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Human Rights and Trade - a Balancing Act

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.

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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. This is not the case when trade is the issue. If the United States government impedes trade opportunities, many competitors lie in wait. In China, large contracts - and jobs - are at stake.

In the cold-war context, aid was the principal instrument of pressure. But the United States has no aid program with China. Beijing either turns a deaf ear to the human rights reports or retaliates with charges against Washington. Embarrassment is not leverage with the Chinese.

When trade, not security, is the issue, two instruments remain for the United States: the granting of most favored nation (MFN) status and economic sanctions. Congress and the administration have already demonstrated their reluctance to use MFN as leverage on human rights. Economic sanctions have even less appeal. And the business community works aggressively to ensure that neither is in place. Beyond that, no one is certain that economic pressure would change Chinese policies.

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The US does sacrifice commercial advantage where other issues are at stake: terrorism in the case of Iran; Fidel Castro and communism in the case of Cuba; and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But similar sacrifices seem less possible when human rights alone are involved.

HUMAN rights issues with China will not disappear. The Tiananmen Square issue of 1989 and the brutal takeover of Tibet make that certain. No United States official, whether executive or legislative, can visit China without openly talking to the Chinese about their treatment of pro-democracy elements. With the incorporation of Hong Kong in July and the indications that Beijing will place new restrictions on freedom, the issue could become even more acute.

Advocates of engagement with China through trade insist that open markets will eventually lead to greater freedoms. Given the ineffectiveness of instruments designed for another age and the reluctance to manipulate trade, perhaps this approach represents the only hope for reconciling the US interest in human rights and long-term relations with China.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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