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U.S.: Spate of Trade Deals Move Toward Passage

Aprille Muscara

WASHINGTON, Jan 28 2011 (IPS) - On the heels of U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday in which he focused squarely on resuscitating the economy, pressure is mounting in the nation’s capital to move forward with free trade agreements (FTAs) whose passage would promote exports and create jobs.

In his address, Obama urged Congress to act on pending trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the administration plans to submit the U.S.-Colombia FTA to Congress this year. Obama did not initially set a timetable in Tuesday’s speech.

“There are still negotiations that are taking place,” Clinton told reporters after a meeting here on Friday with Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón, who is in town to meet with lawmakers. “We don’t want to send an agreement just for the sake of sending an agreement. We want to send an agreement and get it passed.”

“Secretary Clinton’s remarks represent the clearest signal the administration has sent with respect to its intentions to move the Colombia agreement forward in a specific time frame,” said National Foreign Trade Council president Bill Reinsch in a statement.

Among the three deals, the U.S.-South Korea FTA seems to be first in line for passage. Seoul’s trade ministry announced Wednesday that the text of the agreement had been finalised and would be signed in mid-February, according to media reports.

“I can generally say that this agreement now has the full support of U.S. industries [and even] critical labour unions,” Han Duk-soo, South Korea’s ambassador to the U.S. and a former prime minister, told a small group at the National Foreign Trade Council Friday.

Despite some domestic political opposition and public complaints here by Rep. Max Baucus that the deal didn’t address beef exports, Han said that he was “definitely confident about passage in both countries”.

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing on the three FTAs. Chairperson Rep. Dave Camp pushed for a Jul. 1 deadline. “Implementation of their agreements and continued inaction on our agreements will result in further missed opportunities to create U.S. jobs,” he said in a statement.

“Other major economies, including the E.U. and Canada, have signed, or are poised to sign, agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea,” he explained. “America cannot afford to fall further behind and by standing still, we are doing just that.”

If the Bogotá-Washington trade deal isn’t passed, Garzón told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre on Wednesday, bilateral relations wouldn’t suffer. But, he noted, in 2013, Colombia will have signed FTAs with Canada, Japan, China and the European Union.

“Trade relations will be weakened… as Colombia turns to others instead,” he warned.

Negotiated in 2006, the U.S.-Colombia FTA has stalled due to opposition by labour leaders in the North and concerns about the state of human and labour rights in the South American nation. But with last year’s election of President Juan Manuel Santos, rights groups have cautiously welcomed a shift in the administration’s tone and Santos’s choice in Garzón, who has a labour background.

“However, positive rhetoric, new appointments and pending legislation have yet to translate into effective actions to address Colombia’s past and present human rights violations,” said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin American Working Group in a statement on Monday.

In words at least, the Santos administration has been vocal about its commitment to improving the rights of Colombians. Garzón stressed Wednesday that Bogotá has a zero-tolerance policy, vowing to uphold universal human rights and respect international humanitarian law.

However, Haugaard noted that violence against rights defenders continues, illegal armed groups maintain their violent grip on parts of the country, investigations into extrajudicial killings remain stalled and that legislation introduced by Santos that would provide reparations and land restitution to victims does not sufficiently address sources of funding or protection for the displaced in case of reprisal.

“It is too early to judge the new administration’s commitment and capacity to resolve these challenges,” she said. “But it is the right moment to encourage the Santos administration to match its words with deeds.”

Clinton announced Friday that the next round of negotiations would take place in two months. “We’ve made considerable progress together, but we have more work to do on security and other issues,” she said. “That is why we are hosting the second round of the U.S.-Colombia High Level Partnership Dialogue in March, where we will cover so many of these issues.”

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