A Human Rights Argument for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement

Map of Colombia

The conventional wisdom among many human rights and labor activists is that nations with poor human rights records don't deserve the benefits of a free trade agreement with the United States. But governments have long used trade as an incentive to lock in the habit of protecting human rights. The European Communities (EC) made human rights improvements a condition of membership in that external and internal trade agreement. EC policymakers provided funds and expertise to help Spain and Portugal as well as recent candidate countries Croatia and Turkey improve their human rights performance. The United States has also used the lure of its market as an incentive to improve governance in countries as diverse as Mexico, Morocco, and Oman.

Members of Congress should bear this in mind as they consider whether or not to approve the free trade agreement with Colombia. In recent years, Colombia has benefited from temporary trade preferences, which the proposed free trade agreement would make permanent. But many human rights and labor rights leaders argue that the U.S. should not reward Colombia now because it has not made sufficient progress in labor rights and basic human rights. Their arguments have understandably swayed many members of Congress.

On one hand, policymakers recognize that Colombia is a vibrant multiparty democracy. In the face of narco-terrorism, the government has made significant progress towards improving the rule of law, controlling corruption and making government more accountable and effective. But according to both Freedom House and the U.S. Department of State, it has major governance problems including endemic violence, poverty, ineffective law enforcement, military collaboration with paramilitary groups, arbitrary arrest of human rights activists, and a culture of impunity. Insurgents continue to attack civilians, including labor leaders, and large swaths of the countryside are under guerrilla influence. While the trade agreement can't directly address problems of impunity, it can reinforce efforts to improve the rule of law and help citizens demand and receive better governance.

Thus, these members should ask whether Colombia will be able to continue to improve human rights without ongoing incentives and assistance from the U.S. and others. To successfully advance human rights, governments must achieve a delicate balance. Sometimes, policymakers must intervene in markets to ensure that all citizens have access to water and education, to protect property rights, or to prevent discrimination. But at other times they must refrain from action (to protect the right to privacy or freedom of speech). Every day officials in the wealthiest democracies, including the U.S., struggle to find this balance.

Although the trade agreement was not designed to advance human rights per se, it has important human rights spillovers. First it requires policymakers to make trade related regulations transparent and to allow public comment. Second, it grants domestic economic actors "due process rights," the rights to seek relief by submitting comments to a national agency or to appeal adjudicatory rules related to trade. Citizens that can demand these rights through the trade regime will also demand these habits of good governance in other policymaking activities. Moreover, these provisions are backed up by dispute settlement mechanisms, and if the government is found to have violated such provisions, it may lose trade benefits. Thus, the agreement is both a carrot and a stick.

American labor and human rights activists are quite rightly concerned about the government's approach to protecting unionized workers. But the agreement gives Colombian workers greater clout with the government. Should Colombia fail to meet its commitments under the agreement, Colombian workers can petition the U.S. Government to take action. During the negotiations of the agreement, the Attorney General's office created a special unit to deal with priority cases of violence against union members. The government increased funding for this unit from $2 million in 2001 to $48 million in 2008. Colombia is more likely to put greater resources towards this end with the agreement, then without. After all, U.S. policymakers, human rights activists and labor union leaders will be watching.

Finally it is interesting to note that in a review of recent empirical research on the relationship between trade and human rights for a new book on this topic, we found that the one basket of human rights that tends to improve with trade (as opposed to particular trade agreements) is personal integrity rights (such as freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and killings, et cetera). If this empirical research is correct, expanded trade achieved through the agreement could also help advance the very human rights that need reinforcement.

In sum, while the trade agreement is no human rights panacea, it seems likely to help Colombia continue to make human rights progress. It bolsters the ability of the Colombian people to demand the good governance they deserve. Given these attributes, policymakers need to ponder, if not now, when?

Read More: Human Rights, International Trade, Colombia

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