Trade Must Not Trump Women’s Human Rights

8081097135_5a205df940_zAny deal that forces women and human rights to take a backseat to profit and trade should be a non-starter. But right now, the United States is negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement with 11 nations including Brunei, a country that recently adopted a vicious new penal code threatening the rights and lives of women, lesbians, and gay men.

Just recently in his State of the Union, President Barack Obama reiterated one of our core American values: respect for human dignity. It is our commitment to this principle, said the President, which has led the U.S. to “condemn the persecution of women” as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

So, why are we conducting business as usual with Brunei?

The new Brunei penal code, which will be implemented in phases, calls for fines and imprisonment for women who become pregnant outside marriage, women who have abortions, for adultery and so-called “indecent behavior.” It also threatens men and women who “pose as” someone of the opposite sex with similar punishment. The Sultan of Brunei launched the First Phase of the penal code on May 1, 2014.

But the worst is yet to come. Once the code is fully implemented, women who engage in same-sex sexual relations could be whipped, fined, or imprisoned. The code will also impose flogging or death by stoning for men engaging in sex with men and for extramarital sex between men and women. Flogging can lead to permanent injury and death. Stoning, another horrific practice, often consists of burying a person so only the head is exposed and then pelting that individual to death. The reality is women are more likely to be victims of stoning because of deep-seated gender bias and discrimination.

These provisions clearly violate international law and human rights norms against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Yet the U.S. has not called on Brunei to rescind its law or even expressed concern with any of its provisions. Instead, it has continued to include petroleum-rich Brunei in negotiating the world’s largest free trade agreement.

Meanwhile, in a bid to push through the TPP, which has been negotiated in near secrecy, the Obama Administration is asking Congress to pass trade promotion authority, or “Fast Track” legislation. Congress has authority over foreign trade, but if it passes Fast Track, the President could expedite trade agreements. Congress would still vote on these agreements, but it would be barred from amending them and all debate would be severely limited.

Women’s rights groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, sent President Obama a letter last summer, requesting that the Administration remove Brunei from TPP negotiations or suspend TPP talks until Brunei revokes its penal code. LGBT rights groups sent a similar letter. Both were met with silence.

Human rights cannot be a side issue in these negotiations. The rules governing NAFTA-style agreements would forbid U.S. federal, state, and local governments from excluding Brunei-owned entities from participating in government procurement activities, despite human rights violations. Actions like the once-successful bans on doing business with companies operating in apartheid-era South Africa would be off the table while the human rights violating Sultan of Brunei profits from a special economic relationship with the U.S.

Thankfully, women in Congress have been sounding the alarm. Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) have spoken out against the TPP, citing both human rights concerns and the potential loss of jobs as U.S. workers would be forced to compete with workers in low-wage countries, some with a history of labor rights violations. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has also warned that the TPP could weaken key financial regulations.

Others have condemned the TPP for its potential to undermine environmental regulation, food safety, and access to drugs. Doctors Without Borders has warned that the TPP’s intellectual property rules could give pharmaceutical companies more power to restrict access to generic drugs, preventing millions of people from getting the life-saving treatments they need.

As the U.S. continues TPP negotiations, we must call on the President to seriously address the impact of the TPP on human rights. At a minimum, the U.S. should not enter into a partnership with a country that just last year adopted a penal code authorizing torture and violence against its citizens. We must also call on Congress to do all it can to ensure that women and human rights are not forgotten in this deal.

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Photo via Flickr user Cory Doctorow licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Eleanor Smeal is president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. For over five decades, she has played a leading role in both national and state campaigns to win women’s rights legislation, including the Equal Rights Amendment.