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Despite Promises, Colombia FTA Does Little to End Abuse of Labor Activists August 5, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Labor, Latin America.
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Published on Sunday, August 5, 2012 by Common Dreams

 

Assurances by both governments fail to end violence against workers

- Common Dreams staff

According to activists, 34 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since the LAP was implemented, including 11 this year alone. (Image AFL-CIO)

Despite repeated assurances from both the US and Colombian governments, labor leaders say that two months after the implementation of a bi-lateral trade deal between the two countries few meaningful protections for unionists have been implemented.

“We ask President (Barack) Obama to push for more guarantees for Colombian workers,” Miguel Conde, with Sintrainagro, a union representing workers on palm-oil plantations, said at at press event held at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. “In Colombia, it is easier to form an armed group than a trade union… because we still have no guarantees from the government.”

The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (Colombia FTA) was originally negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. Colombia—a country that for decades has been the most dangerous place in the world for trade union organizers— promsied to curtail the culture of murder and abuse, but human rights groups both inside and outside of Colombia warned against the deal. After several years, the US Congress ultimately approved the pact in October 2011, but only after the inclusion of a 37-point Labour Action Plan (LAP), designed to improving the conditions for Colombian workers and organizers.

The problem, according to activists interviewed by Al-Jazeera and a report recently released by the AFL-CIO, is that the protections are either not being implemented at all, or are insufficient to address the ongoing abuses.

“Though the LAP included some important measures that Colombian unions and the AFL-CIO have been demanding for years,” reads the AFL-CIO’s report (pdf), “its scope was too limited—it fully resolved neither the grave violations of union freedoms nor the continuing violence and threats against unionists and human rights defenders.”

“What happened since [implementation] is a surge in reprisals against almost all of the trade unions and labour activists that really believed in the Labour Action Plan,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group, said at the report’s launch.

This included the April 27 killing of Daniel Aguirre, a labour leader who had helped to organise Colombia’s sugarcane workers. According to Sánchez-Garzoli, 34 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since the LAP was implemented, including 11 this year alone.

“There is no reason to believe that top officials are not making sincere efforts to make a change,” Celeste Drake, a trade policy expert with AFL-CIO, told Al-Jazeera.

“The problem is these changes cannot simply be made by people with good intentions at the top. It’s a culture within the government and throughout Colombia that for years has tolerated, condoned, promoted intolerance to the exercise of worker rights.”

Showing 2 comments

  • Yunzer, Direct Action Gets the Goods 1 comment collapsed CollapseExpand

    The savage neoliberal capitalist state of Colombia is a vile place. Don’t let Bogota’s liberal-bourgeois reputation deceive you on this.

    It is also a 1/8th scale model of what the USA will look like in a couple more decades. I see no countervailing political-economic force to counteract this trend, and hard lessons of history (Pinkertons/Baldwin Felts = Paramilitarios) to confirm it.

    Organize! Organize!

     
  • Suspiria_de_profundis 1 comment

    Do these poor workers really think Barack Obama CARES that their union leaders are being assassinated?

    Barack Obama is not a decent or just man in any way shape or form and he will only act on this if he sees it garnering him a political advantage,

    Political leaders that show genuine concern for the worker tend to be assassinated or toppled in some CIA sponsored action.

    The truth is that these workers can only appeal to the American people and if the American people either do not care or care but can not do anyhting because theor own media and political system is totally under control of the same Corporations making profits off the worker in Colombia, nothing will be done on tthe part of the United States of America.

    The Colombian people will have to rid themselves of their own Government.

Rights Group: Little Progress in Stemming Killings of Colombian Trade Unionists October 4, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Labor, Latin America.
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Published on Tuesday, October 4, 2011 by Associated Press

Trade Pacts Move Forward, But Colombia Still UnSafe for Unionists

BOGOTA, Colombia — A new study challenges claims from the administration of President Barack Obama that Colombia is making important strides in bringing to justice killers of labor activists and so deserves U.S. congressional approval of a long-stalled free trade pact.

US President Barack Obama meets with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on April 7, 2011. Yesterday Obama submitted three trade pacts to Congress despite continued concerns about their impact on the US economy and human rights violations in Colombia. (Reuters)

The Human Rights Watch study found “virtually no progress” in getting convictions for killings that have occurred in the past 4 1/2 years.

It counted just six convictions obtained by a special prosecutions unit from 195 slayings between January 2007 and May 2011, with nearly nine in 10 of the unit’s cases from that period in preliminary stages with no suspect formally identified.

Democrats in the U.S. Congress have long resisted bringing the Colombia trade pact to a vote, citing what they said is insufficient success in halting such killings.

The White House disagrees, and says Colombia has made significant progress in addressing anti-unionist violence.

US President Barack Obama sent long-stalled free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress and pressed lawmakers to approve them “without delay.” Republicans endorse the bill overall and say it will increase U.S. exports by $13 billion a year and support tens of thousands of jobs.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk recently said the trade agreements are “an integral part of the President’s plan to create jobs here at home.”

But in Colombia, the world’s most lethal country for labor organizing, the killings haven’t stopped. At least 38 trade unionists have been slain since President Juan Manuel Santos took office in August 2010, says Colombia’s National Labor School.

“A major reason for this ongoing violence has been the chronic lack of accountability for cases of anti-union violence,” Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent last Thursday to Colombian Chief Prosecutor Viviane Morales that details the study’s findings.

Convictions have been obtained for less than 10 percent of the 2,886 trade unionists killed since 1986, and the rights group said it found “severe shortcomings” in the work of a special unit of Morales’ office established five years ago to solve the slayings. The letter says the unit has demonstrated “a routine failure to adequately investigate the motive” in labor killings as well as to “bring to justice all responsible parties.”

A chief finding: The 74 convictions achieved over the past year owe largely to plea bargains with members of illegal far-right militias who confessed to killings in exchange for leniency.

They did so under the so-called Justice and Peace law that gave paramilitary fighters reduced prison sentences of up to eight years in exchange for laying down their arms and confessing to crimes. That law expired at the end of 2006, the year the free trade pact was signed.

Only in a handful of cases did prosecutors pursue evidence that the paramilitaries who confessed acted on the orders of politicians, employers or others, Human Rights Watch says.

Prosecutors “made virtually no progress in prosecuting people who order, pay, instigate or collude with paramilitaries in attacking trade unionists,” the letter states. “What is at stake is the justice system’s ability to act as an effective deterrent to anti-union violence.”

Of the more than 275 convictions handed down through May, 80 percent were against former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. The head of international affairs in the chief prosecutor’s office, Francisco Echeverri, told the AP that it has put 513 people in prison.

In nearly half of 50 recent convictions reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the judges cited “evidence pointing to the involvement of members of the security forces or intelligence services, politicians, landowners, bosses or co-workers.” Yet in only one of those cases was such an individual convicted.

In the case of a gym teacher and union activist killed in the northwestern town of San Rafael in 2002, one of the paramilitaries who confessed to the crime said it was committed at the request of the mayor, according to the judge’s decision.

The man who was mayor at the time and was re-elected in 2008, Edgar Eladio Giraldo, is not being formally investigated and has not been questioned about the killing, said Hernando Castaneda, chief of the special unit.

“I have no knowledge of that and did not know that I was involved in that,” Giraldo told The Associated Press by telephone when asked about the killing of Julio Ernesto Ceballos.

A spokeswoman for Chief Prosecutor Morales said Sunday that her boss had not yet yet seen the Human Rights Watch letter.

Dan Kovalik of the United Steel Workers said the study’s findings and the continued killings “prove what labor is telling the White House: The labor rights situation in Colombia is not improving, and passage of the FTA is not appropriate.”

A memo soon to be released by the AFL-CIO deems Colombia noncompliant with the “Labor Action Plan” Santos and Obama agreed to in April as a condition for White House approval of the free trade pact.

In the memo, shown to the AP, the labor federation finds neither “economic, political, or moral justification for rewarding Colombia with a free trade agreement.”

Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Nkenge Harmon said Friday when presented with the study’s findings that Colombia’s record prosecuting “perpetrators of violence” against labor activists “has improved significantly,” though she added that Colombian officials acknowledge more needs to be done.

Harmon also stressed that additional Colombian resources are being dedicated to the issue and that the U.S. government “is working intensively with them through training and support.”

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that annual trade unionists killings are only a quarter of what they were a decade ago. And it applauded some measures taken by Chief Prosecutor Morales, including her announcement that an additional 100 police investigators would be assigned to the special investigative unit.

But HRW regional director Jose Miguel Vivanco said “the challenge (Morales) is facing remains huge.”

A U.S. congressman who has met with various Colombian presidents on human rights issues, Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, doesn’t think enough has been done to reverse what he called a “dismal” record.

Said McGovern: “My worry is that if you approve the FTA at this particular point you remove all the pressure off the powers that be in Colombia to actually make a sincere, honest and concerted attempt to improve the situation.”

Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Libardo Cardona contributed to this report.

© 2011 Associated Press

Obama Doesn’t Plan to Reopen Nafta Talks April 26, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Labor.
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www.nytimes.com, Published: April 20, 2009

WASHINGTON — The administration has no present plans to reopen negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement to add labor and environmental protections, as President Obama vowed to do during his campaign, the top trade official said on Monday.

“The president has said we will look at all of our options, but I think they can be addressed without having to reopen the agreement,” said the official, Ronald Kirk, the United States trade representative. It was perhaps the clearest indication yet of the administration’s thinking on whether to reopen the core agreement to add labor and environmental rules.

Mr. Kirk spoke in a conference call with reporters after returning from a regional summit meeting that Mr. Obama attended over the weekend in Trinidad. He said that Mr. Obama had conferred with the leaders of Mexico and Canada — the other parties to the trade agreement — and that “they are all of the mind we should look for opportunities to strengthen Nafta.”

But while he said that a formal review of the 1992 pact had yet to be completed, Mr. Kirk noted that both Mr. Obama and President Felipe Calderon of Mexico had said that “they don’t believe we have to reopen the agreement now.”

Mexico in particular, whose exports have exploded under Nafta, has little interest in such a renegotiation.

Not only Mr. Obama but also one of his rivals for the presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had promised during their campaigns to renegotiate the accord — a politically popular position in some electorally important Midwestern states that have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs.

Thea Lee, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. policy director, said that the workers federation would have preferred “more definitive” language on addressing key labor concerns, but that it was understandable for a new administration to start its review with a less confrontational approach.

“We were obviously very encouraged by what Obama the candidate was saying on the campaign trail in terms of needing to recognize the deficiencies of Nafta and to strengthen it,” said Margrete Strand Rangnes, a labor and trade specialist with the Sierra Club.

Her group opposed Nafta from the start as lacking adequate environmental provisions, and contends that the side agreements added later have proved inadequate. “You have an environmental side agreement that doesn’t have as many teeth as the commercial provisions of the agreement,” she said. “You have an investment chapter that allows companies to basically file suit against common-sense environmental and public health measures.”

But she said the Sierra Club recognized that change would not come easily, and added, “We’re eager to work with the administration in having that conversation.”

Since the election, neither the president nor Mrs. Clinton, now secretary of state, has said much about trying to move side agreements on labor and the environment — which are subject to limited enforcement — into the main part of the trade pact, a potentially tangled and protracted process. As candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries last year, both said they would renegotiate or even opt out of Nafta, citing flaws in its labor and environmental provisions, while trading accusations over past support for the agreement.

Mr. Kirk, who as mayor of Dallas was known as a strong advocate of free trade, also said the administration planned expeditious reviews of pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

He said that Colombia had made “remarkable progress” in reducing violence — attacks against labor activists have been a key sticking point — but that other issues remained, and he vowed intensive consultation with Congress on the matter.

The Bush administration signed the agreement with Colombia in November 2006. But Congressional Democrats and United States labor groups have said the Uribe government must do more to stop the antilabor violence and hold perpetrators accountable, a position Mr. Obama supported during his campaign.

Regarding Panama, Mr. Kirk said that differences on labor standards, and the question of the country “possibly being a tax haven,” needed resolution.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Kirk met with leaders of both countries during the Trinidad meeting.

Colombia Confirms It Cannot Meet Necessary FTA Prerequisites; Death Squads on Rise December 20, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Latin America.
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Dan Kovalik, December 4, 2008

www.huffingtonpost.com

(UPDATED) In his final debate with John McCain, President-elect Barack Obama made it clear why he opposed passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) – because of the problem with union assassinations in Colombia (still the highest in the world) and because the Colombian government has failed to investigate and prosecute those killings. This statement echoed Speaker Nancy Pelosi who, just last year, set forth the yard marks which were necessary for consideration for the Colombia FTA – namely, “concrete and sustained” results in dealing with continued violence against trade unionists, impunity and the role of paramilitary groups in that violence.

2008-12-04-fernandoboteromasacre.jpg
Fernando Botero, “Masacre”

On the issue of impunity, the Colombian government has successfully investigated and prosecuted around only 3% of the almost 2700 union killings since 1986, resulting in an impunity rate of 97%. And, recently, the Colombian Office of the Attorney General confirmed that this impunity rate will not be appreciably lowered.

Indeed, as Human Rights Watch recently explained in a letter to Nancy Pelosi, Congressman George Miller and Congressman Charles Rangel, “[t]he Office of the Attorney General reports that as of October 20, the specialized prosecutors unit is only reviewing a total of 1,272 cases involving anti-union violence – including both threats and killings (even though nearly all of the 2,685 reported killings and more than 3,700 threats remain unresolved).” (emphasis added).

In short, impunity will not decrease very much in Colombia because the Colombian government, by its own admission, is not even looking into the vast majority of anti-union violence cases. This is an incredible admission by the Colombian government given its continued full-court press for passage of the Colombia FTA. This admission should finally end Colombia’s chances at passage of the FTA, at least so long as Barack Obama is President and Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House.

What’s more, the other key issue blocking passage of the FTA – ongoing anti-union violence – continues to be a big problem. As Human Rights Watch noted in its same letter, “[a]fter dropping to 39 last year, the number of killings has increased once again in 2008. Through October, 41 trade unionists have been reported killed, compared with 33 through October 2007. More than 150 unionists have reported being threatened so far this year.”

Addressing Speaker Pelosi’s third concern about continued paramilitary violence in Colombia, particularly against trade unionists, Human Rights Watch makes it clear that this problem remains grim and is actually getting worse. Indeed, as Human Rights Watch noted, while there was some temporary abating of paramilitary violence as a result of the demobilization which accompanied the “Justice and Peace” process, the paramilitaries are now re-mobilizing. As Human Rights Watch explained, “new armed groups often led by mid-level paramilitary commanders have cropped up all over the country. The Organization of American States (OAS) Mission verifying the demobilizations has identified 22 such groups, totaling thousands of members. The groups are actively recruiting new troops and are committing widespread abuses, including extortion, killings, and forced displacement.”

These conclusions about the paramilitary resurgence in Colombia were just reinforced by a Dec. 5, 2008, L.A. Times article by Chris Kraul, entitled, “Paramilitary groups still spread terror among Colombia’s people.” This article concluded that, in spite of President Uribe’s denial of the existence of any paramilitarism in Colombia, there are as many as 100 new paramilitary “gangs” in Colombia, “including as many as 10,000 fighters.” As this article reports, the rise of these new death squads is “creating an enormous catastrophe” with massive new displacements of people, adding to the already almost 4 million internal refugees — the second largest in the world. According to the L.A. Times, the hyper-violent Black Eagles “may account for half of the newly emerged fighters.”

The strong re-emergence of the paramilitary death squads does not bode well for trade unionists, for as Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General reported in March of 2008, of all the persons convicted of killing unionists, 73% belonged to paramilitary groups.

Finally, the Colombian government continues to turn a blind eye to the participation of government officials and major corporations in the murder of unionists. As Human Rights Watch explained, the Colombian government has done little to investigate the credible allegation that Jorge Noguera, the former chief of Colombia’s DAS (the analogue of the FBI which has actually received U.S. monies to protect unionists) passed a hit list with the names of trade unionists to the paramilitaries with the intent that the paramilitaries carry out the assassination of said unionists.

Further, Human Rights Watch noted that the Colombian government has failed to abide by the order of a well-respected judge to investigate the role played by the Nestle Corporation in the murder of union leader Luciano Romero. The issue of such corporate responsibility in the murder of trade unionists continues even as Colombia, on December 6, commemorates the 80th anniversary of the massacre of striking banana workers in the town of Cienaga, Colombia at the behest of then United Fruit Company (now, Chiquita Banana, a company which has continued to fund atrocities in Colombia). This event inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s portrayal of the murder of banana workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude - a book I am told is the very favorite of none other than Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Sadly, this history of anti-union violence at the hands of elites in Colombia is repeated today on a regular basis. And, to put an end to this, Congress must continue its refusal to consider passage of the Colombia FTA.

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