Colombia Slips Into the Abyss

While little attention has been paid by the press, Colombia just reached an ignominious benchmark – it is now the country with the largest population of internally displaced persons in the world, surpassing The Sudan which had held this position for the past several years. Colombia, with a population of around 44 million, now has 5.2 million internally displaced persons, meaning that almost 12% of its population is displaced – most of them by violence, and a disproportionate number Afro-Colombians and indigenous.

As a report by the Colombian human rights group CODHES notes, half of the 5.2 internally displaced were displaced during the presidential term of Alvaro Uribe, and as a direct consequence of his “counterinsurgency program” – a program funded in large measure by the U.S. As CODHES noted, in a significant proportion of the municipalities impacted by this program, there has been large-scale mining and cultivation of oil palm and biofuel. CODHES is clear that this production is directly responsible for the violent displacement of persons from their land Indeed, it appears that the “counterinsurgency program,” as many of us has said for years, was in fact largely intended to make Colombia safe for multi-national exploitation of the land at the very expense of the people the program was claimed to be helping.

The proposed Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is also intended to do the very same – to protect the rights of multi-national corporations over the basic human rights of the Colombian people. For example, the Colombia FTA would privilege the very palm oil production which is leading to the mass displacement of people. Even more frightening, as The Nation Magazine explained in a detailed article, entitled, “The Dark Side of Plan Colombia,” around half of the palm oil companies are actually owned and controlled by paramilitary groups, meaning that the FTA will directly aid these groups by incentivizing their crops

As the Washington Office on Latin America recently noted, the FTA’s agricultural provisions will also undermine the livelihood of Colombia’s rural inhabitants who will not be able to compete with the subsidized, cheap food stuffs which will be able to flood the Colombian markets duty-free under the FTA. Indeed, we have seen this before, in Mexico where NAFTA led to the impoverishment and displacement of 1.3 million small farmers, and in Haiti which lost its ability to feed its own people with its rice production after Clinton’s free trade policies with that country.

And indeed, Bill Clinton apologized to the Senate last year over these very free trade policies, saying: “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. . . . I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.” And yet, the current administration, with Bill Clinton himself cheering it on, is pushing the same failed free trade policies for Colombia.

Meanwhile, the labor rights situation in Colombia remains dismal. Thus, according to the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), fifty-one (51) trade unionists were killed in 2010, and 4 unionists (including 3 teachers) have already been killed this year. See, story. The 51 unionists killed in 2010 matches precisely the number of unionists killed in 2008 when President Obama vowed to oppose the Colombia FTA based upon his concern that unionists face unprecedented violence in that country. The same concerns should motivate President Obama to oppose the FTA now.

The continued violence against trade unionists in Colombia led the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to inform leaders of the EU, who are considering a similar free trade agreement, that the Colombian administration’s attempts to sell the agreement on the claim that labor and human rights are improving in Colombia are in fact a sham. In the words of the ITUC, “intensive lobbying campaign at the European Parliament by the Colombian Government is an attempt to mislead the international community.” The ITUC urges the international community not to be fooled by the Colombian government’s campaign and to continue to reject a free trade agreement with that country. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will take heed of such warnings.

Dan Kovalik is Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers.




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Daniel Kovalik lives in Pittsburgh and teaches International Human Rights Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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