As negotiations on a global trade pact among 12 Pacific Rim nations heat up, a number of opponents are raising alarm bells over human rights. Known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), critics argue that the failure to address member nation Brunei’s barbaric laws against homosexuality is yet another reason to halt, if not downright derail, what has become a centerpiece of President Obama’s economic agenda for 2015.

“A country that has laws that are anathema to American values doesn’t deserve to be in our trade negotiations,” California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi said in an interview. “We need to send a clear message.” Brunei, a tiny, oil-rich nation on the northwest coast of Borneo recently made headlines when Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah authorized legislation that permits the stoning to death of gay people.

Critics, like Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work – a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor union – said Obama had “set a clear precedent” for using trade to advance gay rights in Gambia and should do the same in Brunei. “Brunei’s law is actually worse because it imposes the death penalty, whereas Gambia ONLY imposes life in prison – as if that’s an ONLY,” he said. “And let’s be clear: Brunei enacted this law while they were in TPP negotiations.”

But others are taking a different tack, counter-arguing that engagement is always better than isolation. “This is always difficult territory for trade people, none of whom want to be accused of being opposed to human rights,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a pro-trade group. He said the best way to get Brunei officials to change their law was to engage with them and integrate the country into the Western trading system, not to isolate them. “Our experience has been that sticks don’t work very well, while carrots sometimes succeed,” Reinsch said. “Kicking them out of TPP might make us feel better, but it will diminish the trade agreement and also not achieve the objective of changing their anti-gay policy. In other words, it’s lose-lose.”

The pact also has its fair share of environmental, labor and intellectual opponents who argue that, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), TPP would weaken intellectual property laws, depress wages in a race to the bottom, and gut progress on climate change. Furthermore, Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin noted that it’s appropriate for the executive branch and Congress to mix trade and human rights. “Let me just remind you that it was U.S. leadership in trade that helped change the apartheid government of South Africa,” Cardin said.

Participating nations include the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Vietnam, Brunei, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

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