This morning (June 15), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders joined ecumenical and interfaith colleagues here in a prayer breakfast on human rights in Colombia.  The interfaith community called on Congress not to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) until major improvements are made to labor and human rights conditions in Colombia.

The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness helped plan and participate in the Congressional Prayer Breakfast, hosted by the Interfaith Working Group on Trade and Investment.  Featured speakers included Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) and the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s director of Public Witness.

Colombia suffers from the world’s worst displacement crisis ― more than 5 million people, most of whom are indigenous small-scale farmers, have been forced off their land by paramilitary and guerilla groups, who sell the land for large-scale commercial farming, mining, and other extractive industries.

Colombia is also home to the most violence against labor unionists in the world.  Between 2005 and 2009, more trade unionists were killed in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. 

Between June and October of 2010, 33 human rights defenders were killed, and the killing continues. Just last week, displaced human rights activist Ana Cordoba was shot on a bus, despite her repeated appeals to the government for protection.

If passed, policy analysts say, the CFTA will worsen both of these situations. Past free trade agreements between the U.S. and Latin America, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have led to increased anti-union violence and exploitative economic situations for indigenous farmers who can’t compete with larger commercial agriculture.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised to oppose the CFTA unless the human rights situation improved. However, despite the persistence of human rights abuses, the Obama administration is expected to submit the agreement to Congress in the coming weeks. Once it hits the floor, the amendment must pass within 90 days.

At the prayer breakfast, McGovern spoke about his opposition to the CFTA in its current form.  He expressed his concern for Colombian citizens ― particularly small farmers ― whose incomes will take serious hits if the CFTA passes and their crops have to compete with cheaper U.S. imports. McGovern shared his prayers for Colombia and for the U.S. as both countries navigate their trade relationship.

Nelson called on members of Congress to listen to the Gospel imperative to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  He called for legislators to let Christian love guide their relationships with others, stating  that trade policy is exactly that ― a relationship that should be guided by love and justice.

The breakfast concluded with a prayer for justice and a litany of Colombian human rights activists killed in 2011. 

In conjunction with the prayer breakfast, members of the PC(USA) are working to put pressure on the administration and hold the President to his word. 

The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship organized a fast last week in collaboration with the Presbyterian Church in Colombia. Presbyterians in both countries fasted from sunrise to sunset to express their concern about the livelihood and safety of Colombians if the CFTA is passed.

The PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness is also launching a call-in campaign today (June 15) in which Presbyterians around the country are calling President Obama to remind him of his campaign promise and the need for improvement in the human rights situation in Colombia before introducing the CFTA to Congress. 

General Assembly Stated Clerk the Rev. Gradye Parsons has also sent a letter to Obama urging him not to introduce the CFTA to Congress in its present form.

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.

To participate in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness ministry concerning the CFTA and other domestic and international issues, visit the Office of Public Witness website.