Stated clerk speaks out against Colombia Free Trade Agreement

In a letter to President Obama, the Rev. Gradye Parsons says, “Real, substantial, and lasting efforts must be made to address the serious displacement crisis and the violations of human rights and labor rights in Colombia before a trade agreement should move forward.”

Presbyterians in both countries have been speaking out against the CFTA in recent weeks, through fasting, a call-in campaign and a prayer breakfast.

Opponents of the CFTA say that if it passes, internal displacement of small-scale farmers and violence against labor unionists will increase. The CFTA will also put indigenous farmers at an economic disadvantage because they won’t be able to compete with multinational agricultural companies, opponents say.

PC(USA) General Assemblies have repeatedly affirmed that trade justice and U.S. economic policy toward developing nations are important theological issues for the church. In 2003, the 215th GA extended a call to Presbyterians to “oppose multinational actions and trade agreements that elevate the rights of corporations over the right of governments and indigenous peoples to pass and enforce laws that preserve the public good and protect their citizens, economies, and environments.”

In 2008, the 219th Assembly passed a similar resolution, this time specifically addressing the situation in Colombia and Presbyterians’ responsibility to educate themselves and their representatives about the economic injustice and the human rights abuses taking place in Colombia.

The full text of Parsons’ letter:

June 15, 2011

Dear President Obama,

As Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I write you to express my serious concerns about the free trade agreement with Colombia. Real, substantial, and lasting efforts must be made to address the serious displacement crisis and the violations of human rights and labor rights in Colombia before a trade agreement should move forward.

For more than 152 years, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessors have been engaged in ministry with our Christian sisters and brothers in Colombia. In 1856, the first Presbyterian church was founded in Bogotá. The early Presbyterian missionaries established schools that have educated generations of respected citizens.

The Presbyterian Church of Colombia gives strong and vital witness to the teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ and this church has called on us for support in its ministries with the displaced and most impoverished communities. Its assembly has made declarations that warn of the grave consequences that approval of a free trade agreement would have for broad sectors of Colombia’s population. Pastors and members of the church continue to put themselves at risk through their work for human rights. Some have been martyred in order to witness faithfully to the demands of the gospel by serving those most in need and the victims of the violence.

The current conditions of impunity, violence, and poverty in Colombia are extremely disturbing. We believe these problems will only be exacerbated by the free trade agreement.

* The violence towards trade unionists remains alarmingly high. Between 2005 and 2009, more trade unionists were killed in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. Between June and October 2010 alone, 33 human rights defenders were killed. The “Action Plan” agreement with the Colombian government, while a step forward, does not do enough to protect workers’ rights and fails to address broader human rights concerns.

* Agriculture provisions in the agreement will increase the displacement crisis. Colombia currently has five million internally displaced people – the world’s largest displacement crisis. The agreement will accelerate land expropriation to benefit agro-export crops. This will force many small farmers off their land. The unequal distribution of land lies at the heart of Colombia’s conflict.

* Investment provisions will allow foreign investors in extractive industries to displace poor Colombians and undermine Colombian national sovereignty. The situation of displaced people in Colombia is aggravated by violent and illegal land seizures by paramilitary and guerrilla groups who profit from the sale of these lands to unscrupulous companies. The free trade agreement with Colombia will exacerbate this crisis by encouraging mining and other extractive industry projects that push communities off of their lands. We have already witnessed the disastrous consequences of companies that have invested in extractive industries such as mining and palm oil extraction. Colombia has seen increased inequality, food insecurity, environmental damage, displacement of indigenous communities, and marginalization of small-scale mining and traditional livelihoods. Moreover, the investor-state dispute process in the FTA will allow foreign investors to challenge Colombian efforts to ensure public safety, public health, and environmental protection.

Human rights have not yet improved sufficiently in Colombia. Despite the optimistic reports of the last couple days, Colombia has not yet met the June 15 milestones outlined in the Action Plan. I urge you not to introduce this legislation until the Colombian government has taken measures to protect the human rights of its citizens and made concrete efforts to improve labor rights, protect trade unionists and human rights leaders, and to address the issues of displacement by violence in Colombia.

In Christ’s Name,

Gradye Parsons

Stated Clerk of the General Assembly

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