Bogota Fails to Tackle Anti-Union Violence and Impunity
April 7, 2008
Colombia has yet to show concrete results in breaking paramilitaries’ power and holding the killers of trade unionists accountable. If Congress ratifies the FTA now, it’s very unlikely the Uribe government will follow through on its promises to tackle these issues.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch

The US Congress should vote against the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) because of Colombia’s continuing failure to effectively address anti-union violence and impunity, Human Rights Watch said today.

Colombia has the highest rate of killings of trade unionists in the world. Seventeen trade unionists have been killed in Colombia in just the first three months of this year, Human Rights Watch said.

President George W. Bush has announced that tomorrow he will submit the free trade agreement to Congress for a vote, over the objections of the congressional leadership. Last year the leadership of the House of Representatives said that consideration of the deal would depend on whether Colombia showed “concrete evidence of sustained results” in breaking the power of paramilitary groups and addressing the near-total impunity for widespread violence against trade unionists. Colombia has not met these conditions.

“Colombia has yet to show concrete results in breaking paramilitaries’ power and holding the killers of trade unionists accountable,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “If Congress ratifies the FTA now, it’s very unlikely the Uribe government will follow through on its promises to tackle these issues.”

Human Rights Watch does not oppose free trade agreements per se, but said any free trade deal should be premised on respect for fundamental human rights, including the rights of workers.

More than 400 trade unionists have been killed since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, according to the National Labor School (Escuela Nacional Sindical), a highly respected labor rights group in Colombia. Every year, hundreds of trade unionists also report receiving death threats.

Proponents of the trade deal seek to minimize the violence by asserting that trade unionists are less likely to be killed in Colombia than the average citizen. But that “average citizen” includes people in conflict zones or others living under conditions of unusually high risks. A statistically appropriate comparison would look at trade unionists as compared to non-unionized workers in the same region and industry.

There have been more than 2,500 trade unionist killings in Colombia since 1985, but only 68 of these cases have ever resulted in a conviction. Bush says the Colombian government has addressed Congressional concern over impunity by stepping up funding for prosecutions and supporting the creation last year of a specialized group of prosecutors and judges assigned to reopen some cases. Human Rights Watch noted that positive step, but warned it could be quickly undone if the deal were ratified before prosecutors made real headway in obtaining well-grounded convictions.

“The most promising step the Colombian government has taken is to establish this specialized group of prosecutors,” said Vivanco. “But they need sustained pressure to get the job done.”

Paramilitary groups, which are on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations, have openly admitted to deliberately targeting unionists. Bush says the Colombian government has addressed the violence by demobilizing tens of thousands of paramilitary fighters. However, the Organization of American States (OAS) mission verifying the demobilizations has identified 22 illegal armed groups, in which paramilitaries are actively recruiting new troops and participating in drug trafficking, extortion, selective killings, and the forced displacement of thousands of civilians. Eight foreign embassies in Bogota, the OAS mission, and countless human rights defenders, trade unionists, and civilians have also reported receiving threats from these groups in recent months.

Meanwhile, Colombian democracy is facing a serious threat in the form of paramilitaries exercising influence at some of the highest levels of government. More than 50 congressmen from Uribe’s governing coalition, his former intelligence chief, and other officials, have come under investigation for collaborating with paramilitaries. Rather than fully supporting investigations into these links, Uribe has repeatedly lashed out against the Colombian Supreme Court and journalists who are trying to uncover the extent of the paramilitaries’ influence.

In remarks to the media on April 7, Bush portrayed the agreement as “urgent for national security reasons,” arguing that Colombia needs assistance to confront the abusive left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. But the United States already provides hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Colombia every year, mostly as military aid, Human Rights Watch noted.