critical for carefully trained police to gradually replace the armed forces as the providers of law enforcement in former conflict zones.

It is also imperative to end the harsh tactics used by the ESMAD riot police, which have included arbitrary detentions, torture and excessive use of force resulting in killings and wounding of protestors. In the last two years, union members have been wounded by tear gas canisters thrown by ESMAD. One union official lost an eye and another had his skull shattered and brain functioning compromised. Many others have been injured.

This must and can stop. Human rights defenders have worked with the previous mayor’s office in Bogota to create a protocol for police and civil society groups to ensure that peaceful protests can take place without incident. Such a protocol should be developed and employed nationwide.

I’ve focused here on some steps the Colombian government should take to strengthen freedom of association. But I’d like to end by emphasizing that the U.S. government has an enormous responsibility to its own citizens to ensure that labor rights, and broader freedom of association, are respected in Colombia. The Labor Action Plan is a commitment by both governments to strengthen labor rights and end anti-union violence in Colombia, a commitment made in part to overcome substantial opposition to the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement. Second, the US government has invested some 10 billion dollars in U.S. taxpayer funding in Colombia, largely for war but now for peace. The U.S. government owes it to us as U.S. citizens to ensure that this Action Plan and this investment have some impact in strengthened rule of law and strengthened freedom of association in Colombia.

U.S. and Colombian labor unions, including the AFL-CIOfiledlabor rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor on May 16, 2016 citing the failure of the Colombian government to comply with multiple obligations under Chapter 17 of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) and raising concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.