Human Rights and Trade - a Balancing Act

Article excerpt

Is existing human rights legislation adequate to support post-cold-war policy? Legislation in the United States to promote and protect human rights in other countries arose 25 years ago from the unease of many Americans over close association with oppressive anti-communist oligarchies in Latin America.

The result was a body of laws mandating that decisions on economic and military aid, military sales, and export credits take into account how governments treated their peoples.

Further, the acts required the State Department to report annually on human rights conditions in each member country of the United Nations. The policies and the statutes immediately engendered conflicts with United States security interests. In Iran, the Philippines, and Korea, pressures against human rights abuses were moderated to avoid undermining regimes providing bases, facilities, and significant security cooperation. Abuses were tolerated in Central America to shore up opposition to communist guerrillas. Nevertheless, threats to reduce aid and the embarrassment of negative human rights reports had an effect. With the end of the cold war, the earlier issues of human rights versus security have largely disappeared. The Berlin Wall fell. All of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are undergoing major internal changes and progress in human rights. Dictators in Central America, the shah of Iran, and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines are gone. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire is going. Perhaps only the dilemma of how to reconcile the importance of Turkey with that country's treatment of its Kurdish minority remains an echo of past security dilemmas. Current problems with China illustrate the difficulty of reconciling trade and human rights. Indeed, this dilemma is of a different order. The instruments of the cold war and its legislation are no longer relevant. Previous human rights and security conflicts were largely considered and resolved within the legislative and executive branches. Some businesses were affected, but the private sector was largely a bystander. If the United States suspended aid to a country, there were relatively few alternative sources. …


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