An editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal criticizes Sen. Barack Obama for saying the following about Colombia in Wednesday’s presidential debate:
The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination, on a fairly consistent basis, and there have not been any prosecutions.
This, the Journal says, is an example of Obama “repeating union distortions” about labor violence in Colombia.
It is true that Colombia has seen progress on labor violence according to one measure: the absolute number of labor-union leaders, organizers and members killed. Estimates vary, and labor-rights defenders contend that acts of anti-union violence have, in fact, increased dramatically this year. Nonetheless, killings of unionists have dropped since the worst period of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Journal’s argument, however, cannot overturn Sen. Obama’s second objection: that prosecutions, another very crucial measure, have seen little improvement.
Today’s editorial tries to make the case:
As for prosecutions: In union-member killings, there were zero convictions from 1991-2000 and one in 2001. But from 2002-2007, there were 80.
The argument collapses right here. Eighty convictions in six years is an extremely poor result. It is not a number to celebrate – especially when the total universe of cases from the past twenty years is well over 2,000. This statistic is one of the strongest arguments that opponents of the free-trade agreement could employ.
It shows that even though labor killings are reduced from 2002 or so, the impunity rate for such killings has barely budged. In nearly all labor killings, the murderers – both the planners and the trigger-pullers – are still at large and have little to fear from the justice system.
Until the prosecution rate for unionist killings improves, the Free Trade Agreement will continue to be a hard sell in Washington.
Hopes for improvement hinge on the work of the Labor Sub-Unit of the Colombian government’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, which is trying to make progress on dozens of “benchmark cases.” Observers, notably Rep. George Miller (R-California), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have questioned whether this Sub-Unit will be able to make significant progress at current levels of funding, political and institutional support.
If it does not, the agreement’s opponents will continue to have a very strong argument.