The U.S. Should Not Move Forward on Colombia FTA without Addressing Root Causes of Violence

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Coalition of Groups ask U.S. Congress to Oppose Colombia Free Trade Agreement

Yesterday, June 23, 2011, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and more than 400 other organizations, academics, and individuals from both the United States and Colombia, sent a letter to the U.S. Congress asking representatives to vote no on the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Human rights violations in Colombia–abuses against labor activists, Afro-Colombians, human rights activists and others–continue to take place at alarmingly high levels. In this climate, it would be a mistake to approve the FTA.

Human rights abuses are widespread and touch many sectors of Colombian society. The Labor Action Plan approved several months ago by the Colombian government in discussions with the United States has not stopped new violence directed against trade unionists and labor activists, nor has it banned the third-party contracting that obstructs workers’ ability to unionize. Colombia’s internal armed conflict is generating violence and new displacements. Illegal armed groups exert influence, often through violence, over legal sectors of the economy including extractive industries, oil palm, mining, and development projects. 

“You’ve heard about conflict diamonds,” said LAWG’s Executive Director Lisa Haugaard at a recent event held in Congress about the U.S.-Colombia FTA. “Well, Colombia has conflict coal and conflict hydroelectric dams and conflict gold and conflict cattle and conflict African palm for biofuel.”  

Given the continuing climate of human rights abuses, approving the FTA on the grounds that the first formal steps in the Labor Action Plan have been implemented, ignores the deeper issues, and by doing so will contribute to further violence and displacement.

The Obama Administration has been very focused on addressing labor concerns with the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan; LAWG recognizes these efforts. Nonetheless, we join over 400 U.S. and Colombia civil society groups in recognizing that much more needs to be done to address labor rights and the broader human rights situation. The Plan fails to take into account the country’s broader context and issues that generate violence against workers, human rights defenders, and activists. In 2011 alone, more than 20 human rights defenders have been killed and approximately 100 threatened.

Earlier this year, LAWG gathered over 11,500 signatures on a petition to President Obama asking him to not move forward with the free trade agreement until labor and human rights conditions had improved in Colombia. Over the past couple months, activists in cities across the United States have been meeting with their legislators and staging demonstrations to make their opposition heard. Last month, LAWG released a two-minute bilingual video featuring concerned citizens in the United States and Colombia asking decision-makers tough questions about how they will deal with the negative consequences of this trade deal if it is passed. LAWG’s partner the U.S. Office on Colombia just released a series of short videos that provide testimony from Colombia on the impact of the FTA on small-scale farmers and workers, in addition to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

“I’ve spent the past six weeks writing obituaries of labor activists, land-rights defenders, and Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders. The rhetoric about improvements in labor and human rights does not measure up with the violent reality on the ground,” said Gimena Sanchez, WOLA Senior Associate for the Andes. “If the U.S. Congress does not focus on the human rights issues, including fully dismantling the illegal armed groups and taking bold steps to protect Afro-Colombian and indigenous collective rights before passage of the FTA, it will facilitate the onset of new human rights violations and displacements,” she adds.

With over 5.2 million persons internally displaced (IDPs), Colombia competes only with the Sudan for the country with largest total IDP population in the world. Threats, attacks, murders, and new displacements of human rights defenders, Afro-Colombian, and indigenous leaders continue to be a serious problem. Armed combat continues, successor paramilitary groups remain unpunished, and justice for human rights cases remains elusive. Last week, Afro-Colombian IDP activist, Ana Fabricia Cordoba, was murdered in Medellin despite having repeatedly denounced threats and even publicly calling for protection from officials.

“In many conflict areas of Colombia, businessmen are still paying paramilitary groups to threaten and kill so that they can expand their landholdings to increase production of oil palm, cattle, and mining,” said Lisa Haugaard. “Paramilitary forces themselves are expanding their control of these products using fear and force.  It is these very products, rather than the small farm production, that will most benefit from increased trade and investment with the U.S.-Colombia FTA.  

“What happens when you make these exports even more profitable, at the same time as you ease up internationally on pressure for Colombia to respect and protect human rights? The answer I heard from the poor farmers when I travelled to Colombia in April was: it will escalate the conflict.” 

To learn more about the Latin America Working Group and its partners’ efforts to oppose the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, click here.