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When corporate profit trumps human rights, we all lose

President Obama has advanced the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans in profound ways. Deservedly proud, the White house has dedicated a webpage to the president’s impressive record replete with videos, photos, speeches, blog posts, and even a three-page fact sheet detailing all that he has accomplished to advance and protect the rights of LGBT people. 

However, the last item on the list, “Advancing and Protecting the Rights of LGBT Persons around the World,” is an assertion that rings hollow. Despite the recent appointment of Randy Berry as a special diplomatic envoy to focus on LGBT rights worldwide, we are concerned another of Obama’s top priorities – passing the massive and secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact between the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam – is taking precedence over the basic human rights of women and LGBT people internationally. 

{mosads}Take just the country of Brunei for example. Last May, the country adopted a new criminal code based on Sharia law. The country, by law, now denies religious freedoms to non-Muslims and proscribes harsh punishments – up to and including stoning to death – for such “crimes” as a woman becoming pregnant outside of marriage or for men or women who are convicted of engaging in “homosexual acts.”

In Malaysia, sodomy and “gross indecency with another male person” are punishable by between two and 20 years in prison, fines, and/or whippings. How can the administration possibly square “Advancing and Protecting the Rights of LGBT Persons” with signing a sweetheart trade deal that includes these two countries? 

Passing the TPP would be a profound mistake for a host of reasons, but for women and LGBT people it is a grave insult. The inclusion of these two countries is an abrogation of the promises made by this administration to advance and protect basic human rights. 

Not only is this a contradiction of the president’s own stated goals and priorities, it also runs counter to existing precedent. This past December, the president removed Gambia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act because the country “enacted legislation that imposes a possible sentence of life imprisonment for the so-called crime of ‘aggravated homosexuality.’”

During a January hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) grilled U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman on this matter pointing out that Gambia isn’t unique. The U.S. has withheld or canceled trade agreements to advance human rights repeatedly in the past, including to help end apartheid in South Africa. 

Why is Gambia’s abuse of human rights different than what is happening in Brunei and Malaysia? Does the administration truly believe that it will have more leverage to negotiate with these countries after the deal is signed? 

The United States is the largest economy in the world and a global leader in the advancement of human rights. We should not reward countries that abuse the human rights of LGBT people and women with a trade agreement that would establish those countries as privileged trading partners. 

It’s not just LGBT human rights that are taking a backseat to international corporate profit in the TPP. Access to critical HIV/AIDS treatments is at risk as well. While not an exclusively LGBT issue, it does impact our community disproportionately.  

Text of the proposed agreement, released by WikiLeaks, shows how U.S. negotiators have taken the lead in pushing for aggressive intellectual property rules that extend the patent monopolies of big pharmaceutical companies. Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders say this will jeopardize access to affordable medicines in developing nations by getting rid of “public health safeguards and flexibilities enshrined in international law.”  

A recent study in Australia found that if the TPP was in place today, “more than half of the people living with HIV who are currently receiving antiretroviral therapy through Vietnam’s public health system could be forced to go without treatment.” By forcing the average cost of treating a patient from about $127 to $501 per year, the TPP would be sentencing people to death in the name of greater corporate profits.

The White House list of LGBT accomplishments includes reauthorizing the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program and releasing the first national plan for responding to the HIV epidemic. Like the commitment to protecting LGBT rights, America’s leadership against HIV/AIDS apparently stops at our borders when corporate profits are at stake. 

Congress can change that. By saying no to Fast Track trade promotion authority and exercising their Constitutionally-defined power to set trade policy, Congress can ensure that the full text of the TPP can be read and evaluated by the American people and that we can openly debate what issues should be strengthened to ensure America’s trade policy reflects America’s values.

Davis is executive director of Pride at Work.

Tags Ben Cardin Michael Froman

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