Forty-five Members of Congress are calling on United States Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick to use negotiations between the U.S. and Colombia as an opportunity to compel it to protect its union leaders, prosecute those who attack unionists, and reform the labor code to bring it into compliance with international labor standards.
In a letter organized by Congressmen Lane Evans (D-IL) and Stephen F. Lynch (D-MA), the group said Colombia is currently the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists; in the last 13 years, over 2,000 Colombian trade unionists were murdered, and thousands more were threatened, displaced, or forced to relocate.  Most of this violence has been attributed to the country's right-wing paramilitaries, who have been embroiled in a 40-year civil war with leftist guerillas. 
The letter urged Ambassador Zoellick to use the US-Andean Free Trade Agreement negotiations to ensure that Colombia addresses violence against union members and takes steps on labor code reform and enforcement. According to the Trade Promotion Act of 2002, the U.S. is required to negotiate language that ensures that a party "does not fail to effectively enforce its own labor laws." 
"Trade agreements cannot bring prosperity unless they are built on a system of law and respect for basic rights, for workers as well as investors," the lawmakers wrote.  "The most basic of workers' rights is the right to life, a right that has been denied to thousands of trade unionists in Colombia.  The right to justice for punishment of crimes is another fundamental right, yet justice is not served in Colombia, either.
"We urge you to use the time that is left in the negotiating period to be sure that your counterparts in Colombia understand that the government must demonstrate significant progress in addressing the violence against trade unionists, impunity for those who commit this violence, and labor code reform and enforcement in Colombian law.  These things are imperative if the Colombian government expects serious consideration of a trade agreement in the U.S. Congress."

Congressman Lynch, a member of the International Workers Rights Caucus, said, "We are deeply concerned about the widespread violence against trade unionists in Colombia and the urgent need for the Uribe administration to reform its labor code and fully enforce its labor laws.  Trade agreements alone cannot bring prosperity to working people.  These agreements also require trading partners who respect their own workers' rights to earn a decent living in a safe workplace, free from oppression and exploitation.  Ultimately it is the same respect for the rule of law that protects the basic rights of workers as well as investors."
Evans said that President Bush's inaugural vow to spread freedom requires the U.S. to work against violence and protect the rights of trade unionists.
"That is something we should be doing all along," Evans said.