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Rights groups slam EU free trade deal with Colombia

The ETUC and ITUC’s John Monks has criticized the agreement

Deutsche Welle | 11.03.2010

Rights groups slam EU free trade deal with Colombia

The European Union is close to reaching a free trade deal with Colombia. But human rights watchdogs, trade union organizations and some politicians believe the agreement would send all the wrong signals to Bogota.

The European Commission concluded trade negotiations with Lima and Bogota this month, following nine rounds of talks. The agreement, if ratified by the European Parliament, would fully liberalize commerce in some sectors between the bloc and the two Latin American countries.

The possible deal has sparked an outcry in some quarters because of concerns over the South American country’s human rights record.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has won plaudits for his hard-line stance against armed groups, such as the Marxist FARC rebels, and his attempts to stem the cocaine trade. But international observers cast doubt on his claim to have eliminated the right-wing paramilitary threat in the country, instead accusing his government of leniency toward them. Meanwhile, many innocents continue to suffer — with impunity.

Extra-judicial killings, collaboration between paramilitaries and the security forces, the inciting of hatred against indigenous peoples and the targeting of human rights exponents are among the series of abuses identified by human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Blackspot for trade unionists

Colombia is, for example, the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Last year alone, 39 labor representatives were murdered there, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). No one has been brought to trial.

The ITUC and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which both have their headquarters in Brussels, have expressed their continuing opposition to the conclusion of a free trade deal between the EU and Columbia.

Under the agreement, new market access would be afforded to exporters from both sides and includes manufactured products, agricultural goods, services and investment, according to the EU commission.

"Sixty percent of the killings of trade unionists take place in Colombia. Impunity there is 100 percent. The situation is shocking. Europe cannot give Uribe this reward after all those abuses," ITUC human rights officer, Manuela Chavez, told Deutsche Welle.

Speaking out can be fatal

Outspoken community leaders, political activists, journalists and lawyers also continue to be killed, abducted, threatened, arbitrarily detained and placed under surveillance, according to the Amnesty report to the United Nations in mid-Febuary.

"Senior government and state officials often seek to equate human rights work with support for the guerrilla or terrorism," it states.

"A climate of hostility toward human rights defenders and other activists exacerbates the ongoing serious situation they face. Such hostility has been fomented by the government, which appears to perceive human rights and security as mutually exclusive," according to the document.

The grave infringements of human rights in the Latin American state is just one reason that Oxfam is against the deal. "There has been no improvement in human rights. However, Colombia would like to present the free trade agreement as proof of this," said David Hachfeld of Oxfam Deutschland.

Colombia already enjoys privileged trading relations with the European Union because of its attempts to stop drug cultivation and trafficking. The Oxfam trade expert believes that here the EU has already missed an opportunity to use this as a bargaining chip to press for an international rights inquiry in the country.

But Oxfam also has other grounds for lobbying members of the European parliament to vote against the free trade measure, which is likely to be signed in May at an EU-Latin America summit in Madrid before it is submitted to the European Parliament for ratification.

Concerns it will increase poverty gap

The aid and development charity also opposes the agreement because it believes that it will not help reduce poverty in Colombia. "Instead it is likely to cement the unequal distribution of wealth," Hachfeld told Deutsche Welle. "Liberalization on the whole tends to benefit tiny elites in the urban centers," he added.

Oxfam also objects to the deal because it believes that it will undermine intra-regional ties between the Andean states.

When talks were initially launched, the EU was aiming to conclude an agreement with the Andean Group of countries, which includes Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as Colombia and Peru.

After Ecuador and Bolivia walked out of the talks over differences between the states and with the EU, Brussels forged on nonetheless, concluding bilateral negotiations with Bogota and Lima.

The EU is the second-largest trading party of the Andean region after the United States, with total trade worth nearly 18 billion euros ($24.3 billion) in 2008.

"The European Union presents itself as a positive model for regional cooperation to developing countries. But the free trade agreement destroys regionalist tendencies. It is as if the United States were to seal a deal with France and England, but not with Germany," said the Oxfam expert.

"Ultimately, it will increase tensions between the Andean countries. The other countries will be forced to close their borders if they want to protect themselves from the effects of this liberalization. It is careless and will destroy what the EU has set out to promote," added Hachfeld.

The European Trade Union Confederation has also attacked the European Union for internal contradictions, expressing concern about the lack of coherence within the EU between its trade and foreign policies and its development and employment policies.

Continuing on the same course

Latin American expert Günter Maihold disagrees with this assessment of the situation. Given already existing preferential customs agreements for some Colombian goods in the European Union, he believes that it would be wrong now to block the free trade agreement.

"The question is whether there are new facts that stand in the way of the course that has been followed up to now. The human rights situation is precarious. But there has not been a dramatic deterioration in the human rights situation. Withholding the agreement would be inconsistent," said Maihold, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

The SWP researcher also believes that the European Union, as a bloc, stands to gain more economically from the agreement than Colombia, arguing that its provisions do not substantially increase the South American country’s existing access to EU markets.

Moreover, the researcher doubts that trade instruments are the right way to pursue political goals. "The world would not collapse without a free trade agreement, but it would not bring us a single step forward. The free trade agreement is only one component in the EU’s policy toward Colombia," said Maihold. Other measures include programs to bring about institutional change, for example, within the system of justice.

Other supporters of a trade agreement say greater cooperation with Colombia is actually the best way to bring about improvements inside the country.

German MEP Bernd Lange is, however, worried that the European Union is morally out of step with the international community. The US, Canada and Norway have all negotiated bilateral trade deals with Colombia, only to see them held up in their respective parliaments.

"There are some countries in the world that have precisely for political reasons said that at the moment they do not want to intensify trade relations. For this reason the EU should not rush into this and sign a regular trade agreement," said Lange.

Author: Julie Gregson
Editor: Rob Mudge

 source: Deutsche Welle