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Trade and Human Rights: Cutting the Gordian Knot

US needs new consensus on whether the two issues should be linked

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SHARP debate has unfolded over the wisdom of President Clinton's vain attempt to secure improvements in China's human rights record by threatening to revoke its most-favored-nation trading status. But little attention has been paid to the story behind the controversy.

The MFN fight is part of a larger struggle between those who believe the United States should use its economic muscle to promote human rights and those who oppose using trade to promote political objectives. As cold-war-era concerns over national security begin to diminish, conflicts between human rights and trade policy have become a major component in the debate over US foreign policy.

In addition to China and MFN, other potentially contentious issues are on the administration's agenda:

* The administration is either investigating or considering investigating whether to revoke General System of Preferences (GSP) rights from the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, and Malaysia. GSP provides developing countries with the right to export many goods to this country duty-free.

* Just before the April signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in Morocco, the US announced it would try to place workers' rights on the agenda of the new World Trade Organization (WTO). Developing countries derided the move as a thinly veiled attempt to justify protectionism.

* In an apparent response to the caning of Michael Fay, US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said that the US would oppose Singapore's bid to host the initial meeting of the WTO.

* The US and China may again collide over the administration's call for strict enforcement of the anti-forced-labor provisions in US trade law.

The clash between human rights and trade is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, Sen. Henry M. Jackson fought to incorporate human rights into US trade policy through the passage of what is commonly known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment. It mandates that the president cannot extend MFN to a communist state without certifying that it permits free emigration. Mr. Clinton's executive order on China is based on the authority granted him by Jackson-Vanik.

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