WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Nov 2013 | Commentary | News

Promoting Peace, Labor Rights, and Social Inclusion in Colombia

On November 6, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) reached a tentative agreement on political participation, the second agenda point in its ongoing peace negotiations. This is a major step for the parties, as political participation is widely considered to be one of the thorniest of the five negotiating points. WOLA joins Rep. James P. McGovern and international observers in welcoming this latest development encourages the parties to remain at the table until a final agreement is reached.

In their November 6 declaration, the negotiating parties acknowledged the wealth of civil society voices throughout the peace process, and claimed to have incorporated recommendations throughout the process and that they will continue to solicit civil society input in the construction of a lasting peace. Here are some of the ways WOLA has worked to support peace with justice in Colombia in recent months.

Supporting the Peace Process in Colombia

In September, WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson presented on drug policy—the next discussion point for the talks—at an official peace process forum in Bogotá. Speaking to an audience of 1,000-plus government officials, activists, and media, Isacson outlined why existing drug policies have failed to curb coca production and improve security. Existing practices, such as the U.S.-sponsored aerial fumigation of coca crops, must be replaced with increased state presence and alternative development—as well as an accompanying reduction in demand for illicit drugs—if production and trafficking is to be reduced. You can watch his presentation here [Spanish only] and read his analysis of why aerial fumigation does not work here.

Advocating for Victims and a Respect for Human Rights

WOLA continued to work with Colombian partners to elevate the voices of the victims and ensure a final peace agreement recognizes the impact the conflict has had on marginalized groups, including Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, and trade unionists. Driving the debate to include victims and human rights, WOLA hosted events on the rights of Afro-Colombians (with AFRODES USA and Global Rights), continued paramilitary threats to peace (with LAWGEF and USOC) and obstacles to land restitution (with PBI).

Moving from information sharing to advocacy, WOLA joined Global Rights and AFRODES USA in advising AFRODES before it testified at the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. At the hearing, AFRODES secured commitments from the Colombian government for improved dialogue and more effective protection measures. A video of the hearing is available here, official photos are here, and a news article interviewing AFRODES president on the security situation facing over 100 AFRODES leaders is available here.

Engaging the U.S. Government on Peace

WOLA has cultivated support for the talks among key U.S. policymakers. On October 24, Senior Associate for Regional Security Adam Isacson testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives. Isacson offered an overview of the conflict and issued specific recommendations for Congress and the State Department, including measuring policy success in terms of people protected, verdicts reached, land titles formalized, miles of road built, and peace agreement commitments fulfilled—rather than hectares fumigated. WOLA has also continued to work with USAID and its contractors to ensure aid programs are effective and actively address the causes of the conflict.

Protecting the Rights of Workers

Together with Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples, trade unionists have been one of the most targeted groups in Colombia’s decades-long conflict. WOLA works with Colombian unions, elected officials, and civil society organizations to ensure that U.S. and Colombian labor policies extend beyond theory into practice. As follow-up to the August 2013 WOLA-supported delegation to Colombia, U.S. Representatives George Miller (D-Calif.) and James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) released a Congressional report citing major deficiencies in the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP). Designed to address labor rights issues in advance of the bilateral free trade agreement, the LAP, the report finds, remains largely unimplemented. Widespread subcontracting, illegal firings, and worker intimidation continue. Furthermore, in the brutally violent seaport of Buenaventura—through which the vast majority of Colombian exports pass—WOLA found evidence of possible links between U.S. funded armed forces and illegal armed groups. WOLA encourages the United States and Colombian governments to implement all the recommendations made in this congressional report and will continue to monitor implementation of the LAP.

The report was very well received in Colombia, eliciting support statements [Spanish only] from the country’s largest unionscivil society organizations, and local communities. WOLA was widely quoted in the Colombian and U.S. press following the report’s release, and Rep. McGovern gave an interview on CNN Español.

Meanwhile, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo expressing his concern over continued subcontracting, which has seriously limited workers’ ability to bargain collectively for fair wages, job security, and safe working conditions.

While Colombian workers continue to lack the protections necessary to fully exercise their rights, they have no shortage of passionate advocates. WOLA partner Yessika Hoyos was featured in this month’s issue of The Progressive for her longtime quest to seek justice in the murder of her father, a trade unionist.

Protecting Land Rights

On November 7, 12 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressing their concern over complications in the land restitution process in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river valleys. WOLA welcomes this letter and hopes that it will allow this emblematic land restitution case to safely progress with the inclusion of the entire displaced community.

Meanwhile, farther south down Colombia’s Pacific coast, grassroots groups and afrodescendant community councils peacefully occupied the Popayán, Cauca, offices of INCODER, Colombia’s rural development agency, after it failed to abide by agreements made with local groups. WOLA joined the Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network (ACSN) in standing with the groups and demanding that Viceminister Aníbal Fernández de Soto engage in good-faith dialogue with them.

Yet the important work these and other local leaders do in defense of human rights exposes them to great risks. On October 27, the office of longtime WOLA partner and Afro-Colombian leader Yolanda Garcia of Asomanos Negras was attacked in nearby Guapi. WOLA calls on the Colombian government to investigate these latest acts of violence and bring its perpetrators to justice.

Looking Forward

WOLA is pleased with the apparent progress in the peace talks. We will continue to connect U.S. policymakers with the most vulnerable sectors of Colombian society—trade unionists, land activists, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous peoples—to ensure an ultimate peace agreement is lasting, inclusive, and effective.