The Washington Times - February 20, 2009, 12:24PM

My story about trade provisions in the stimulus bill is up on the web today. One angle I didn’t get to touch on that I wanted to was the debate over the Colombia free trade agreement.

The main argument for passage of this deal is that it would be a strong signal of support for a big U.S. ally in a region that is full of anti-U.S. leaders.

Thea Lee, with the AFL-CIO, explained the case against the agreement. The Colombian government, she said, “is really not in a position to enforce the labor rights provisions negotiated in the agreement.”

“There is basically a failure to implement a rule of law with respect to worker rights. That’s a very serious situation. Until the government shows it is capable or willing of enforcing its own labor laws for employees who try to unionize or carry out a strike, we think it’s premature,” said Lee.

Lee acknowledged that violence has decreased from the late 90’s, when around 200 labor activists a year were being murdered. But, she said, murders went from 39 in 2007 to 49 in 2008.

Kimberly Elliott, with the Center for Global development, supplied numbers from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, showing a decline in murders from 2000 to 2007.

2000: 135
2001: 185
2002: 184
2003: 90
2004: 99
2005: 70
2006: 78
2007: 26

“The $64,000 question really is, what is enough? What is it that the Democrats would regard as sufficient progress to go ahead and be wiling to vote on a free trade agreement?” Elliott said.

“The Bush administration pushed them to be specific, the Colombian government pressed them to be specific, and so far, they haven’t been willing to do that,” she said. “Now, my understanding from folks I’ve talked to is they were waiting for President Obama to get into office, and someone … is supposed to be working on an action plan for Colombia that will then set the framework for what it’s going to take to actually get a vote on the agreement.”

Lee, however, said that there is no acceptable level of violence.

“It’s hard for me to answer that question with any number other than zero. People shouldn’t be killed for standing up and trying to organize a union,” she said.

But Jeffrey Schott, with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that Lee was “setting a standard that goes well beyond the capacity of human governance.”

“It’s a bad question to ask, because you’re asking someone to say any level of violence is acceptable or to be satisfied with a degree of human suffering that none of us could justify,” Schott said.

“That said, given the nature of the society and the progress that has been made, it would also be wrong to ignore the very substantial gains that have been made and implemented by the Uribe government.”

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On another note, the White House confirmed to me yesterday that Tim Reif, the chief Democratic trade counsel on the House Ways and Means committee, will soon be named general counsel in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

UPDATE - 5:10 P.M.

Elliott added that if the Obama administration has an action plan to move the Colombia agreement closer to a vote in Congress, it must “focus on process: what are the steps needed to ensure that no one in Colombia has impunity under the law?”

“Are the murders of union organizers being investigated, prosecuted, and punished just as vigorously as others?” Elliott said.

Lee said they are not, and cited this as another reason why the agreement should not be approved.

“You have this legacy of 2,600 trade unionists who have been murdered since 1986 and there are very few people in jail for those murders. The vast majority of the perpetrators are out on the street and have never been indicted or served any sentence,” she said.

Elliott said that any process that attempts to correct this problem should avoid using “using inappropriate targets, such as numbers of prosecutions or imprisonments, that result in miscarriages of justice in the other direction.”

— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times

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