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The US Congress should vote in favor of the proposal by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to delay consideration of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), Human Rights Watch said today.

The proposal, which will come up for a vote on April 10, 2008, would permit Congress to postpone consideration of the agreement beyond the 90-day time limit imposed under current fast-track rules. Human Rights Watch urged Congress to put off the vote until Colombia has shown concrete and sustained results in addressing anti-union violence and impunity and in breaking the power of paramilitary groups.

“Colombia has serious problems and can’t possibly address them in 90 days,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should back the Speaker’s proposal, which recognizes that it will take time for Colombia’s government to show a meaningful change. Rushing a congressional decision will do little to end the pattern of abuses in Colombia or reduce the influence of paramilitaries there.”

Colombia leads the world in trade unionist assassinations, with 17 killings in the first three months of 2008 alone, and more than 400 during the 6-year administration of President Alvaro Uribe. Hardly any of the killers have been brought to justice.

In response to the US Congress’s concerns over Colombia’s failure to prosecute the killers, in 2007 the Uribe government established a specialized group of prosecutors to focus on cases of trade unionist assassinations. Human Rights Watch called this a positive step but said that Congress has to sustain pressure over time for Colombia’s promises to translate into concrete results in the form of well-grounded convictions.

Paramilitary groups – which are on the US list of terrorist organizations and are major drug traffickers – are responsible for much of the anti-union violence. The Colombian government claims the paramilitaries have demobilized, but it has yet to dismantle paramilitaries’ criminal structures, seize their illegal wealth, or ensure full investigations of their financial backers and support in the security forces and political system. Scores of new groups linked to the paramilitaries are operating all over the country.

Human Rights Watch said that by delaying consideration of the trade deal until Colombia has addressed these concerns Congress could start changing the perception in Latin America that the United States will subordinate human rights to economic and political considerations.

“By delaying consideration of the Colombia FTA, Congress will show the region that human rights, including workers’ rights, do matter,” said Vivanco.

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