We believe it is very important that, in your upcoming meeting with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, you express the Obama Administration’s continuing concerns with human rights violations in Colombia, which will need to be addressed before the FTA can move forward
To: Ron Kirk
From: Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), the Center for International Policy, Oxfam America, U.S. Office on Colombia, and Washington Office on Latin America.
Re: Visit by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe
Dear Mr. Kirk,
We believe it is very important that, in your upcoming meeting with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, you express the Obama Administration’s continuing concerns with human rights violations in Colombia, which will need to be addressed before the FTA can move forward. US pressure on human rights issues has repeatedly proven to be highly effective and the FTA provides an opportunity to leverage this pressure to ensure real and lasting changes are made to improve the deeply troubling human rights situation in Colombia.
We urge you in both your private meeting with President Uribe and in any subsequent public announcements to express that:
·The U.S. government will delay firm commitments to move forward on the FTA until real and sustained progress is made on ending violence and impunity against trade unionists, a message consistent with the President’s campaign promise. Colombia still has an alarmingly high rate of assassinations of trade unionists and efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate.
·The U.S. government also wants to see an improvement in human rights conditions for other vulnerable groups before moving forward on the FTA. This includes: human rights defenders, victims, internally displaced persons, Afro-Colombians, indigenous, small rural producers and women.
·These are complex issues and will take time to deal with appropriately. To be effective, any benchmarks will need to be met before the FTA could be approved, otherwise further leverage with the Colombian government could be lost.
As we detailed in the meeting our organizations had with senior USTR staff on May 1, 2009, we are also concerned about the following issues:
·An alarming recent increase in trade unionist murders, with 21 murders this year alone. This is coupled by an impunity rate of at least 95% for this crime.
·High-level Colombian officials continue to undermine the safety of human rights defenders, including trade unionists, by publicly stigmatizing them, undermining their security and promoting baseless charges against them.
.The still-breaking intelligence (DAS) scandal, in which human rights defenders, members of the political opposition and Supreme Court judges were put under intrusive and intimidating surveillance measures, constituting a serious breach of freedom of expression and freedom of association.
·Cases of alleged extrajudicial executions committed by Colombia’s armed forces continue to be reported throughout the country and of the 1025 cases allocated to the Colombian Attorney-General’s Human Rights Unit between 2002 and April 2009, only 16 have resulted in convictions.
·Colombia has the second highest number internally displaced people in the world and last year there was a surge in IDP numbers with 380,000 people internally displaced that year alone, a 24 per cent increase over 2007. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court has consistently ruled the government in gross violation of national and international laws protecting this highly vulnerable group, highlighting a particular failure in land retribution policies.
·Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities continue to be disproportionately affected by displacement and the Constitutional Court has found that the expansion of mega-projects, such as African palm oil, mining and cattle, are one of the causes of this displacement.
·We continue to see a reemergence of paramilitary groups throughout the country and around one-third of the current Colombian Congress is under investigation for collaborating with a violent organization considered a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department.
·In its present form, the FTA could negatively impact on Colombia’s small farmer economy and rural poverty, leading to a substantial growth of illicit crops. We would appreciate if the USTR would thoroughly investigate the impact of the FTA on the rural economy and introduce targeted protection measures, particularly for vulnerable groups, before asking Congress to approve the agreement.
Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES),
The Center for International Policy,
U.S. Office on Colombia,
Washington Office on Latin America.
For further information please contact Kelly Nicholls, Executive Director, U.S. Office on Colombia, (202) 232 8090, firstname.lastname@example.org
Murder of Trade Unionists
The National Labor School (ENS) reports that 49 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia in 2008, a 25% increase over the number of trade unionists murdered in 2007 – 39. Even the government’s statistics reflect an increase in assassinations. Of note, 16 trade union leaders were among those assassinated last year, an increase over the previous year when 10 leaders were murdered. As of June 2009, 21 trade unionists have been murdered.
Human Right Defenders
Senior government representatives, including the president, continue to make defamatory remarks regarding trade unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia. Recently, the president referred to legitimate civil society critics of the government being the “intellectual bloc of the FARC.” These statements de-legitimize the important and valued work of human rights defenders and close the necessary and justifiable space for them to exercise their internationally recognized right to free expression. Such remarks place individuals and entire organizations at the grave risk of physical retaliation from members of illegal armed groups, who often use such statements from the government as a license to terrorize and assassinate. In addition, those who lawfully promote human rights are singled out for particular intimidation through baseless investigations and prosecutions. These unfounded charges are often widely publicized, undermining the credibility of defenders and marking them as targets for physical attack, often by paramilitary groups.
There is emerging and overwhelming evidence of a broad, systematic and illegal surveillance operation conducted by the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the domestic security agency which answers directly to the office of the President. Under this operation, hundreds of members of human rights organizations, political opposition parties and unions, as well as judges, journalists and even clergy, were put under close surveillance. This operation, which has been ongoing in some form since 2004, employed several illegal tactics including warrantless wiretapping, email intercepts, examination of bank accounts and tax records, entry into homes and offices and the routine physical surveillance of victims and their family by DAS agents.
The program was targeted at those who the government perceived to be a risk or threat in an effort to discredit and silence critics. It has been widely reported in Colombia that Supreme Court judges began to be followed after they opened investigations into the collaboration between legislators and paramilitary groups. Similarly, human rights organizations critical of the administration’s policies, such as the Lawyers Collective “Jose Alvear Restrepo,” were put under constant and highly intrusive surveillance.
Colombia’s Prosecutor General is now considering opening official investigations into two of President Uribe’s closest advisors.
Extrajudicial executions by the Colombian armed forces continue to be reported in Colombia, while impunity rates remain alarmingly high. Between January 2007 and June 2008, the Working Group on Extrajudicial Executions documented 535 alleged cases of extrajudicial killings – more than one killing a day. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, recently said that the case of Soacha was “but the tip of the iceberg.” Incentives for these killings, such as compensation for captured or killed members of the illegally armed groups, remains in place. Furthermore, a number of family members of the victims have recently been threatened and attacked.
Many of the victims of alleged cases of extrajudicial executions are human rights defenders, including trade unionists and community leaders. This atrocious crime, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navy Pillay, described as a “systematic practice”, further instills fear in society as the very people that are meant to protect them are the culprits.
Impunity continues to be a major problem in Colombia, with very low conviction rates for attacks against trade unionists and other defenders, and for cases of extrajudicial executions. The Attorney-General reports that it has secured 184 sentences in 135 cases related to violence against trade unionists. The recent increase in prosecutions, the vast majority of which were carried out in 2007 and 2008 (and following from significant international pressure for results), is an improvement over the past neglect by the current and previous administrations. However, even if one reads the statistics in the light most favorable to the government, the rate of impunity still hovers around 95 percent. Moreover, behind these statistics are several troubling realities. First, twenty of the sentences handed down were not for murder, but to a lesser charge, so do not address the impunity rate for homicides. In roughly half of the sentences, the person found responsible for the crime was tried in absentia or is otherwise not in custody and thus potentially still at large. And in the majority of cases, the person convicted of the crime is not the intellectual author, but rather the material author that carried out the order to kill. For these reasons, the Uribe Administration still has a long way to go to end impunity in Colombia.
For cases of alleged extrajudicial executions, there is a 98.5 per cent “impunity rate”, or cases in which no conviction has resulted for cases allocated to the Attorney-General’s Human Rights Unit between 2002 and April 2009.
Internally Displaced Persons
We are also concerned that the proposed FTA could exacerbate displacement and make land retribution even more difficult. Colombia has the second highest level of internal displacement in the world, with over four million IDPs. Last year alone, 380,000 people were internally displaced, a sharp increase on previous years. The Colombian Constitutional Court has acknowledged that one cause of this displacement is the expansion of mega-projects, such as African palm oil, cattle and mining businesses, which have forced people off their land. These industries will be promoted under the FTA.
There is currently 5.5 million hectares of land that has been illegally usurped during the conflict that has not been returned to its rightful owners. In Colombia there are innumerous cases of usurped land that has been illegally sold to third parties, often businesses, using fraudulent titles or other illegal means. The Colombian Constitutional Court has ruled that the Colombian Government’s current policy of land retribution is completely insufficient and needs to be redesigned. We fear that before a clear policy is in place to guarantee the return of the land to rightful owners, protection mechanisms to prevent further violent displacement linked to development projects and before there has been a land census, as the Court recommends, FTA rules could serve to further hamper efforts to return land to its rightful owners.
Impact on Afro-Colombian and indigenous population
The already vulnerable and marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have been disproportionally affected by this displacement; for example, the Constitutional Court found that around half of the Afro-Colombian population had been affected by displacement. The Court also highlighted how displacement, often caused by the expansion of megaprojects, has completely undermined the work that had been done to give Afro-Colombians legal title to their land, with 79 per cent of those who had received such title subsequently being displaced. In recent months, at least three Afro-Colombian IDP and community leaders have been killed and countless others threatened by illegal armed groups for asking that illegally usurped lands are returned to their communities.
On April 23, 2008, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) sent a letter to the U.S. Congress that details how the rights of indigenous communities will be violated by the FTA. In this letter they note with concern that economic model that will be imposed by the FTA is likely to lead to increased internal displacement of these already hard hit communities, as well as deteriorate their labor rights and working conditions. The ONIC fears that the increased financial interests in resources found in indigenous territories generated by the FTA will negatively affect the economic, social, cultural and human rights of indigenous communities. Presently, indigenous rights are violated by similar projects such as oil and African palm oil projects in the departments of Chocó and Meta.
Furthermore, the U.S. Free Trade Agreement was ratified in violation of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities’ right to Previous Consultation under Law 70 of 1993, Law 1320 of 98 and ILO Convention 169. As a consequence, the chapters on intellectual property, the environment, and investment do not reflect afro-descendants legal rights nor their development needs.
Demobilization and New Armed Groups
The government has failed to dismantle the paramilitary groups and as a result thousands of “demobilized” and never-demobilized paramilitaries groups have emerged. The regular reports of the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP/OEA) have noted the resurgence of several new groups with thousands in their ranks. One of Colombia’s leading think-tanks, Arco Iris, reports that these groups have 10,000 members and have presence in 243 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities. Although these groups have assumed distinct organizational frameworks, many are associated to powerful local or regional economic and political interests and continue the violent legacy of the former paramilitaries, including narcotics trafficking and targeted assassinations. Groups such as the “Aguilas Negras” (Black Eagles) are responsible for some of the death threats leveled against trade unionists in 2007-08. Despite the strong impact of these armed groups on the civilian population, their hierarchical structure and military capacity, the government does not recognize them as illegal armed groups and therefore the armed forces does not have the mandate to combat them, only the police who have limited resources especially in rural areas.
Today, 179 politicians, including 77 members of the Colombian Congress (or roughly one-third of all current members), have come under criminal investigation for collaborating with paramilitaries. Thus the FTA was negotiated by a Congress with a third of its members believed to have links with a group the U.S. has classified as a terrorist organization. The majority of those individuals under investigation are members of parties sympathetic to the government and include some within the president’s innermost circle, such as his cousin and ally, Senator Mario Uribe. President Uribe has often sought to take credit for the housecleaning, and has invoked the recent arrests as an example of his administration’s adherence to the rule of law. However, the investigations would most likely not have happened but for the efforts of the independent Supreme Court. Indeed, President Uribe’s 2008 proposal to let all of the implicated politicians avoid prison contradicts this assertion. Last year, President Uribe also blocked a bill that would bar political parties linked to paramilitaries from holding onto the seats of those members who are convicted of paramilitary collaboration.
Impact on the Rural Sector:
Despite the large internal displacement and problems of access to land in Colombia, small farmers accounting for nearly three-quarters of a million households produce about 40% of the basic food basket consumed in the country. They grow corn, beans, traditional rice, wheat and barley and produce products from livestock, which would be adversely affected by the FTA. Even conservative estimates indicate that in the initial years of FTA implementation, about 28% of the crops grown by small farmers and much of their livestock activities would no longer be viable. This would reduce income from farming activities and would increase pressure on the rural population to engage in the cultivation of illegal crops and to take part in the dynamics of the conflict.
Provisions in the agreement eliminate protections, such as the price band system, against highly subsidized US exports and would leave small farmers unable to compete. Even in cases with longer tariff phase-outs, the tariff-free quotas that would immediately take effect would undermine domestic production. Furthermore, the safeguard in the FTA is weak and temporary so would be ineffective in addressing the problem.
There are no government policies or programs in Colombia that would compensate these small farmers for their losses. The government’s current agricultural policy has been directed to protect and encourage large-scale producers. Even programs that are supposed to benefit small farmers have in practice been difficult to access and few resources have actually been allocated to small and vulnerable farmers.
 The Fiscalia General de la Nacion (Office of the Attorney General of Colombia), registered 42 murdered unionists in 41 cases in 2008, up from 27 murdered trade unionists in 26 cases. This is a 50% increase according to the government.
 As stated in the report of the Fiscalia General dated March 15, 2009.
 Percentage calculated using figures reported to the U.S. Office on Colombia by the AG’s Human Rights Unit in May 2009.
 According to the country’s leading non governmental organization working on displacement, CODHES.
 This does not even include the Afro-Colombian and indigenous territory which has been illegally usurped.
 Constitutional Court Decree 005 of 2009.