By  on December 12, 2008

GENEVA — Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon said he is hopeful his government can convince the administration of President-elect Barack Obama to endorse the stalled bilateral free trade agreement.

Congressional approval would increase the prospects for Colombian exports of apparel to the U.S. that were worth $398 million in 2007. Colombia’s apparel exports worldwide more than doubled to $1.3 billion last year from $520 million in 2000, according to the World Trade Organization.

U.S. concerns about Colombia’s human rights record, particularly the killing and kidnapping of trade unionists, helped block a vote on the bilateral accord this year.

“I’ll oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement if President Bush insists on sending it to Congress because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements,” Obama said in April on the campaign trail. “So you can trust me when I say that whatever trade deals we negotiate when I’m president…they’ll have strong labor and environmental protections that we’ll enforce.”

Calderon said the government has stepped up efforts to confront the problem. Murders of trade unionists, which reached 198 in 2002, have since “decreased year after year, except this last year in which we have seen an increase…because of attacks by illegal groups,” he said, adding there have been 41 victims.

The International Trade Union Confederation estimated in 2007 that Colombia was the world’s worst violator of workers’ rights, with 39 trade unionists murdered.

Calderon said the failure to give the green light to the Colombian Free Trade Agreement “is sending the wrong message to the region and the wrong message to Colombia, so we hope that in the end, the FTA is going to be approved.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative said, “Colombia has made significant advances to combat violence and instability….President [Alvaro] Uribe has dramatically reduced violence against trade unionists.”

Uribe has established an independent prosecutorial unit to “investigate and pursue charges against those accused of homicides against labor unionists,” the spokeswoman said.

But human rights groups and top United Nations officials said Colombia’s record remains poor.

“Colombia faces grave human rights challenges…including hostage-taking, [and] extrajudicial executions,” Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said last month.

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