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5th Mar 2024

Human rights no block to EU-Colombia talks

  • Trade commissioner Ashton listens to MEPs in the parliament (Photo: EUobserver)

As the European Union this week launches another round of negotiations with Colombia on a free trade agreement, trade unionists who live daily under the gun of right-wing paramilitaries linked to the government have in Brussels in the last week pleaded with the EU executive to suspend the talks.

A third round of trade negotiations will take place in Brussels from 5-8 May between the European Commission and Colombia. But labour and indigenous leaders say that country is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist - and the situation is getting worse, not better.

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Over the past two decades, they said during a hearing in the European Parliament on Thursday (30 April) and a meeting at the European Trade Union Congress on Sunday (3 May), more than 2,500 union members have been murdered and another 6,500 have been threatened, attacked, kidnapped, or tortured.

Some 60 percent of the trade unionists that are murdered in the world every year are killed in Colombia.

Tarcisio Mora, of the Unitarian Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CUT), described the attack on union members as a "genocide" and accused the Colombian security services of handing over the names of trade unionists to paramilitaries.

"Every three days a trade union representative is killed," he told the meeting in the parliament, adding that the rate of killings is up 25 percent in the last two months and that under the Uribe administration, there have been some 500 murders - 35 percent of the total since the beginning of the nineties.

"It is easier to set up a paramilitary group than it is to set up a trade union."

While the EU is ploughing on ahead with negotiations with the government, the US Congress has suspended ratification of a similar free trade agreement due to human rights concerns.

Norway is also in the process of reaching a free trade agreement with Colombia, but ratification has been suspended while a national delegation is dispatched to the country to assess the human rights situation.

Jorge Robledo, a Colombian senator with the centre-left opposition Polo Democratico (Democratic Pole) compared the different approaches and sharply criticised the EU position.

"The agreement is frozen in the US Democrat-controlled congress, not for economic reasons - the one with Peru went ahead - but because the Uribe government does not come out unscathed.

"The FTA gives Uribe a licence for forgiveness of his crimes against humanity," he said. "The crisis is Dantean in its enormity."

Last November, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told reporters after a six-day fact-finding mission in the country that she felt that the scale of the extra-judicial executions committed by government forces did indeed amount to extreme descriptions.

"An offence becomes a crime against humanity if it is widespread and systematic against the civilian population. We are observing and keeping a record of the number of extrajudicial killings, and it does appear systematic and widespread in my view," she said, according to a report from the Inter Press Service news agency at the time.

Rupert Schlegelmilch, the commission's chief negotiator for the Andean nations attended the Thursday meeting, but argued that far from being in disagreement with the Colombian trade unionists, it was through trade agreements that human rights are strengthened and that Bogota is moving in the right direction.

"There is no disagreement on the objectives. We all want better judicial procedures, fewer killings and a government with clean hands. The EU has a long record of making this true in with other actors, not just with Colombia," he said. "Human rights is the guiding principle of all we do with Colombia, including this agreement."

"The Colombian government is taking on board [our] recommendations," he continued. "It is certainly still a bad situation, but it is improving."

He also said that beyond the question of human rights, the agreement would benefit the economies of both the EU and Colombia.

"All the evidence out there shows that open economies do better than closed ones. That's just a fact."

Despite Mr Schlegelmilch's words to the parliament, on 2 February, Fernando Cardesa Garcia, the ambassador of the commission's delegation to the country, contradicted his colleague, telling Semana, the Colombian news magazine, that human rights are "not an element in the commercial agreement" currently being negotiated between the two sides.

No investigation likely

UK MEP Richard Howitt - a member of the same Labour Party as EU trade commissioner Catherine Ashton - countered that he had tried to get the commission to set up a committee of investigation into the human rights situation in the country, but had been unsuccessful.

"You would think it is something they could agree to, given the gravity of the case."

Any final agreement has to be endorsed by the European Parliament, but the British MEP expected the right in the chamber to support the agreement and that the left in the chamber did not have the numbers to block its ratification.

He said there was also still a "colonial factor" at play in the parliament. "There are many close contacts between the right in the parliament and the Colombian government."

Botond Torok-Illyes, an adviser on trade to the European People's Party, told EUobserver that Mr Howitt was wrong, and that the EPP's position on trade did not require there to be personal relations with the Uribe government.

"It's up to him to prove any links."

Meanwhile, Mr Howitt said the left of the parliament was yet to be in any position to take a stance on the issue.

"The [centre-left] PES, the [the far left] GUE and the Greens still have to marshal support in our own groups," he said. "If there were a vote in Strasbourg [this week], we would lose it."

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