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U.S. Cannot Certify a Country that Tolerates Murder

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The slaying of one Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, roiled anger and outrage in this country among citizens who believe the killing was unjust and unwarranted. Similarly, the torture and killing of one labor organizer in Bangladesh last week provoked an outcry there and a half-page story in the New York Times.

Americans don’t countenance murder, particularly when it’s racially or politically motivated. Americans are justice-seeking and fair-play-believing. And that is why we, as a country, cannot certify that Colombia has fulfilled its obligations under the Labor Action Plan. Certification is a step necessary before the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States can take effect.

Colombia eagerly anticipates that happening this weekend during the S ummit of the Americas to be held in Cartagena, Colombia. For us to do so would be to turn our backs on the 30 trade unionists slain in Colombia last year and the six that Justice for Colombia reports have been murdered already this year.

The Labor Action Plan that was attached to the free trade agreement when the United States approved it a year ago was intended to pressure Colombia to stop the killing and torture and to prosecute the perpetrators. The routine slaughter of human rights activists and trade unionists in Colombia is a quarter century old. It didn’t end in a year’s time. And for us to certify that it did would be to betray the victims and their families.

Over the past quarter century, paramilitary groups and even the Colombian military have killed 3,000 unionists, making this South American country the most dangerous in the world for union activists. The killing continued because there were no consequences. The Colombian government overlooked these murders. The United Nations recently reported that the killers are successfully prosecuted in only 5 percent of cases. That means in 95 percent of the killings, the murderers walk free. Most are never even charged.

As a result, for the past 12 years, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States (OAS) has placed Colombia on a human rights black list. Earlier this week, in its annual report, the group singled out Colombia because of the violence perpetrated by armed groups, including the military and paramilitary death squads aligned with the Colombian state. The report says these armed groups victimized:

“persons historically discriminated or that have been subjected to vulnerable situations, such as women, human rights defenders and children.”

In addition to the union activists slain last year, a record 49 human rights defenders were killed. And the United Nations recently reported that more than 250,000 Colombian children and teachers have been violently displaced over the past several years.

This week, five members of Congress wrote the Colombian labor minister to ask specific questions about the progress the country has made in meeting its obligations under the Labor Action Plan.

The group – U.S. Reps. George Miller, D-Calif.; Michael H. Michaud, D-Maine; Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn.; James P. McGovern, D-Mass., and Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, D-Ga. – asked about specific abuses and progress in prosecutions.

For example, the letter says 450 workers in Turbo tried to form a labor union but at least 70 workers in the banana and plantain sector were fired. It asks if the government has investigated whether this violated the terms of the agreement.

Similarly, the letter says a Union Sindical Obrero (USO) strike at Pacific Rubiales Energy was broken “after the labor encampment was raided, and armed government forces assisted the company in blockading roads.” It adds that more than 1,000 workers affiliated with the USO were fired and “many were reportedly driven out of the labor camps at gunpoint.”

And, finally, the letter points out that under the terms of the Labor Action Plan, Colombia was to increase the number of officers investigating murders of trade unionists and the number of prosecutors, then states:

“Yet, there appears to be little in the way of progress in these cases, and trade unionists continue to be threatened and murdered.”

And it asks the crucial question:

“How many union murder convictions have there been since this time last year?”

The question of whether Trayvon Martin’s killer would be prosecuted was the subject of countless talk shows here in the United States, of innumerable water cooler discussions and of untold numbers of family discussions.

That’s just one tragic killing. In Colombia, the unprosecuted backlog is hundreds. In Colombia, unionists and human rights activists remain at risk. In Colombia, paramilitary groups continue to murder activists at unconscionable rates, rates that would be front page news every day in the United States.

We cannot certify as compliant with the Labor Action Plan a blacklisted country that continues to countenance murder. That would violate everything good and moral that we stand for as a people.

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