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Editorial

Congress must pass trade pact with Colombia

Now that Colombia has taken steps to address concerns about human rights abuses, Congress should act quickly to ratify the agreement.

April 11, 2011

In the four years since the United States and Colombia reached a trade agreement that would eliminate steep tariffs on U.S. exports to the South American nation, the proposed pact has languished in Congress. Democrats, backed by their allies in organized labor, opposed it, accusing Colombia of turning a blind eye to rampant human rights abuses against union leaders.

But a glimmer of hope emerged last week when the White House announced it had brokered a new deal with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to improve the pact's protections for union activists.

The changes aren't just window dressing. Santos is offering a detailed road map and timeline to achieve specific human rights reforms, including a commitment to assign 95 full-time judicial investigators to help prosecute crimes against labor union leaders and organizers. He has pledged to eliminate the backlog of requests from unionists for protection and to enact laws that criminalize threats against them. He also will require the attorney general to issue an internal directive to review cold cases and pursue new prosecutions.

These measures signal that Colombian officials are serious about addressing the bloodshed that has claimed the lives of more than 2,800 trade unionists since 1986. Some 51 were killed last year alone.

Congress should seize this opportunity to ratify the pact (along with proposed free-trade agreements with Panama and South Korea). Though lawmakers are right to raise human rights concerns when warranted, Colombia has already made real gains in curbing the violence — last year the International Labor Organization removed Colombia from its list of nations that fail to comply with global labor standards — and now Santos is promising further action.

U.S. labor groups may continue to oppose the pact; they have traditionally opposed such agreements, which they see as a way for U.S. firms to outsource union jobs. But it should be passed anyway. The U.S. already has trade agreements with nine Latin American countries in a region that is increasingly becoming an attractive market for Asian and European products.

This pact will help U.S. firms and farmers remain competitive by eliminating taxes on key exports and allowing corn, rice and other agricultural products to enter Colombia duty free. Right now, Colombian products enter the U.S. without paying any tariffs, but U.S. products face high taxes there. The International Trade Commission has estimated the agreement will increase exports of U.S. goods by $1.1 billion.

The Obama administration has done its job to help resolve the impasse by negotiating the concessions and addressing human rights concerns. Republican leaders have said they are willing to pass the trade agreement. Now Democrats should do their part.

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