Free trade improves human rights

Susan Ariel Aaronson, Associate Research Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: The president's in South Korea today for talks, then he's off to Beijing for the Olympics Friday.

Congress has left Washington as well. Lawmakers have recessed for their summer break and a little campaigning too, but they left some key policy problems behind. Energy's one of them. Trade's another. The Colombia Free Trade Agreement that we heard so much about earlier this year has stalled and commentator Susan Aaronson says that's a shame.


Susan Aaronson: U.S. policymakers have used trade agreements for over a century to achieve two very different goals: to expand trade and advance human rights abroad. The Bush Administration claims that a new free trade agreement with Colombia will help that troubled country improve the rule of law, but many human rights activists disagree. As a result, the agreement is unlikely to pass Congress this year.

Many labor and human rights activists argue that Congress should postpone consideration of the pact until Colombia's human rights performance improves. They don't want to reward countries that don't consistently respect the rule of law. These critics have a point: Colombia's human rights performance is lacking. Labor leaders are often murdered, workers' rights are inadequately protected and in some regions terrorists act with impunity. The rule of law might be improving, but it's still inadequate.

Critics need to rethink how we can help Colombia continue its positive momentum. The agreement has provisions to bolster both the supply and demand for good governance. Here's how: First, the free trade agreement encourages public participation in trade policymaking. Citizens in both countries gain the right to challenge trade rules. Second, the agreement gives Colombian workers the right to petition the U.S. government to take action. If the Colombian government is found to have violated labor provisions, it may lose trade benefits. In this regard, the agreement is both a carrot and a stick.

Finally, empirical studies link expanded trade with improvements in particular human rights such as freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and extrajudicial killing. Thus, the agreement could help advance the very human rights that need reinforcement in Colombia.

It's important to encourage democracies such as Colombia to maintain human rights progress and the best way to do that is to provide them with real incentives. The free trade agreement does that.


Ryssdal: Susan Aaronson is professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Her most recent book is called "Trade Imbalance."

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