How the Colombia Trade Agreement Accelerates Human Rights Abuses


In October of 2011, President Obama, over the objections of the U.S. and Colombian labor and human rights community, submitted the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) for passage by the U.S. Congress.   Congress quickly passed the FTA — which was originally negotiated by George W. Bush who was unable to obtain passage due largely to the protests of U.S. labor – and Obama signed the agreement into law.  At the time, those opposing this agreement argued that, just as NAFTA in Mexico and like policies toward Haiti, the FTA would lead, indeed by design, to the immiseration and mass displacement of rural peoples, especially Indigenous and Afro-Colombian.   The experience of the past year has proven these predictions to be correct.

Thus, as just publicized by ColombiaReports.com, the well-respected Colombian human rights group known as the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) has reported that there were 83% more mass displacements in 2012 than in 2011, and that these displacements have disproportionately affected Colombia’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.  (1)  Overall, CODHES estimates that well over 259,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced in 2012.

As CODHES explains,

. . . the most vulnerable populations, including children, adolescents and families with women as heads of households, are disproportionately affected. Most especially, indigenous and black populations have been hit not only individually but as a collective to the extent that their physical and symbolic territories continue to be invaded by both legal and illegal armies that clandestinely work to further the interests of extractive industries and their territorial consolidation . . .

CODHES relates that children and adolescents affected by such invasions of their lands are also at “risk of recruitment or use as informants or logistical support by the armed groups,” and are also at risk of being raped by these same groups.

In terms of the “economic industries” threatening the land of the Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, CODHES relates that these are “multinational agribusiness and mining” corporations – that is, the very corporations whose interests the Colombia FTA was designed to support and advance.  CODHES explains that these corporations, and the conflicts they are fueling, are driving a number of indigenous groups [64 indigenous groups to be exact], including the Awa people, to the point of “physical and cultural extermination.”

At the same time, there is resistance to this process.   Thus, CODHES explains that the Nasa and Awa peoples have been demonstrating against the militarization of their territories and against the multi-national interests driving this militarization.  As CODHES reports,

indigenous communities undertook the harmonization of mining territories where, as in the case of Canoas where “a group of nearly 600 Indians came to where the machinery was and forced employees to leave.”

These actions are mechanisms to reassert indigenous autonomy over the territories, and therefore, are ways to keep their culture and defend their principles. However, the resistance to the imposition of war and the extractive economic model is considered a “threat” by the different actors.

Consequently, those that attempt to defend or re-claim their land are at great risk of violent retaliations.

Thus, as Amnesty International (AI) explains in a recent report entitled, “Transforming Pain Into Hope,” human rights defenders campaigning for the restitution of forcibly-seized land are at great risk of assassination, with 45 such defenders killed in 2011 alone. (2)  AI relates that “most attacks on defenders campaigning for justice in cases of human rights abuses and for the return of land misappropriated have been attributed to paramilitary groups” aligned with the Colombian state.  One such paramilitary group is indeed known as the “Anti-Land Restitution Army.”  AI notes that the Colombian state, despite all evidence to the contrary, denies the existence of these paramilitary groups (a.k.a., death squads).

AI also acknowledges that “[t]he seriousness of the attacks against this group of defenders in large part reflects the enormous economic and strategic interests in certain territories.”   AI explains that “the failure of the government to recognize the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders leaves them at the mercy of powerful, violent vested interests emboldened by the knowledge that they will probably never be held to account for their actions.  In some cases active state collusion with those committing human rights violations increases the dangers to defenders almost to the point of certain attack.”

As AI, concludes, in Colombia, “millions of hectares of land have been appropriated, often through violence,” and 5 million people have been driven from their homes in the process, making Colombia the world leader in terms of internally displaced peoples.   And, while one would think that things could not get much worse, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (and a similar agreement between Canada and Colombia) is accelerating this process of mass, forced displacements at a staggering pace.  As a consequence, indigenous tribes and Afro-Colombian communities are being pushed to the point of extinction, meaning that these trade policies, backed by massive military assistance, are indeed genocidal.

And yet, the outcry in this country is faint at best.  And this is so, as Edward Herman and David Peterson detailed in The Politics of Genocide, because this genocide is viewed as “constructive” by our political and economic rulers.  It is this cynical view of the world, with all of its horrific consequences, which we must struggle against.

Daniel Kovalik is Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers (USW), and teaches international human rights law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.


(1)    You can find CODHES’s report, in Spanish, here:  http://www.codhes.org/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=64&Itemid=50

(2)   Amnesty International’s report is here:  http://www.amnesty.org/en/campaigns/human-rights-defenders-americas

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