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Trade and Human Rights

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By William Reinsch: 

Today’s discussion is inspired by the recent letter from 27 members of Congress to the president asking him to reopen the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement to negotiate better protections for LGBT individuals. This follows an earlier letter from some of the same members urging the president to use TPP to deal with Brunei’s adoption of sharia law. And most people will remember the controversy in the Colombian FTA over labor rights and the Colombian government’s treatment of its unions. All raise the same question: what is the proper role of human rights issues in a trade negotiation?

At one level, it is difficult not to be a bit cynical about some of these efforts. Most, if not all, of the signers of the LGBT letter oppose TPP — several are leaders in that fight — and there is no hint in the letter that addressing their LGBT concerns would lead to a change in their position on the agreement. Under the circumstances, one should not expect the Obama administration to take the letter seriously, since following through on it would produce no additional votes for TPP and could well cause other members to switch to opposition. For better or worse, we are at the stage of debate on TPP where the only things being considered are steps that will produce more votes rather than fewer. This letter would have been more compelling had it been sent four years ago (of course, it would not have gotten nearly as many signatures then, public opinion having not yet shifted as dramatically as it has recently).

Nonetheless, these letters raise a valid point that is difficult for trade proponents to address adequately. On one side, it is hard to deny that human rights violations have occurred, and continue to occur, in some of the countries with whom we have negotiated trade agreements. One can quibble about their scope or magnitude, and about how the United States can play judge and jury when it is thousands of miles removed from the scene of the crime, but their existence in at least some cases is undeniable. And, we should acknowledge and be proud of the fact that Americans want to be righters of wrongs. We are not always appreciated for that, and we have occasionally ended up making things worse rather than better, but overall the world is a better place for our efforts.

On the other side there is the inevitable question of what to do when the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. It would be wonderful if human rights abuses did not happen, and it would be grand if our actions could make them go away. But, if the consequence of trying to do that is the failure of the negotiations, who is really better off? Probably not the abuse victims, because there is no agreement and no commitments from the other country to better behavior. Certainly not the economies of the participating countries, because there would be no economic benefits to tally up. 

In other words, like unilateral sanctions, this is often a lose-lose strategy. We fail to persuade the other country to do what we want, and we lose the rest of the agreement in the process. One of my biggest frustrations over the years has been how to respond to the comment I have heard frequently on the Hill: “We know the sanctions/human rights provision won’t work, but we have to do something.” My usual response is, “No, you don’t have to do something if all it will do is make the situation worse.” But that is neither persuasive nor morally satisfactory, even if it is true.

Where I have ended up, albeit reluctantly, is that negotiations are about drawing lines, and sometimes an objective simply falls outside the lines because it is too much baggage for the vehicle to carry. For business that should not mean the objective is unworthy, but for human rights activists neither should it mean that failure to pursue it is unworthy. Sometimes living to fight another day in another venue is the best one can do.
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William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.

Photo credit: Bossi via Flickr
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