Obama's big test: Will he stand for human rights in Colombia?

In a parting shot, outgoing President Bush and lame-duck Congressional Republicans are pushing to have the $25 billion bailout of the U.S. auto industry tied to passage of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. The looming battle will be the first big test of President-elect Obama's vaunted commitment to "fair trade," which has been thrown into question after he tapped economic advisors firmly in the free trader camp.

Democrats in Congress didn't seem interested in taking up the contentious issue, but it's gaining some momentum: Even the New York Times clambered aboard, starting an editorial with, "We don't say it all that often, but President Bush is right: Congress should pass the Colombian free-trade agreement now."

But human rights say this would be a disaster. For years, the Colombian government has been widely condemned for colluding with far-right paramilitary groups guilty of horrific abuses, especially against workers who try to organize unions. The Times minimized this history in its editorial drawing this response from the Economic Policy Institute:

The Times stated that Colombian assassination of trade unionists "is still too high, but has dropped sharply." The Timesis woefully misinformed. The latest report from the authoritativeEscuela Nacional Sindical (ENS, National Union School) disputes theclaim that assassinations of Colombian trade unionists are declining.According to the ENS, there were 32 assassinations of unionists in2007, and 41 assassinations of unionists in the first eight months of2008. This is the continuation of a dismal human rights record that hasseen 2,683 unionists assassinated in the past 22 years.
One of the most notorious U.S. companies in Colombia is Alabama-based Drummond Coal, which was the target of a protest by human rights activists in Birmingham last week. Last year, Drummond -- a powerful utility company in Alabama -- was sued by the family of three unionists who were assassinated for asking for better food and mine conditions for workers.

The suit was the first attempt to use the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act to sue a multinational company for human rights abuses. The families lost in a jury trial last December and have appealed.

But the South's and the country's complicity in Colombia's human rights abuses goes well beyond Drummond. As Sister Iris Ann Leden of the Catholic Diocese in Lexington, Kentucky recently pointed out:

Our government has over thepast eight years poured billions of dollars into Colombia to aid themilitary. According to Witness for Peace, Colombia is the third largestrecipient of U.S. military aid. The U.S. government has trained over10,000 Colombian military troops at the School of the Americas nowknown as the Western Hemisphere [Institute for Security Cooperation].
The role of U.S. trainees in Colombia's deadly record is a leading reason the Western Hemisphere Institute -- which is headquartered at Fort Benning, Georgia -- was the site of a 20,000-strong protest by human rights leaders last week, led by Father Roy Bourgeois.

As Human Rights Watch argued in a recent letter to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), passing the Colombian FTA now would give Colombia and U.S. corporations a green light to stay on their current course -- and cause the U.S. to lose leverage for pushing for human rights reform:

Human Rights Watch noted that, were it not for Congress's decision todelay consideration of the trade agreement, Colombia would probablynever have taken even the limited steps it has to address the issue.Human Rights Watch urged Congress to continue postponing considerationof the deal until Colombia shows concrete and sustained results inaddressing its serious human and labor rights problems.

"Under US pressure related to the FTA, Colombia has started to takesome positive steps on impunity for anti-union violence," Kenneth Roth,executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in the letter. "Butthose steps are limited and incomplete, and in other areas (such as therate of violence), Colombia has been sliding back this year."