Jorge G. Castañeda
Some would prefer a quick conclusion to the negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, that began this week. But there is a strong case for a different approach, involving trade and something more important: human rights.
The addition of a strong human rights chapter in the new Nafta agreement would have a powerful impact in Mexico, where there are widespread human rights violations; in the United States, where the number of abuses against migrants and other groups is increasing; and for Canada, which just this week said it wanted the new agreement to include a chapter on gender and indigenous people’s rights.
Why would President Donald Trump and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico accept this, if the former has proved indifferent to human rights, and the latter has become Mexico’s violator in chief?
The nature of trade agreements has changed since Nafta’s ratification in 1993. Mexico negotiated a deal with the European Union in the late ’90s that included a clause on human rights and democracy. In 2012 the United States insisted on specific labor and union rights, as well as strong enforcement provisions, in its Trade Promotion Agreement with Colombia. And in President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a series of side agreements with countries including Vietnam and Malaysia called for compliance with commercial trade rules and labor and environmental standards.
Thus there are several precedents for inserting firm human rights language in a new Nafta agreement. There are powerful reasons for Mexico and the United States to do so; Canada’s request has already made its position clear.
First, the human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Mexico. Since 2007, more than 200,000 people have been killed, and more than 27,000 are missing. Recent scandals such as the 43 students missing in Ayotzinapa since September 2014 and the extrajudicial execution of 22 people, including possible drug traffickers in Tlatlaya, and of 43 in Tanhuato last year, have been reported around the world. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly denounced Mexico’s record. The numbers of homicides have reached their highest levels ever: more than 70 per day.
Many Mexican political leaders, intellectuals and social activists have argued that putting an end to this violence not only requires deep reforms in Mexico, but also significant pressure from abroad. What better way to achieve this than with a binding and detailed human rights chapter in Nafta, with teeth: enforcement provisions and trade-related sanctions for noncompliance. The argument that free trade alone would automatically bring human rights improvements has not proven true over time.
This especially applies to labor rights and wages. While the law protects workers in Mexico, enforcement is lax. Today violations of workers’ rights to unionize, use collective bargaining, and strike are rampant; there is not a single union member in the ranks of Mexico’s second-largest employer: Walmart. Salaries under Nafta, even in the competitive export sector or automotive industry, have remained stagnant for a quarter-century.
A second major shift has taken place since 1993. Sweeping deportations, arrests of undocumented migrants, travel bans, and ethnically or racially charged admission standards have transformed the United States from a human rights defender, at home and abroad, to a human rights violator. Lack of due process, family separation because of deportation, ethnic profiling and outright persecution of unauthorized migrants for no other reason than their “paperless” status are on the rise. A human rights chapter in Nafta, closely tied to trade benefits — or the loss of them for United States’ exporters and supply-chain beneficiaries — could be a highly effective deterrent to these problems.
Despite the counterintuitive nature of this approach, it would benefit each country under the agreement. Mr. Trump wants to see wages rise in Mexico so that fewer American jobs go south and the United States trade deficit shrinks — through higher Mexican demand for American goods. There is no better way to accomplish this than through expanded and enforced labor rights in Mexico. Furthermore, Mr. Trump knows that in the long run, human rights violations in Mexico are bad for everyone: for Washington, which has to censure them by law; for American tourists and residents in Mexico, who can be directly affected; and for Mexican stability, the overriding United States interest in Mexico for over a century. American lawmakers concerned with human rights violations in Mexico — like Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont — can be at the forefront of advocating for these changes.
Since Mr. Trump is the only leader out of the three who insisted on revamping Nafta, a human rights chapter could be a win-win for him; by addressing wage stagnation, he could silence the critics who believe he’s only motivated by business interests and doesn’t care about people.
As for Mr. Peña Nieto, a lame duck, defending the interests of Mexicans in the United States could help him overcome the national outrage he caused when he invited the Republican candidate to visit and kowtowed to him. Similarly, everything he can do to correct his human rights record will help him refurbish his legacy and avoid becoming a pariah in his own country.
Canada, finally, can be a mediator and a driving force. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, if he promoted these changes, would be faithful to his country’s traditions and an innovative party to the negotiations.
Would such an approach prolong talks? Is it utopian, given political realities? Could it be counterproductive, generating antibodies against human rights in all three countries? Perhaps, but in light of the alternative — a new, trade-only Nafta that would enshrine the dreadful human rights status quo in the United States and Mexico — the change is worth the risk.