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Rights stuffed.

As Congress prepares to consider the North American Free Trade Agreement and the flaccid side accords on labor and the environment just concluded, one issue that frequently figures in far less sweeping trade legislation remains outside the debate: human rights. In this context, Mexico's at rocious human rights record has become what Representative John LaFalce calls "one of the best-kept secrets in the United States."

Human rights groups have documented pervasive abuses in Mexico. Law enforcement agents there regularly beat prisoners, shove their heads into plastic bags to suffocate them, hang them by their wrists for long periods and bum them with cigarettes. More than 160 members of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party have been killed since 1988. Residents of whole villages are systematically detained by the military and their homes searched. The UN. Committee Against Torture asserts the Mexican government tolerates widespread torture. Even the State Department's annual human rights report cites assaults on free expression, repeated intimidation of labor and assassination of peasant activists.

Despite the evidence, many in Congress who pick up the human rights banner when it suits their politics are NAFTA stalwarts. On July 26, the House overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding resolution against holding the 2000 Olympics in China, on human rights grounds. A similar resolution, still pending, was sponsored in the Senate by Bill Bmdley, a fervent NAFTA supporter. Representatives Kika de la Garza and Robert Matsui, who have consistently linked China's human rights practices to trade policy, helped inaugurate the agribusiness lobbying group Ag for NAFTA. As for the Congressional majority leaders, who directed the campaign to deny China most-favored-nation trading status, Senator George Mitchell is stradding the fence on NAFTA and Representative Richard Gephardt repudiated it only after the side agreements failed to meet his approval. Neither has made reference to human rights.

Nor have members of Congress been pressured by human rights groups in this case. Amnesty International says it never takes stands on specific political issues. Human Rights Watch, which actively lobbied against favored trade status and the Olympics for China, does not oppose the trade agreement. In testimony in June before Lafalce's Committee on Small Business, Juan Mendez, executive director of Americas Watch, encouraged lawmakers to tackle human rights in a side agreement but did not pledge opposition if human rights concems go unattended. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights is the only group monitoring Mexico that demands linking the passage of NAFTA to human rights improvements.

On other fronts, the Congressional Anti-NAFTA Caucus makes no mention of human rights in its declaration. The A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s tmenty-one-point critique of NAFTA refers only once to labor rights. USA*NAFRA, the major pro-NAFTA lobby, has not prepared a rebuttal on human rights concerns, as it has on environmental and labor questions, since it expects no such challenges. And the Clinton Administration - in whose name Warren Christopher has asserted, "Human rights is the core of our foreign policy" - has been silent on the matter.

Three years ago Mexico did establish a National Commission on Human Rights and passed seemingly tough human and labor rights protections. But the recommendations of the commission, which lacks prosecutorial power, go ignored. According to human rights groups, not one complaint out of thousands has been prosecuted under Mexico's antitorture law.

Only a few members of Congress are pusbing to make human rights an issue in the NAFTA debate. For Representative Tom Lantos, author of the Olympics resolution in the House, the undeniable human rights problem in Mexico "drives the final nail in the coffin of NAFTA." LaFalce, who supported the China resolution, is said to be leaning against NAFTA on human rights grounds. In the Senate, Paul Wellstone sent his colleagues a letter in June arguing: "Human rights issues are inextricably connected to effective enforcement of labor and environimental standards by the NAFTA signatories.... if Mexican environmental advocates, labor union leaders, and other concerned citizens are unable to stand up for their rights and publicize and protest damaging environmental practices and labor rights violations without fear of government retribution, the value of Mexican guarantees of standards will be open to question."

This discussion should not be restricted to Mexico. Four multilateml human rights treaties - all ratified by Mexico - sit languishing in the US. Senate. And as anyone who has braved a U.S. border encounter with la migra can testify, human rights is a cause that has no boundaries.
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Title Annotation:North American Free Trade Agreement
Author:Bryant, Patrick
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 6, 1993
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