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Are US Commercial Interests at Odds With Protecting Human Rights? - 2003-05-16


Are U.S. commercial interests at odds with efforts to protect human rights and promote corporate reponsibility around the world? This is one of the main issues under discussion this week at a meeting bringing together members of the American business community and U.S. commercial officers from 80 diplomatic posts overseas.

The deputy director of the Commerce Department's U.S. Commercial Service, Carlos Poza, says while American businesses need to be pragmatic to be successful globally, they should not forget the importance of issues like human rights and corporate responsibility. "It's basically an understanding that together with our products and services go our values, values of the American people," he says.

Mr. Poza says the societies in places like China, parts of Africa or former Soviet countries are still undergoing transformation and may feel ambivalent about some of the values American companies bring with them. He says one of the U.S. Commercial Service's goals is to persuade other countries that things like improving human rights conditions will also bring economic benefits. "What we're trying to inculcate in them is to understand what the values are, to understand how these values co-exist with the principles of business and how it's important for us, as part of what we do, to promote business, is the fact that whether it is human rights or whether it is corruption, by addressing those issues, they actually improve their markets," he says. They actually improve the business environment, and therefore, they're also improving the opportunities for American companies to invest, the opportunities for American business to bring top-quality goods and services, and so on and so forth."

Mr. Poza said the United States has learned lessons from its own corporate scandals. "We've seen what the tragedies of Enron and Arthur Anderson have meant to so many good people from the professionals, who were part of that staff and had nothing to do with the bigger issues, to the stockholders that lost so much in that process," he says.

Mr. Poza says this week's meeting is just the beginning of the U.S. Commercial Service's efforts to address issues of worldwide corporate responsibility and human rights. He said the project includes regional training and an interactive online computer program.

One blunt criticism of U.S. trade policy abroad came from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom this week when it released its annual report. Commissioner Nina Shea, of the human rights organization Freedom House, pointed to the U.S. relationship with Vietnam. "U.S. policy is essentially trade policy, and it isn't working," she says. "The religious freedom situation has been deteriorating since the bilateral trade agreement was concluded between our two countries [in 2001]."

Another human rights champion, U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, added that he feels the war in Iraq has distracted the international community's attention away from worsening human rights situations in countries like China and Vietnam. "The persecution has actually increased since the Iraqi issue," he says. "I think people have been focusing on Iraq. In Vietnam, they've kind of seen this as an opportunity to kind of beat people up."

Congressman Wolf adds that he believes people should speak out against tyranny and brutality whenever they see it. "We can't be morally neutral just to sell a bottle of soda water or something or a computer chip," he says.

Congressman Wolf says he does believe that trade and business interaction are good things, though. He says he does not expect American businessmen to hold protest demonstrations against practices in other countries they don't agree with. Instead, he says, the first way to try to influence others is by setting a good example.