Is it worth it to expand trade with violators of human rights?

Recent global events have attracted attention because of the issues of trade and human rights.

Human rights have been challenged by authoritarian regimes. Some of these countries have poor records on human rights and do not hesitate to lock up innocent people if they feel their authority is being challenged. Their justice systems are full of political appointees, and justice for these countries’ own people is a pipe dream. Western countries turn a blind eye. India, the largest democracy in the world, does not even talk of human rights with its neighbours, believing that talking would jeopardize trade relationships.

A 40-year-old blind civil rights activist in China made recent headlines. Chen Guangchen escaped from house arrest and sought refuge at the U.S Embassy in Beijing. The Chinese government could not arrest him because he was technically on American soil. The conflict was later resolved by Beijing and Washington. Chen and his wife and children were granted visas to the U.S., where the activist plans to pursue studies at New York University. He and his family arrived in Newark, N.J., this past Saturday.

America’s trade relationship with China is more vital to the U.S. than to China. It is the U.S. that created the Chinese trade giant, and it is now playing second fiddle, with limited success.

China, with its population of 1.3 billion, its resources and its booming economy is a superpower. The Americans rely on China to help boost the U.S. economy. Hence, you scratch my back and I scratch yours works in China’s favour. In reality, China could do whatever it wants. It has power, money and resources. America has a population of more than 310 million people and is indebted to China. That’s where the comparisons begin and end.

In the rest of the world, Chinese influence is greater. The Chinese economically control Asian and African nations. A prime example is Sri Lanka, where millions of dollars have been loaned, along with the labour of Chinese workers, to help build infrastructure. Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses do not come into play at all. China has the tendency to shield abusers, even at the UN Human Rights Council.

Human rights went through a rough period during the administration of former U.S. president George W. Bush. His pronouncement that “you are with us or against us” made countries that violated human rights partners in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bahrain and Yemen, along with Israel and Egypt, started to apply the term “terrorist” to human rights defenders. Sri Lankan Tamils, who have been fighting against discrimination, were labelled as terrorists. Democratic voices and non-governmental organizations became the target of abuse. Trade became the tool of co-operation.

The Canada-Colombia free trade agreement, which came into effect last August, raises questions. Despite human rights abuses, corruption and a massive drug problem in Colombia, the Canadian government felt it was best to expand trade with that South American nation.

We have to figure out where to draw the line. Is it worth it to expand trade with violators of human rights? Are people’s rights more important than money?

These are questions governments have to ask. If Canada wants to trade with Colombia, for example, then we have to teach them human rights values before showing them the money.

Lakshmi Sivakumar is a student at Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute in Kitchener.

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