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As Candidates Praise Free Trade, Colombian Unions Turn to the International Criminal Court


As Candidates Praise Free Trade, Colombian Unions Turn to the International Criminal Court

In an otherwise contentious race for the U.S. presidency, free trade has been a surprising point of convergence for President Obama and Governor Romney. Specifically, Obama has emphasized the success of the free trade deals (FTAs) passed last year with Colombia, Korea and Panama, saying these¨…are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world.” And Romney has explained that expanding similar free trade agreements would be a critical component of job creation under his leadership. In light of the candidates´arguably misinformed agreement on the issue, the debate over free trade is left to civil society this election season.

In her October 15 Huffington Post piece, Director of Public Citizen´s Global Trade Watch Lori Wallach clearly illuminates the failures of these trade policies. She notes that ¨Obama’s claim that the three trade deals are boosting exports does not survive a basic fact check.¨ And adds that recently released Department of Commerce trade data ¨…support the views of a majority of Americans who see these deals as destroying — rather than creating — U.S. jobs.¨ Wallach´s piece provides specific and up-to-date facts on the U.S. trade deficit and job loss as related to the Korean and Colombian FTAs, raising important and disconcerting truths that have been ignored by both candidates. Wallach also notes the damage done in Colombia, explaining that murders of Colombian trade unionists have increased since the passage of the U.S.-Colombia FTA, reaching 35 this year alone.

The Numbers Count

Honest analysis of U.S. job loss and export deficits due to the Colombia FTA is critical. And so is the murder count. It´s something Colombian workers and international human rights activists are paying close attention to, and something the candidates are not.

Last week, one of Colombia´s largest labor federations, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) along with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Colombian lawyers collective, Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR), formally requested that the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague take action related to violence against Colombian trade unionists. Their request is in large part about the numbers, which passed a critical threshold this year.

3,000 Colombian unionists have been murdered in the last three decades according to the ECCHR, with 775 assassinated since 2002 and 35 killed this year. In it´s October 9 press release, the ECCHR asserts that the high rate of murder combined with ¨the widespread and systematic character of trade union violence in Colombia, qualifies the crimes committed as crimes against humanity.¨ The three organizations submitted their request insisting that the Prosecutor of the ICC “…request the opening of formal investigations into crimes against humanity committed in Colombia against trade unionists, in order to identify and hold accountable those most responsible for the crimes.¨ The impunity rate for crimes against unionists in Colombia hovers at over 90 percent.

Under attack and with little protection, union rates have dropped in recent years, from 20 percent of the employed labor force to a miniscule four percent. In this context, the U.S. passed the FTA with a near union-busted Colombia in 2011. Earlier that year, the Obama administration promised ¨significantly increased labor rights and worker protections in Colombia,¨ and reaffirmed its commitment to a Labor Action Plan with 37 points designed to improve labor conditions in Colombia as a precondition for the FTA´s implementation. Despite Colombia´s failure to fully comply with the points, the U.S. moved forward with the FTA, putting it into action on May 15, 2012.  “We are making good on President Obama’s promise to use a new approach to trade and stand up for the protection of workers in the U.S. and around the world,” said U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk on the announcement that the agreement would take effect.

Months after the implementation of the FTA with Colombia, it is disheartening to note that 35 unionists have been killed this year, and that others continue to receive death threats. U.S. and Colombian civil society warn the number is sure to go up before year´s end, making the U.S.-Colombia FTA anything but a vehicle for ¨standing up for the protection of workers.¨

Equally disturbing to the  number of deaths is the fact that patterns of violence against unionists are systematic enough to classify as a crime against humanity according to the ECCHR, and the reality that neither presidential candidate is discussing this in relation to the U.S.-Colombia FTA.

The Names Count

Since the very human impacts of the Colombia FTA are not being debated by candidates, civil society groups are working to highlight them, in part by providing the names of the most recent murder victims and of those receiving threats.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in collaboration with Colombian organizations, recently released information regarding a handful of cases. Jaime Ramiro Zambrano Zolarte, an ambulance driver and member of the trade union SINDESS Chapter Nariño, was murdered with a bullet to the head on October 1. According to the CUT, he had disappeared for three days when his body was found. That same day, Arnulfo de Jesus Ramirez Jaramillo, an educator affiliated with the CUT, was murdered. The CUT asserts that he was the 27th educator to be killed since August 2010. And on October 2, bullets were fired into the homes of Frank David Acevedo and Gustavo Bedoya of the trade union SINTRAIMAGRA in Valle del Cauca province. For months, flyers with death threats have circulated against members of SINTRAIMAGRA.  And last month, sugar cane workers and union members Johnson Torres, Efrain Munos and Jose Oney Valencia were declared military targets by two blocks of ¨Self Defense Groups¨ (AUC) who, according to the written threat, claim that these workers ¨…hide behind the veil of being trade unionists.¨

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli of WOLA explains, “Despite the commitments made by Obama and Colombian President Santos in the Labor Action Plan, trade unionists and labor activist continue to be killed and threatened.¨ She adds, ¨With the FTA, Obama gave multinational companies benefits. It´s fair that the U.S. now keep its promises to Colombian workers, and it is essential that the US take bold steps to protect workers, especially in the ports, sugar and oil industries where they are putting their lives at risk to organize for basic rights.¨

At a minimum, the economic pros and cons of free trade agreements deserve deeper analysis by our presidential candidates this election season. And in light of a declared crime against humanity in Colombia, union deaths absolutely deserve the attention of both candidates. Civil society is keeping the debate alive, and will do so well into the next presidential administration. But for now, honest and public scrutiny of progress under the U.S.-Colombia FTA by Obama or Romney would be applauded by civil society in both countries.

 (Photo: Witness for Peace)




Annalise Udall Romoser

Annalise Udall Romoser resides in Bogotá, Colombia where she works as the Latin America Communications Officer for Lutheran World Relief (LWR), an international relief and development organization. Annalise served as LWR´s Director for Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, DC and before that as Senior Associate at the US Office on Colombia. Annalise holds a MA in Latin American Studies from the University of California, San Diego. She began her career at Americans for Indian Opportunity, a non-profit organization which serves as a catalyst for Native American and international indigenous initiatives.