US Office on Colombia -FTA puts US economic interests before human rights

News from Colombia | on: Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The US Office on Colombia (USOC) is deeply concerned by President Obama's decision to greenlight the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) despite continued gross labor and human rights violations in Colombia. On April 7, 2011 the US and Colombia signed the Labor Action Plan (LAP) which outlined specific indicators that Colombia needed to meet before the FTA would be ratified. According to Colombia's National Labor School, the Colombian government has only implemented 28 out of the 37 commitments included in the plan, and many of those only partially. By moving forward with the FTA in spite of these shortcomings, the US government loses a huge opportunity to press for fair labor standards and respect for human rights in Colombia.

Many of the most criticized labor practices in Colombia continue in full force such as the use of exploitative cooperatives and collective pacts. But most worrisome is that threats against and murders of labor leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia have continued unabated since the LAP was signed. 49 human rights defenders were killed in 2011-a 36% increase over 2010, and 6 union leaders have been killed thus far in 2012. Furthermore, the vast majority of these crimes remain in impunity. For effective protection of labor and human rights leaders to occur, the US must insist that Colombia take decisive action to dismantle paramilitary and paramilitary successor groups responsible for so many of these threats and assassinations. The concerns that lead to the creation of the LAP have clearly not been addressed and therefore the government's decision to move forward with the FTA is premature.

This is precisely why the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia announced on April 19 that it will continue to operate. This group, created after the signing of the LAP states, "The Colombian Government has taken important action to improve labor rights, but until more change is realized on the ground, the Monitoring Group's work is not done. We will continue to engage governments, workers, employers, labor, and non-governmental organizations to monitor the implementation of the Labor Action Plan, the enforcement of its key elements, and help all parties achieve tangible results."

On top of the concerns about labor rights, the FTA could also have unintended consequences that undermine US policy in the region. For example, it could devastate small-scale farmers in Colombia who will now have to compete with US subsidized commodities. Studies show that Colombia's 1.8 million small farmers will see their income fall over 16% on average and nearly 400,000 of the poorest farmers will lose between 48 and 70 of their income. This could push many of them to cultivate coca as an economic alternative, undermining US counter-narcotics efforts in the country.

These combined factors show that the US has clearly missed an opportunity to provide diplomatic pressure to Colombia that would ensure compliance with international labor standards and human rights norms and which would also support its own objectives in the country.

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