US trade agenda trumps fight against human trafficking

The US State Department has given Malaysia a better grade on fighting human trafficking. That decision has more to do with the president’s trade agenda than human rights, says DW’s Spencer Kimball.

The timing is suspicious.

In June, the United States Congress prohibited President Barack Obama from concluding trade deals with countries that are non-compliant with basic standards on preventing and punishing human trafficking. Malaysia was one of the worst offenders – until the State Department released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons report on Monday.

The Southeast Asian nation has been upgraded from the worst ranking possible to a State Department “watch list.” Reuters broke the news of Malaysia’s pending change in status in early July. In response, 178 members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry criticizing the upgrade as unwarranted based on Malaysia’s human rights record. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch agree that Malaysia has not made enough of an improvement to deserve an upgrade.

So why did the State Department give Malaysia a better grade? The Obama administration would simply argue that Kuala Lumpur has made modest improvements. But the upgrade also conveniently allows the president to secure Malaysia’s place in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the cornerstone of his trade agenda. The TPP includes 12 nations and will cover 40 percent of the global economy.

President Obama recently won fast-track authority to finish negotiating the deal. But he had to fight a bitter battle with members of his own party. American progressives have argued that the TPP will jeopardize American jobs and weaken environmental and labor standards.

Why would the White House allow its trade agenda to take another public bruising with a key country being forced out of the deal over its record on human trafficking?

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America is in denial about race relations

The US urgently needs to address the widely varying ways people of different races experience life in the country. Otherwise it has no business calling itself the greatest nation on earth, writes DW’s Spencer Kimball.

Segregation officially ended half a century ago, but in many parts of the United States, black and white Americans are still living in two separate and unequal countries. We cross paths in public and sometimes in the work place. We’re polite, kind to each other, as strangers should be. But at the end of the day, we too often come from and return home to very different realities.

Take me for example. I grew up in a small Kentucky town, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, a mid-size city that’s about half white and half black. But in my town, you would have never known the population was split almost evenly between whites and blacks. There were only a few black kids at my high school. To this day, they live in other neighborhoods and attend other schools – where the opportunities are not the same.

I am from an ethnic enclave, a wealthy and privileged one. Even now as an adult, I have far too little exposure to blacks and their experience in America. It’s not like this everywhere in the country, but it’s still the case in too many places. It’s lack of contact with people of other races that plays a major role in explaining the widely varying views of race and the police that are visible across the nation – most recently in the case of Sandra Bland.

A 28-year-old black woman, Bland was pulled over in Texas for failing to use her turn signal. She was upset that she’d been pulled over, refused to leave her car, was threatened with being “lit up” by a Taser, forcibly removed and arrested. It’s on videotape. Bland was later found dead in her jail cell, an apparent suicide, according to authorities. There are reports that she suffered from depression and may have attempted suicide in the past. That information is still coming to light.

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Shooting the messenger: Snowden, PRISM and our post-September 11 future

America’s newspapers are supposed to fight for freedom of speech and transparency in government, both at home and abroad. But when it comes to whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed the NSA’s massive surveillance program, they are rolling over and retreating.

The editorial pages of both the Washington Post and the New York Times seem more concerned with national security than civil liberties. It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that even on the pages of such esteemed beneficiaries of the First Amendment, one finds so many voices championing such a significant expansion of state power, while only paying lip service to the shrinking space in the public debate devoted to our rights as citizens.

Take, for example, Thomas Friedman’s knee jerk ‘remember 9-11’ reaction to the leak. Friedman is one of America’s most respected journalists, a man who made his career covering the Arab-Israeli conflict. Looking back, his  book  “From Beirut to Jerusalem” is probably one of the reasons why I’m pursuing journalism today. But Friedman, who supported the Iraq War, has been something of a hawk since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“…I do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving as if 9/11 never happened – that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan…,” Friedman wrote in his June 11 New York Times opinion piece.

Who can pretend that 9-11 didn’t happen? We have collectively chosen to let the event define our future. The Western and Muslim words have been watching tragedy unfold day after day for the past decade, from suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices to torture, rendition and drone strikes. And this NSA program is only latest evidence that the “long war” may be both boundless and endless. Mr. Friedman wonders if those of us who support the disclosure and oppose PRISM remember 9-11. Yes, we all remember 9-11. Some of us are just trying very hard not to forget the Constitution as a consequence.

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