With the passage of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the United States and Colombian governments need to protect human rights defenders and trade unionists in the Andean nation more than ever, according to testimony at a U.S. committee hearing on Thursday.
Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group told a U.S. congressional committee for the advocacy of human rights that 2012 has remained “grim” for unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia, 13 of whom were killed in the first three months of the year. According to Haugaard, 64 “acts of aggression” were carried out in the same period.
While the Santos administration in particular has made strides to improve the climate for defenders of worker and human rights, Haugaard said “the situation … continues to deteriorate.”
She pointed to the oft-cited case of Daniel Aguirre, secretary general for the sugar cutter’s union SINALCORTEROS, who was shot and killed April 27 — the second Colombian unionist killed since Presidents Barack Obama and Juan Manuel Santos announced the start of the FTA between the U.S. and Colombia.
The FTA has been criticized fiercely by human rights organizations in both countries, due to human and labor rights concerns. The ongoing killings make for an “alarming” level of violence against unionists, she said.
The investigation and prosecution of human right abuses is the most important issue in need of U.S. backing, Haugaard said. She stressed the need to secure justice for those murdered, injured and forcibly disappeared, as Colombia has a 95% impunity rate for those suspected of crimes against unionists.
“There is no better way to protect defenders than to ensure justice for violence against them,” she declared.
Haugaard also denounced Obama’s approval of progress made under Colombia’s Labor Action Plan — meant to protect human rights defenders. She called on the U.S. to “insist on full compliance with the Labor Action Plan and keep a focus on anti-union violence.”
The Labor Action Plan, signed in April 2011 as part of FTA negotiations, stipulated that Colombia take measures against the threatening and killing of unionists, prosecute those suspected of violating workers’ rights, and combat the exploitation of laborers. The agreement allowed for the U.S. Congress to approve the FTA.
An improved dialogue between the government and human rights defenders along with assurances of new government policies “have not yet resulted in tangible improvements in protection or justice for human rights defenders — and tangible improvements are the standard by which the administration should be measured,” Haugaard told the bi-partisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
She also asked the government to demand that Colombia end the illegal surveillance of human right defenders, a process notoriously carried out under the now-defunct Colombian intelligence agency DAS during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. Though lessened, Haugaard said the practice continues.
Haugaard then called on the U.S. government to ensure that military personnel accused of human rights violations face justice in civil courts and for the Colombian government to target successor groups to paramilitary organizations, now major perpetrators of human rights abuses.