- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2011

Now that Congress is returning from the August recess with plans to vote on pending free-trade agreements, partisan bickering must not be allowed to kill the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The Colombia of President Juan Manuel Santos is a far different country from the Colombia of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Liberals should recognize that some progress has been made on human rights concerns that kept them from supporting the agreement for nearly five years. It is time for the United States to recognize that progress by passing the bilateral FTA, which virtually eliminates tariff and other trade barriers between the two countries. Equally important is the political seal of approval that is perceived to go with it, which also might stall attacks on Mr. Santos‘ reforms.

Until now, labor unions and human rights activists, both with strong Democratic Party links, have conditioned support for the FTA on protections for labor leaders and progress on human rights. They had good reasons for this, given a staggering 2,800 murders of trade-union members in the past 25 years.

Since his inauguration, Mr. Santos has signed and wholeheartedly endorsed a victims law that includes reparations and the return of land to those who have been displaced by Colombia’s four decades of civil war. Breaking with Mr. Uribe, he defined victims not only as those attacked by the paramilitary, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), but also by Colombia’s security forces. All told, the law covers more than 4 million people. Mr. Santos also has demonstrated respect for the judiciary and ended official slandering of human rights activists.He and his vice president have supported labor rights protections and approved additional resources for the country’s attorney general to investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses of labor and human rights.

Human rights groups acknowledge the changed tone and the importance of those new laws but disagree about how much actual progress has taken place on the ground over the past 10 months. They challenge the government to do more to protect activists. The question is what would be the best strategy to encourage further progress. When I traveled to Colombia several months ago, it already was clear that traditional political spoilers were organizing to undermine Mr. Santos‘ changes. The best way to encourage Mr. Santos to take further steps to end impunity and protect activists, political candidates and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities is to approve the FTA, which his predecessor was denied.

I am a convert. Passing the FTA was never simply about trade and labor rights - as fundamental as they are - but also includes a broader relationship between the United States and Colombia, where extrajudicial executions, torture, impunity and violation of human rights are not acceptable. Colombia’s past failure to make sufficient progress on these issues raised legitimate questions about approving the FTA, but the balance has shifted.

Congress had postponed voting on the 5-year-old Colombia FTA, along with the Panama and Korea agreements, until a deal was worked out to allow separate votes on trade-adjustment aid and on the FTAs themselves. Democrats should join in ratifying the Colombia pact, and they should credit progress on human rights.

But that is just a start, and much more needs to be done. Mr. Santos should support faster civilian prosecutions of those in the armed forces responsible for massacres and extrajudicial executions, expose government officials with links to paramilitary and criminal and drug-trafficking groups, invigorate the early-warning system to protect human rights defenders and ensure that those displaced by the conflict who are given back their homes and land are protected under the law from new attacks. The risks here over the next several months are real, and close monitoring, hopefully, has been agreed to by the two governments.

During my trip, I traveled to the “consolidation zone” of Barrancabermeja. Community leaders there were still living with security threats from new illegally armed groups and guerrillas. They told me that victims who already had returned to their lands were still particularly vulnerable. Protecting these beneficiaries requires a major comprehensive strategic effort by the government.

Drug trafficking still benefits violent illegal actors, including the Cold War remnants in Colombia’s internal armed conflict. While rarer than in the past, abuses by government security forces still threaten human rights, and the few convictions for extrajudicial killings underscore the persistent impunity that undermines the rule of law. Gaps remain in protecting indigenous and Afro-Colombian rights and in strengthening the capacity of the attorney general’s office.

However, in a short amount of time, Mr. Santos has changed the direction of the state. Now is the time to act to prevent more conservative, dark forces from pushing him off course.

Mark Schneider is senior vice president at the International Crisis Group. He was principal deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Carter administration and assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Clinton administration. He was director of the Peace Corps from 1999-2001.