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EUROPE: Colombia Given a Trade Lease

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Dec 11 2008 (IPS) - Less than a week after the European Commission promised to study whether trade preferences granted to Colombia should be revoked because of the country’s human rights record, Brussels officials have decided to extend the preferences for a further two years.

David O’Sullivan, the Commission’s director-general for trade, had told IPS Dec. 5 that his institution had received several complaints about the murders of trade unionists in Colombia. As the terms on which Colombia was given duty-free access for most exports to the EU are conditional on it abiding by a range of international agreements on labour and civil rights, an investigation into the possibility of withdrawing those preferences may be opened, he said.

Four days later, the Commission announced that it was extending the trade preferences, known in official jargon as GSP Plus, for Colombia and 15 other developing countries until 2011. Catherine Ashton, the commissioner for trade, said that the decision “ensures that sustainable development and good governance will continue to be rewarded.”

Despite not taking any action against Colombia, the Commission said that it is investigating if El Salvador and Sri Lanka are eligible for the preferences. Doubts have been expressed about whether they are in compliance with a number of conventions of the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation.

More trade unionists are murdered in Colombia than in any other country in the world. During the first eight months of this year, 40 trade unionists were murdered, compared to 39 for the whole of 2007. The country’s president has been widely denounced by the international labour movement for claiming that some of the murder victims were terrorists, without providing robust supporting evidence.

The EU’s decision on Colombia drew an angry response from human rights and anti-poverty campaigners.


Sue Branford, a representative of the British organisation War on Want and author of ‘The Debt Trade: the U.S., the Banks and Latin America’, suggested that the EU is ignoring Colombia’s human rights problems because it views it as an important source of energy resources such as coal and biofuels.

“Colombia is a country that carries out severe human rights abuses,” she said. “It has the highest number of trade union activists killed in the world. And it is a very dangerous country to be a journalist. I had a Colombian journalist friend killed.

“I don’t think the EU and the U.S. in any way have put pressure on Colombia to adhere to minimal respect for human rights. It has never been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that the EU said it would subject it to.”

Francois Houtart, founder of Centre Tricontinental, a Belgian group researching international development issues who has recently returned from a visit to Colombia, said that biofuels have exacerbated the country’s human rights problems. Paramilitaries are killing peasants in Putumayo province in order to free up land for palm tree plantations, he said. Palm oil is one of the most coveted biofuels for European cars.

While Houtart recognised that Colombia holds democratic elections, he said that 50 percent of the electorate does not vote and has no confidence in Uribe’s right-wing administration. “Any action of the European Union to legitimise such a government, especially such a president, is really a scandal,” he added.

Glyn Ford, a British member of the European Parliament, said he was disappointed by the reluctance of the Commission to investigate the situation in Colombia. European trade unionists, he said, had sent a 50-page dossier to the EU executive, detailing the problems faced by their Colombian counterparts.

The Commission is also eager to conclude a far-reaching free trade agreement with Colombia that would involve the removal of tariffs faced by European exporters doing business with the country.

Two years ago the EU and the four countries in the Andean Community – Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador – undertook to open negotiations on a region-wide free trade deal. Yet because the left-leaning governments led by Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have reservations about the extent of the trade liberalisation being sought, Brussels officials recently announced that they have decided to negotiate with Colombia and Peru only.

The Commission has suggested that the door would be open to Bolivia and Ecuador if they still wished to negotiate.

Brid Brennan from the research and advocacy organisation Transnational Institute said, however, that there has been “systematic disinformation” in Brussels.

“David O’Sullivan said last week that Bolivia and Ecuador had been in no way excluded,” she added. “But Bolivia has put forward ten points on how the negotiations should be conducted. This has been viciously set aside.”

Branford noted that Evo Morales has been questioning the basis on which international trade is organised. Morales has, for example, recommended that trade should be disciplined by legally binding rules on protecting the environment.

“Rather than welcoming new ideas from Bolivia and Ecuador, the EU has said it will push ahead with a free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru,” she said. “It is cold-shouldering Bolivia and Ecuador.”

 
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