President Obama has long stated a deep-rooted commitment to human rights, both at home and abroad. In 2012, he said, "People everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes with faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people -- and not the other way around. The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations, for our own people and for people all across the world. That was our founding purpose."
Yet, for an individual so rooted in the traditions of community organizing towards the pursuit of civil liberties, President Obama has struggled to adequately promote human rights, particularly outside of our borders.
So what explains the gap between rhetoric and reality?
The incredible capture of our democratic systems and processes by powerful corporations and elites has significantly impacted the way all levels of our government are protecting the rights of individuals, including the most vulnerable.
In the past years, corporate control over Congress has been under increased spotlight, but similar attention has not been placed on corporate influence over the major policy decisions of the Obama Administration.
Recent developments showcase the extent and consequences of corporate influence on President Obama's policy agenda.
Take for example the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement created with corporates holding the pen. Records reveal that, of the twenty-eight U.S. government appointed trade advisory committees, 85 percent of committee members represent powerful corporate interests. This is particularly problematic when considering the ways in which the TPP addresses potential conflicts between investors and corporations--namely, Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). ISDS systems are increasingly under intense scrutiny from the public, and rightly so. Private courts staffed by corporate lawyers and operating under rules written by corporate interests should not trump domestic legal obligations. Support for such systems is particularly baffling as the U.S. government is currently subject to a challenge using ISDS under NAFTA by a Canadian mining company seeking $18 billion dollars in damages.
Similarly, recent actions with respect to Burma provide an example of how corporate interests have trumped commitments to human rights under President Obama. In 2012, under the leadership of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first-ever human rights-based reporting requirements were created to ensure that investment in Burma was rights-respecting. Under these requirements, companies were required to assess whether their investments were associated with the Burmese junta, along with other human rights risks. Despite this short-term leadership, President Obama has yet again backtracked on human rights.
This past week, during the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi, President Obama removed these reporting requirements, as well as all remaining sanctions on Burma. This premature executive action comes after intense lobbying from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests who argue that reform has fully taken place in Burma and that investment in the country is being stymied. These assertions are simply not true. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, trade in goods with Burma in the first half of 2016 far surpassed 2015 numbers.
There is also evidence that members of the military junta have now expanded control into the commercial sector, creating companies in Burma and seeking foreign investors as partners. A recent report by Global Witness uncovers the amount of control former military junta leaders, including Than Shwe, have over Burma's jade industry. The removal of sanctions and reporting requirements creates a dangerous precedent of impunity and reinforces the growing power of corporate elites in the country. This fails to serve the Burmese people.
How did we get to a place where corporate interests are defining our trade and foreign policy? We need to drastically tip the scales back - towards a system where human rights are a hallmark of our policy responses, not casualties.
To do this will require real leadership and commitment - not just at the highest levels of government, but also across government. We need human rights experts within economic and trade divisions, advising procurement policy and export credit, and within the judiciary. We also need to see visible coordination of this expertise within the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council. In short, we must move beyond compartmentalizing human rights to centralizing human rights.
Only with this shift - one that prioritizes a consideration of impacts on people over profits of corporate entities - will our democracy flourish. Without it, the "founding purpose" that President Obama often references will never be realized.
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