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Human Rights Watch Opposes McCain on Colombia

During last night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University, Sen. John McCain, as he often does on the trail, sang the praises of the stalled Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

With a tone that bordered on mocking, McCain disparaged Sen. Barack Obama’s opposition to the agreement. From the transcript:

But let me give you another example of a free trade agreement that Sen. Obama opposes. Right now, because of previous agreements, some made by President Clinton, the goods and products that we send to Colombia , which is our largest agricultural importer of our products, is — there’s a billion dollars that we — our businesses have paid so far in order to get our goods in there.

Because of previous agreements, their goods and products come into our country for free. So Sen. Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The same country that’s helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country that’s killing young Americans.

And also the country that just freed three Americans that will help us create jobs in America because they will be a market for our goods and products without having to pay — without us having to pay the billions of dollars — the billion dollars and more that we’ve already paid.

Free trade with Colombia is something that’s a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better.

Obama cited the Colombian government’s spotty human rights record and its blind eye toward the assassination of labor leaders as reasons for his opposition.

Human Rights Watch issued a 142-page report today on Colombia’s efforts to rein in paramilitary groups. It concluded that the trade agreement has been an effective carrot for encouraging Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to crack down on the paramilitary “mafias” that engage in drug trafficking and murder opponents, including trade unionists.

A proposal that President Uribe floated in 2007 to allow politicians who collaborated with paramilitaries to avoid prison altogether would have had a devastating impact on the investigations. Fortunately, President Uribe tabled this proposal after it became evident that it would become an obstacle to the ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. It is unclear what would happen if the pressure related to ratification of the trade deal were dropped.

The human rights organization appears to side with Obama on whether the agreement should be ratified in the near future, recommending that the U.S. Congress “[c]ontinue to delay ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until Colombia shows concrete and sustained results in reducing impunity for trade unionist killings and dismantling the paramilitary mafias responsible for many of the killings. This means that Colombia must show meaningful results in investigating and holding accountable not only paramilitary leaders but also their many accomplices.”

Clearly, McCain’s comments last night demonstrated a willingness to overlook the potential human cost of his ideological pursuit of unrestricted trade.

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