"The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have been no repercussions," Barack Obama stated, when asked about the trade agreement with Colombia at the recent Presidential debate at Hofstra. What he failed to mention was that the murder rate has dropped significantly over the last few years, particularly since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2006. [1]

This decline in violence against trade unionists has been linked to pressure from the US Democratically controlled Congress to withholding free trade benefits from Colombia. [2]Because of this linkage, the Colombian government was pushed into forming a special sub-unit devoted to the prosecution of politically motivated murders.

Colombia is the most overtly pro-American country in the troubled Latin-American landscape, both at the governmental level and in terms of popular support, making it an exception in the region. However, the debate over anti-trade union violence in Colombia has become intertwined with a larger debate on whether to approve the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, concluded by the Bush administration in February 2006.

The trade agreement was tentatively signed by the Bush administration with Columbia. Such agreements, however, must be ratified by the parliaments of both countries to acquire legal validity. During the bargaining phase before Congress' ratification of the treaty, the Democrats forced a lot of conditional clauses on the Columbians - i.e. if you don't reduce the number of trade unionists killed we won't ratify, if you don't prosecute the perpetrators of the politically motivated murders we won't ratify, etc, etc. The Columbians need the trade agreement to improve their State finances, and the trade agreement would arguably be also convenient for the US, but up until now has not been ratified, as the Democratic-controlled Congress continuously delays its ratification upping the ante in the requests of the Columbians. As stated in the article Uribe has already done a lot to improve the situation, but apparently it's never enough to satisfy the requests of the Congress.

If the treatment of workers and union leaders is so important to Mr. Obama, to the extent of becoming the thorn in the flank of USA-Columbia relations, why is the treatment of Iranian workers and union leaders, certainly not better than in Columbia, never once mentioned by either Mr. Obama or his campaign aids?

In March 2008, union organizations in 45 countries around the world took part in a world-wide day of action in support of the detained Iranian trade Unionists. Entire categories of Iranian workers go unpaid for months, and if they dare protesting in front of the Parliament in Tehran, they not only face beatings by the anti-riot forces but also arrest, detention and in many cases torture. Mansour Osanloo, President of the Tehran Bus Drivers' Union and Mahmoud Salehi, co-founder of the Bakery Workers' Union in the city of Saqez (Iranian Kurdistan Province). have been repeatedly detained and sentenced to long prison terms for their independent trade union activities and their health has deteriorated severely in prison in the last few months. International union mobilization has however proved critical in obtaining several temporary transfers to hospitals in recent weeks for both Osanloo and Salehi, who have only survived so far thanks to international recognition of them as worker leaders. Many other less known union organizers and trade unionists have not been so lucky. According to government provided statistics disclosed by Deputy Labor Minister Ibrahim Nazari-Jalali, 1,047 workers have died in "work-related accidents" between April and August 2007. Labor sources, however, point out that none of the accidents has been investigated and, in at least 13 cases, the workers who died may have been killed by goons acting on behalf of the regime. Realizing how damaging for the Islamic Republic of Iran the labor statistics are, the Minister of Labor has still to disclose the statistics for the current year.

During his long electoral campaign, Mr. Obama, when asked to comment about Iran, only mentioned the nuclear issue. The appalling state of Human Rights in Iran, the extreme conditions in which workers wishing to organize (not politically motivated by some Marxist rhetoric but as simple unions) are forced to operate, constantly under the specter of imprisonment, torture and government-provoked "work accidents" were not even worth mentioning. The repeated crackdown on workers who want to celebrate Labor Day (which in Iran takes place, as in most of Europe, on May 1st) by the anti-riot police and the various militias instigated by the Mullahs does not get the attention it deserves in the political discourse of Barack Obama 's campaign.

Mr. Obama and the Democratically-controlled congress's righteous indignation is interesting in light of the fact that Mr. Uribe has complied with their game of "hardball". But there seems to be no reciprocity from the U.S. in the face of all this work that Mr. Uribe has been able to accomplish? If one puts sanctions on countries so that they can straighten up and fly right, then where is that little reward to provide for other incentives to back to Mr. Uribe? Worse, given the way that this congress and their candidate has dealt with Colombia, how on earth can the Iranian regime - with whom Mr. Obama and congress are claiming to want to dialogue unconditionally - take his offer seriously, having witnessed the level "fairness" which they are willing to extend to those who comply with their demands?

Polls taken inside Iran show that the Iranian people are the most pro-American in the Middle East, after Israel. But instead of connecting with the people of Iran, and supporting their plea for better living conditions and for democracy, Mr. Obama has chosen to deal with their oppressors, giving them a free pass even against the warnings of the European Union, which opposes the "without precondition" part of Obama's proposal. Does the change in Foreign Policy advocated by Mr. Obama imply using the stick with our friends and the carrot with our enemies?

[1] According to the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) and USLEAP (US Labor Education in the Americas Project) a labor rights group that has USLEAP closely, murders of Colombian trade unionists declined from 186 in 2002 to 15 leaders killed so far this year compared to 10 last year.

[2] Maria McFarland, principal specialist on Colombia at Human Rights Watch

Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, a native of Iran, is an activist and Iran analyst. Her husband, Elio Bonazzi, is an Italian political scientist. The couple is based in New York and Rome.

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