June 3, 2015 at 9:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Trade agreement contains ‘enforceable’ human rights standards

Gregory Meeks, United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party, New York, TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) speaks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership during an event at the Rayburn House Office Building on June 2, 2015, the Americas Society and Council of the Americas organized. (Photo courtesy of Americas Society and Council of the Americas)

U.S. officials on Tuesday insisted a U.S.-led pan-Pacific trade agreement has sufficient safeguards to ensure the rights of LGBT people and other marginalized groups in the countries that ratify it are protected.

New York Congressman Gregory Meeks told the Washington Blade during a forum the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas organized at the Rayburn House Office Building that these safeguards in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are “important.”

“That’s what part of this battle is all about, so that we can raise these standards,” he said. “Whether it’s rights for gays, whether it’s rights for labor standards, whether it’s rights for the environment, we’ve got to make sure that we increase those standards.”

Meeks said there are “enforceable standards” within the TPP and the Trade Promotion Authority, a so-called “fast track” proposal the U.S. Senate approved last month that would limit debate on international trade deals and prevent lawmakers from amending them. The New York Democrat’s office did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment on how these safeguards will hold countries that ratify TPP accountable for human rights abuses committed against LGBT people and other marginalized groups.

“We’ve got to make sure it’s enforceable,” said Meeks during the Americas Society and Council on the Americas forum. “The president has indicated that he will make sure that those rules are enforced and they are contained within the agreement.”

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told the Blade during her daily press briefing that “human rights in the TPP have come up quite a bit, certainly in discussions.”

“One of the reasons we think these partnerships are important is so we can raise the standards of everyone else on human rights at-large,” she said.

A State Department official on Wednesday did not provide additional information on what constitutes “enforceable standards” within TPP to ensure human rights are upheld in Brunei, Malaysia and other countries that ratify it.

The official stressed human rights “are central to U.S. relations with international partners.”

“Increased engagement with Brunei and Malaysia provides an effective means to advance human rights,” the official told the Blade. “The department has engaged extensively with Brunei and Malaysia on human rights issues, and we expect to continue to do so in the future.”

Brunei and Malaysia, along with the U.S., Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, are the countries that would join TPP.

Brunei last year began to implement a new legal code based on Sharia law that punishes those convicted of homosexuality by stoning them to death. Malaysia’s highest court in February upheld former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction under the country’s anti-sodomy law.

U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) subsequently sought “clarification on the inclusion of” Brunei and Malaysia in the TPP over their anti-gay rights records. Gay Colorado Congressman Jared Polis noted his own concerns over the countries’ inclusion in the proposed trade agreement in a separate letter to the White House.

“The diplomatic and economic power of the United States makes us uniquely positioned to advocate for and effect change on behalf of individuals who are persecuted at the hands of other governments,” wrote Polis in his letter to President Obama. “In keeping with this responsibility, I encourage you to use every tool available to you to bring an end to ongoing human rights abuses in Brunei and Malaysia, including the present Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.”

LGBT rights advocates have previously criticized TPP over the inclusion of Brunei and Malaysia. AmFAR last month released a report that concludes the trade agreement would reduce the availability of antiretroviral drugs and other medications in the countries that ratify it.

“It is disingenuous to suggest that the TPP will lead to general improvements in human rights practices in places like Malaysia and Brunei,” John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told the Blade. “There are no enforceable standards on human rights in the TPP.”

“Yes, there are a few labor standards written into drafts, but they’re hardly enforceable,” he added. “There is nothing in the agreement — nothing – that compels Malaysia and Brunei to improve their general human rights record.”

Pride at Work Executive Director Jerame Davis told the Blade during a previous interview that the proposed trade agreement has been “negotiated in secret.”

“Doesn’t it sound hollow that there will be ‘enforceable standards’ in the same trade agreement that has been negotiated for the past four years, but Brunei felt more than comfortable passing a death-by-stoning law,” said Davis on Tuesday in response to Meeks’ comments. “If there are enforceable standards for human or LGBT rights, why would they move forward with that change?”

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the “fast track” bill later this week.

Observers expect a final vote on TPP will take place in the coming weeks.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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