US President Barack Obama meets with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos during a meeting in New York on September 24, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(Washington, DC) - The initiative by members of the US Congress to establish human rights benchmarks that Colombia should meet prior to US ratification of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is a critically important development, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a letter and memorandum sent to President Barack Obama on March 17, 2011, six members of the US House of Representatives, led by Rep. Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Rep. George Miller, Democrat of California, outlined the measures the Colombian government should take to reduce violence against trade unionists and improve human rights conditions in Colombia. The representatives asked Obama to delay submitting the agreement to Congress for consideration until Colombia carries out these measures.

"It is crucial for Colombia to reduce killings and attacks against trade unionists and to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "These benchmarks include concrete and achievable steps that the Colombian government should take."

Colombia leads the world in killings of trade unionists, with more than 2,800 reported killings since 1986, according to the National Labor School (ENS), Colombia's leading nongovernmental organization monitoring labor rights. According to statistics maintained by ENS, after dropping to 39 in 2007, the number of killings of unionists has increased once again, to 51 in 2008, 47 in 2009, and 51 in 2010. While most of these killings have never been investigated, there is considerable evidence that paramilitary organizations and their successor groups are responsible for a large share of these crimes.

Since taking office in August 2010, President Juan Manuel Santos' government has taken steps to address fundamental human rights problems, including introducing draft legislation to recover and return stolen and abandoned land to displaced persons. The Santos government's stated commitment to pursuing new strategies to address the threat posed by successor groups to paramilitaries is encouraging, Human Rights Watch said. But these steps have not yet been fully implemented and face powerful opposition from the armed groups and their political supporters.

"While the Santos administration has promoted important human rights initiatives, the measures still need to be implemented, and the results are yet to be seen," Vivanco said.