Monday, April 02, 2007

Labor activists murdered in Columbia

Baltimore Sun April 2, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Carmen Cecilia Santana Romana, a 28-year-
old mother of three and a national trade union officer,
was shot dead in her home in Antioquia, Colombia, on
Feb. 7. Her murder came as little surprise; the most
dangerous country in the world for trade unionists is
Colombia, which will become Washington's newest free
trade partner unless Congress stops the deal.

Some Democrats may be eager to show that they are not
obstructionists on trade by cutting a deal with the
Bush administration to "fix" the U.S.-Colombia Free
Trade Agreement and passing the revised accord. But
that's the wrong approach with Colombia. Congress
should reject the pact outright.

In Colombia, trade unionists who are not murdered are
often threatened, attacked or kidnapped. The
overwhelming majority of cases are unsolved; many are
never investigated, and the perpetrators go unpunished,
ready to strike again. The government says 58 unionists
were murdered in Colombia in 2006, up from 40 the year
before. Labor groups report even higher totals: 77
murdered in 2006, up from 70 in 2005.

Colombia is a violent country, but its trade unionists
are not random casualties. They are especially targeted
when exercising their rights to organize and bargain
collectively, moments of great potential for change.

Change threatens Colombia's two main guerrilla groups
and its Mafia-like paramilitaries, often linked to the
anti-union violence. Change also threatens the
government, which has proved more likely to be
infiltrated by paramilitaries than to pursue them and
more likely to grant them concessions than to impose

Despite $4 billion in U.S. support through Plan
Colombia, the Colombian government has yet to take a
tough stand against paramilitaries. Since paramilitary
demobilization began four years ago, Colombia has doled
out the benefits of the process while imposing few of
the burdens. Demobilized paramilitary leaders were
supposed to stop illegal activity, but paramilitaries
are still involved in violence and drug trafficking.
And leaders can continue masterminding crimes from
prison on unrestricted cell phones.

Paramilitary influence may well reach into the
country's highest circles of power. On Feb. 22, the
Colombian intelligence agency's head from 2002 to 2005
was arrested on charges of conspiring with
paramilitaries, including in the killing of union
leaders and academics. The Colombian Supreme Court has
ordered the arrest of nine congressmen from President
Alvaro Uribe's coalition for their links with
paramilitaries. More than a dozen other politicians are
also under investigation. Mr. Uribe is spinning these
developments as evidence of his willingness to clean
house, yet they resulted from independent
investigations by judicial institutions and the media.

The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, signed in
November 2006 and awaiting congressional consideration,
would reward Colombia with prized access to American
markets even as its workers' rights are brutally

The vital labor rights fixes that congressional
Democrats proposed last week for all pending and future
free trade accords would not come close to addressing
Colombia's problems.

Its human rights problems go far beyond its weak labor
laws and their poor enforcement. They cannot be solved
through corrections to the trade agreement. Human
Rights Watch, which normally takes no position on free
trade per se, opposes any free trade accord with
Colombia because of its egregious record on human

Before Colombia enjoys a free trade agreement with the
United States, it must take a hard line on
paramilitarism by initiating serious investigations and
prosecutions of cases of violence and threats against
trade unionists and by protecting potential witnesses.

The U.S. government should fund the human rights unit
of the Colombian attorney general's office to help meet
these goals, conditioned upon continued "measurable
progress" toward their fulfillment. But it should not
reward the country with a free trade agreement.

If the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement enters into
force, U.S. producers will compete directly against
Colombian producers whose workers often cannot exercise
basic rights without risking their lives. The United
States will also have demonstrated a double standard in
its "war on terror," rewarding with much-coveted trade
benefits a country that stands by while its narco-
terrorist paramilitaries crush fundamental human
rights. ______

Carol Pier is a senior researcher on labor rights and
trade at Human Rights Watch. Her e-mail is

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