From the TUC

Don’t do deals with Colombia, the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist

26 Sep 2009, by in International

The TUC Congress carried a resolution calling for a campaign against the proposed EU-Colombia free trade agreement, because Colombia is the country where most trade unionists get killed, and the Colombian government does next to nothing to investigate or punish the murderers. The day before Congress debated the motion, Members of the European Parliament were already arguing against the deal. Labour MEP David Martin, who is an influential voice on the Parliament’s Trade Committee, asked the EU’s Trade Commissioner Baroness Cathy Ashton to:

“suspend their GSP+ agreement with Colombia, and secondly suspend our negotiations for a free trade agreement, until we get the assurances from the Colombian Government that trade unionists, human rights activists and others can go about their business safety in that country?”

Well said! But David’s not the only MEP to deserve plaudits. The question about the EU-Colombia free trade agreement had originally been asked by a conservative MEP from Ireland, Jim Higgins – so this is a cross-party issue in the European Parliament. In response, Commissioner Ashton acknowledged the gruesome record in Colombia:

“We are well aware of the difficulties confronting trade unionism in Colombia, and the continued killings of, and threats against, union leaders and members. We know this from our information sources, from the reports and statements issued by international treaty bodies, as well as from my own discussions with bodies such as the European Trade Union Confederation.

“Serious concerns remain concerning the effective application of the ILO core conventions in the country. We are consistently urging the Government to step up efforts to protect the most vulnerable population groups and to investigate and punish all human rights violations.

“Recent attacks on human rights defenders and trade unionists have been the subject of démarches by the EU troika ambassadors in Bogotá and were also raised during recent high-level meetings between European Union and Colombian officials. Moreover, we have recently launched a bilateral human rights dialogue with the Colombian Government which provides a channel for a more regular and systematic exchange of information and experience in the human rights field, and will help inform technical cooperation.”

But Commissioner Ashton argues that if she can negotiate firm language on labour standards and human rights into the Free Trade Agreement, these problems can be dealt with. Sadly, that explains why David Martin started out by demanding that the EU suspend its ‘GSP+’ agreement with Colombia, which gives Colombian goods preferential access to the EU in return for adherence to labour standards, human rights etc.

The point is that Commissioner Ashton already has the powers to demand better behaviour from the Colombian Government that she says she would be able to get from a Free Trade Agreement. Those powers haven’t worked because, last December, despite calls from the ITUC, ETUC, Colombian trade unions and the TUC and others, she refused to use them.

There’s no point getting a free trade agreement with Colombia, whatever it says about human and trade union rights, if the EU won’t use the powers it already has. All an EU-Colombia FTA would do would be to hand Colombia’s President Uribe with a propaganda coup, suggesting that the EU believes he has a clean pair of hands. And he doesn’t.

(Two days after Congress carried the resolution unanimously, the Chair of the US House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee – George Miller, D-Cal – wrote to US Trade Representative Ron Kirk – Baroness Ashton’s equivalent – stressing the failure of the Colombian Government to deal with the murders of trade unionists or the culture of impunity which lets their killers go free.)

Find out more about the campaign against the EU-Colombia free trade agreement on the Justice for Colombia website.