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Colombia trade deal should not be delayed: U.S. envoy

By John Stoll

DETROIT (Reuters) - Fresh concerns raised by the largest U.S. labor organization over human rights violations in Colombia are valid, but should not slow down congressional approval of a free trade pact with that country in coming weeks, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia said on Tuesday.

Michael McKinley, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said the Colombian government has "greatly improved the labor rights situation inside the country" over the past half decade.

Many of those reforms have taken place as Colombia

has sought to win U.S. approval of the free trade pact and could be in jeopardy if the deal is further stalled, McKinley told Reuters in an interview,

On Monday, the AFL-CIO labor federation sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him not send the Colombia free trade agreement to Congress due to continued violence against union leaders.

"Colombia should not be rewarded with a trade agreement until it develops a proven track record," the group's president Richard Trumka said.

The deal was negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush and signed in November 2006. However, Bush was unable to win approval of the pact before leaving office in January 2009.

McKinley said he expected Obama to send the Colombia pact and two other trade pacts with Panama and South Korea to Congress for approval "in the next few weeks."

The AFL-CIO said in its letter that 22 union leaders in Colombia have been killed in 2011, including 15 since the United States and Colombia agreed on a so-called Labor Action Plan aimed at implementing reforms to labor rights.

"No one argues that the labor situation is perfect in Colombia," McKinley said following a presentation to business leaders in Detroit.

The Obama administration plans to "aggressively work on labor protection issues" with Colombia, he said.

Congressional approval of the pact "is the best chance in a generation" to solidify the progress that Colombia has already made on human rights, McKinley said.

The ambassador said he shared the AFL-CIO's outrage over the 22 union activists killed this year, but said that was much better than approximately 125 murders per year a decade ago.

McKinley said he expected Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will announce "in a couple weeks" the formation of a new, independent ministry of labor.

Santos also is raising the minimum wage, working to secure bargaining rights, and is cooperating with the International Labor Organization, he said.

(Reporting by John Stoll; editing by Jackie Frank)

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