NGO Human Rights Watch says that moves by U.S. Congress members to ensure that Colombia meets human rights standards before the trade deal is ratified are “critically important,” in a statement released Thursday.
Six members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Barack Obama Thursday stating that more steps must be taken to improve the human rights situation in Colombia before the president sends the free trade agreement to Congress for approval.
The Americas director at HRW Jose Miguel Vivanco said in response to the letter that, “It is crucial for Colombia to reduce killings and attacks against trade unionists and to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice” and that “These benchmarks include concrete and achievable steps that the Colombian government should take.”
HRW highlighted the issue of reducing violence against trade unionists, which has been an ongoing problem in Colombia. According to the NGO, Colombia has the highest documented killings of unionists in the world, with more than 2,800 reported since 1986. Evidence indicates that paramilitary organizations are responsible for the bulk of these deaths.
The congress members’ letter, addressed to the U.S. president, frames the poor Colombian human rights record as a potential threat to economic opportunity in America, stating that “One of the most important ways we can safeguard the ability of American families to make a living and keep their jobs is by guaranteeing they are not in competition with workers in other countries whose wages are kept low … because they lack the essential democratic rights that American workers have.”
The representatives add that Colombia “stands out” as one of these countries, and pose the request to Obama that “before you send us an FTA with Colombia for consideration, we ask that you first assure us that Colombia’s long track record of repression, violence and murder of labor unionists has truly changed.”
In order to determine that the on-the-ground situation in Colombia is improving, the representatives plan to speak directly with trade unionists, human rights defenders, and Afro-colombian and indigenous leaders, as well as consulting analysis performe by Colombian NGOs.
In February, a U.S. delegation came to Colombia to assess progress on the human rights situation, which has been a key source of objection among opponents of the FTA. Since then, little progress has been made in the direction of ratifying the agreement.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos prioritized human-rights-related themes such as poverty reduction, security, and the reduction of land under control of paramilitaries in the 2011-2014 National Development Plan approved by Congress Thursday.
A report released by peace and development studies NGO Indepaz, also on Thursday, indicated that neo-paramilitary organizations are present in 1/3 of the country.