Dan Kovalik, a prominent U.S. labor and human rights lawyer, lays out his reasons why Washington should not ratify a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia, and why he thinks President Obama will not do so.
Kovalik, who serves as assistant general counsel to the United Steelworkers (USW), believes that President Obama’s mention of the Colombian free trade agreement in his State of the Union address does not indicate his commitment to passing it.
“In his final debate with John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama himself stated that he opposed the FTA because the unionists were being killed and because the Colombian government was doing little to stop this,” he explains. So what has changed now that we are in 2011?
“The fact is that the grave situation of anti-union violence has not changed since President Obama made those statements.” Where 51 unionists were killed in 2008, Kovalik notes that 2009 witnessed the murder of 47 unionists, while “at least 47” endured the same fate in 2010.
“Colombia remains ‘the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists,'” he says, citing the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) most recent world survey.
“Impunity for such killings is still around 96%,” while Colombia’s “draconian labor laws” mean that only “about 1% of Colombian workers are covered by a labor agreement.”
Kovalik is certainly well-versed to discuss the situation of trade unionists in Colombia, having helped work on the 2001 case brought against Coca-Cola by Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal, over the supposed murder of over 4,000 of their members since 1986.
Yet if Obama was committed to Colombia labor union rights before his election in 2008, and if the situation has remained much the same, he has been far from outspoken over human rights in Colombia since assuming the presidency. In this respect, as Kovalik concedes, it appears that American strategic interests dictate the U.S. government’s stance on human rights.
“Usually, U.S. administrations, and the Obama administration is no exception, are more apt to criticize the human rights policies of the U.S.’s rivals than those of countries it perceives as its friends – even when the human rights practices of the latter are far worse than the former.”
Colombia, in other words, is considered a key strategic ally in the region, and although “the U.S. is forever criticizing Cuba and Venezuela for their human rights policies, any objective observer would have to conclude that Colombia’s human rights policies over the last 15 years, which have included the wholesale murder of its own population, is many times worse.”
Indeed, where foreign policy may determine the U.S.’s inclination to speak out about human rights, it is domestic politics that may now shape the future of the Colombian FTA.
Republican control of the House, since November 2010, “is obviously critical on this issue.” Many Republicans have long been advocates of the FTA and Kovalik accepts that if it were to be introduced by Obama, “it would be very difficult to stop its passage.”
“For those of us opposing the Colombia FTA, the key is to prevail upon President Obama to refrain from introducing [it] in the first place.”
The Pittsburgh-based lawyer also points to the Economic Policy Institute’s conclusion in a 2010 report that the Colombian FTA “would in fact cost 55,000 net U.S. jobs by 2015,” although he asserts that both his objections and those of American labor unions are “first and foremost” due to “principled concerns regarding anti-union violence in Colombia.”
It is for this reason that Kovalik argues in favor of “creating a fund for the victims, which the U.S. should help support financially given its complicity in the state violence in Colombia,” even if this is just “the first step towards justice.”
Ultimately, however, the problem lies with the “continued human rights abuses by illegal armed groups,” and the failure of the Peace and Justice process in ensuring that the demobilized “stay demobilized.”
If the Colombian FTA has languished primarily during former President Uribe’s controversial rule, perhaps Kovalik perceives a change in direction under incumbent President Santos.
Santos has “certainly expressed good intentions,” accepts Kovalik, but unfortunately “there appears to be no difference in the actual results of his policies.”
As Human Rights Watch recently stated, quotes Kovalik, there was still a “‘spike in massacres committed in 2010, which surpassed all annual totals since 2005.'”
“Until President Santos’ professed good intentions translate into a reversal of such horrific trends, Colombia should be denied the Free Trade Agreement.”
The U.S.-Colombia FTA was signed by former Presidents George W. Bush and Alvaro Uribe in 2006, but was never ratified by U.S. Congress. Despite ongoing Colombian lobbying to have the pact approved, the Obama administration has not yet put the deal up for a congressional vote.