Carmen Cecilia Santana Romaña, a 28–year–old mother of three and a national trade union officer, was shot dead in her home in Antioquia, Colombia, on Feb. 7. Her murder came as little surprise; the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists is Colombia, which will become Washington's newest free trade partner unless Congress stops the deal.
Some Democrats may be eager to show that they are not obstructionists on trade by cutting a deal with the Bush administration to "fix" the U.S.–Colombia Free Trade Agreement and passing the revised accord. But that's the wrong approach with Colombia. Congress should reject the pact outright.
In Colombia, trade unionists who are not murdered are often threatened, attacked or kidnapped. The overwhelming majority of cases are unsolved; many are never investigated, and the perpetrators go unpunished, ready to strike again. The government says 58 unionists were murdered in Colombia in 2006, up from 40 the year before. Labor groups report even higher totals: 77 murdered in 2006, up from 70 in 2005.
Colombia is a violent country, but its trade unionists are not random casualties. They are especially targeted when exercising their rights to organize and bargain collectively, moments of great potential for change.
Change threatens Colombia's two main guerrilla groups and its Mafia–like paramilitaries, often linked to the anti–union violence. Change also threatens the government, which has proved more likely to be infiltrated by paramilitaries than to pursue them and more likely to grant them concessions than to impose punishment.
Despite $4 billion in U.S. support through Plan Colombia, the Colombian government has yet to take a tough stand against paramilitaries. Since paramilitary demobilization began four years ago, Colombia has doled out the benefits of the process while imposing few of the burdens. Demobilized paramilitary leaders were supposed to stop illegal activity, but paramilitaries are still involved in violence and drug trafficking. And leaders can continue masterminding crimes from prison on unrestricted cell phones.
Paramilitary influence may well reach into the country's highest circles of power. On Feb. 22, the Colombian intelligence agency's head from 2002 to 2005 was arrested on charges of conspiring with paramilitaries, including in the killing of union leaders and academics. The Colombian Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of nine congressmen from President Alvaro Uribe's coalition for their links with paramilitaries. More than a dozen other politicians are also under investigation. Mr. Uribe is spinning these developments as evidence of his willingness to clean house, yet they resulted from independent investigations by judicial institutions and the media.
The U.S.–Colombia Free Trade Agreement, signed in November 2006 and awaiting congressional consideration, would reward Colombia with prized access to American markets even as its workers' rights are brutally violated.
The vital labor rights fixes that congressional Democrats proposed last week for all pending and future free trade accords would not come close to addressing Colombia's problems.
Its human rights problems go far beyond its weak labor laws and their poor enforcement. They cannot be solved through corrections to the trade agreement. Human Rights Watch, which normally takes no position on free trade per se, opposes any free trade accord with Colombia because of its egregious record on human rights.
Before Colombia enjoys a free trade agreement with the United States, it must take a hard line on paramilitarism by initiating serious investigations and prosecutions of cases of violence and threats against trade unionists and by protecting potential witnesses.
The U.S. government should fund the human rights unit of the Colombian attorney general's office to help meet these goals, conditioned upon continued "measurable progress" toward their fulfillment. But it should not reward the country with a free trade agreement.
If the U.S.–Colombia Free Trade Agreement enters into force, U.S. producers will compete directly against Colombian producers whose workers often cannot exercise basic rights without risking their lives. The United States will also have demonstrated a double standard in its "war on terror," rewarding with much–coveted trade benefits a country that stands by while its narco–terrorist paramilitaries crush fundamental human rights.
Carol Pier is a senior researcher on labor rights and trade at Human Rights Watch.