Monday, May 21, 2012
By Austin Robles, WFP Colombia
When I left the United States to do human rights work in Colombia, I knew the risks of entering the country with the world’s longest ongoing guerrilla war . But on May 15th, as I was walking through the capital, I felt insecure for the first time when I saw television news reports that a car bomb had gone off two miles from my apartment, killing at least 2 and injuring 39.
Though I lived in Honduras in 2010, the year in which it became the world’s most violent country, I never felt that my life was in danger. In Colombia, however, the first car bomb in the capital in nearly a decade rattled me and showed me how exposed civilians are as a result of the armed conflict.
As I thought about my role supporting human rights processes in Colombia later that afternoon, I received a bulletin a partner organization released that day reporting targeted attacks against human rights activists in the first three months of 2012. In just 91 days, there were 64 attacks against human rights defenders, including 13 murders, 29 death threats, 1 disappearance, 17 attacks, 3 arbitrary arrests, and 1 case of sexual violence.
Reading this news in light of the bombing, it became all too clear that the insecurity I felt in the last few hours was a burden that social justice activists must bear daily. My mind also turned to the other major event of the day: the launch of the free trade agreement between the USA and Colombia.
The FTA stalled for six years before its passage due to concerns of Colombia’s abysmal human and labor rights record. It has been the most dangerous country for those defending workers’ rights for decades. According to Garry Leech, almost 75% of the world’s union leaders killed in the last 20 years were Colombian, and less than 5% of these killings resulted in a conviction.
The situation is complicated by Colombia’s internal conflict, which often draws multinational corporations into its fold. Ohio-based Chiquita Brands International Inc. plead guilty in 2007 to paying $1.7 million to terrorist paramilitary groups over eight years. Chiquita is currently facing another lawsuit brought by thousands of family members of those killed by paramilitaries aided by Chiquita’s material support.
Similarly, Alabama-based Drummond Ltd., a coal mining business, is on trial for allegedly paying paramilitaries $1.5 million to murder union leaders in 2001. Ex-paramilitaries have testified that Drummond paid the terrorist group $100,000 monthly, and nearly 600 murders were ordered between 1995 and 2005.
Even when multinationals are not involved in the conflict, labor regulations are too lax and Colombian institutions too weak to provide substantive protections for workers. According to a labor rights association composed of Drummond workers, there have been 6,445 work-related accidents, resulting in 22 deaths, in Drummond’s 16 years operating in the country.
Health rights remain one of the most challenging issues. Michigan-based General Motors fired over 160 of its workers after they were disabled or contracted sicknesses on the job, but the company refused to recognize the injuries as work-related and assumed no financial responsibility. These workers are no longer physically able to perform manual labor, and they and their families have no economic security. These were only some of the concerns of Members of Congress as they deliberated the FTA.
Authorities are still investigating whether the start of the FTA and the car bomb are related, and the FBI and Scotland Yard are reportedly assisting Colombian efforts. Regardless of whether the link is proven or not, there can be no doubt that the FTA and political violence in Colombia are intertwined. Instead of leading to greater prosperity for all, the FTA will increase violations of workers’ rights in the country that already holds the world’s worst labor rights record, and will further human rights defenders’ feeling of insecurity that I have only just begun to experience.