The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed grave concern over "a recent wave of death threats against human rights workers and social activists, including displaced leaders working to defend their communities' rights." See, UNHCR Statement. According to the UNHCR, these recent threats, made by a new armed group against both civil and human rights organizations "come amid a climate of rising intimidation, originating from various armed groups, in recent months. Indigenous communities, social leaders and representatives of displaced people have all been targeted, putting at risk their right to life, freedom of expression and participation in public life."
One group of social leaders particularly targeted in Colombia -- trade union leaders -- are under increased attack in Colombia, with 19 union leaders killed already this year. Most embarassing to the Colombian government is the fact that, just last week, the Attorney General of Colombia has accused the former head of the Colombian DAS -- the analogue to the U.S. FBI and an organization tasked to protect union and social leaders under threat -- of being complicit with right-wing paramilitary groups in the murder of 4 social leaders, including one union leader. See, Story.
This is most troubling for the Colombian government as it made a big push in the spring of 2007, headed by Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos himself, to plead their case for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) largely on the basis of their claim that these allegations against the former DAS chief were without merit.
Moreover, all of this comes even as U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke publicly stated that "Colombia needs to address the issue of violence against union leaders before the U.S. Congress votes on a free trade agreement with the South American nation."
Instead, however, the human rights situation continues to spiral downwards in Colombia. Another area where human rights is deteriorating is in the area of forced internal displacements -- an area in which Colombia is already ranked second only to the Sudan. As the UNHCR has also reported, there have been "an average of 300,000 new cases registered yearly in the past two years" -- a huge increase over the previous period.
Meanwhile, in a strange twist, the Colombian government, angry over efforts by U.S. and British unions to derail the Colombia FTA over labor and human rights concerns, has turned to stigmatizing and intimidating these unions just as they do those in Colombia. For example, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos publicly insinuated that those in the U.S. and Britain who have been speaking out against the FTA "could be" funded by "illegal money," though he conceded that, as yet, there is no evidence for this. See, Story.
While Francisco Santos admits that his insinuations about alleged connections between "illegal money" and U.S. and British advocates against the Colombia FTA are without factual basis, he is making such insinuations for the same reason that the Colombian government makes these against unionists in Colombia - to try to intimidate them into abandoning their organizing efforts.
Indeed, in advance of a high-profile delegation of British MPs and U.S. and British labor officials to Colombia, the Colombian government, through its Ambassador to Great Britain, even went so far as to tell a prominent activist of Justice for Colombia -- a workers-based human rights and solidarity group based in London and the group which helped organize this delegation -- that he was being investigated for ties with the illegal FARC guerilla group of Colombia. The goal of this outrageous claim was clear - to try to instill fear in the delegation members before they headed to Colombia that they might be arrested if they went forward with the delegation trip. The Colombian government's hope was that the trip would thereby be prevented altogether.
While the Colombian government's intimidation tactics have not worked to quash the movement in the U.S. and Britain to oppose the Colombia FTA and stand up for the rights of Colombian unionists, these tactics nonetheless expose the lengths to which the Colombian government will go to try to win passage of the Free Trade Agreement - an agreement the Colombian government desperately wants as a ratification of its own human and labor rights record. Given how abysmal that record continues to be, the FTA should be withheld from the Colombian government.
In addition, the Colombia FTA, as a practical matter, will only serve to perpetuate human rights abuses in Colombia. As just one example, the FTA will permit palm oil to flow into the U.S. duty-free, greatly aiding Colombian palm oil companies. Sadly, many of these companies, as exposed recently by the Washington Office on Latin America and in an expose in the Nation by Teo Ballve, are notoriously owned and controlled by paramilitary leaders which continue to be responsible for gross human rights violations, including the displacement of Afro-Colombians from lands in the rich Choco region of Colombia.
As WOLA notes, President Uribe hopes for a massive expansive of the cultivation of palm from 285,000 hectares to 6,000,000 hectares through the Colombia FTA - an expansion which will entail the forcible and violent displacement of civilians from their land by paramilitary-controlled palm companies. This will only add to the already 4 million or so internally displaced people in Colombia. The FTA is therefore unacceptable on this basis as well.