Trump signs order aimed at keeping human rights standards in trade deals

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday intended to better ensure allies adhere to human rights while conducting trade with the United States.

The order is aimed at improving human rights conditions overseas in exchange for better trade terms.

“We should be able to work together on trade — not in spite of countries, but because of countries,” Trump said in a speech from the Oval Office. “It is critical that we have trade that is fair and reciprocal, that is good for all parties.”

The order calls for U.S. government agencies to provide updated lists of human rights practices in countries where trade is conducted between the U.S. and other countries. As well, the U.S. government will also release an annual report on human rights in countries where exports or investment are permitted under U.S. trade agreements.

Human rights issues would also be included on a proposed list of rules for countries that handle exports, regarding labor standards and harmful working conditions.

The order — which does not include any sanctions or penalties — comes amid speculation that Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping could enter into trade talks aimed at staving off a widening trade war. Trump and the Chinese leader will meet at the G-20 summit in Argentina this November.

The president described the speech on Friday as an effort to highlight the connection between human rights, trade and national security, and said “this is the way trade can work.”

Human rights advocates described the order as a positive step, while arguing that it falls short of mentioning specific countries where they believe human rights abuses occur.

“There’s a very key missing fact from this, which is that it doesn’t cover any of the most egregious rights abusers,” said Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s neglecting human rights altogether.”

In keeping with Trump’s criticism of previous administrations, the order also ensures U.S. officials will enforce existing controls at their embassies abroad, rather than potentially expand them.

Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia have come under international criticism for abusing citizens and labor practices, which the administration did not name Friday.

In December 2017, officials said the Trump administration was taking steps to expand U.S. sanctions against countries that abuse citizens or labor. The report included a section about corruption and human rights, but the section did not include political and labor practices.

“I think the absence of the social-rights indicators is odd,” Richardson said, “Especially given the track record that’s been in place for years to address (this).”

“Every administration throughout history has been using social-rights indicators to assess whether our partners are meeting international standards for human rights and protecting the rights of their citizens,” Richardson said.

The report did not mention Iran, a country Trump has criticized for human rights abuses, or North Korea, which has been sanctioned by the United States.

The introduction of the order called for “prudent interventions when trade occurs with countries with such a poor record of human rights or civil liberties”

From the beginning of his presidency, Trump has sought to promote trade policies that prioritize what he calls American-style “win-win” agreements and to bring jobs back to the United States.

Trump has said that efforts to clean up trade agreements and lay new tariffs will bring a “big boost to our economy” that will benefit all countries involved, without providing concrete evidence of its economic benefits.

“Today’s message … is one of hope for all Americans,” Trump said. “I believe we can achieve more trade deals which maximize American prosperity and allow our workers and companies to thrive.”

The executive order was signed alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who traveled to Europe on Thursday on a four-day trip that included talks with China’s top diplomats and calls with EU officials on the trade dispute.

“We will not be pushed around,” Pompeo said during a press conference Thursday. “We will walk away from deals that don’t meet American standards and may not be good for our workers.”

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