There has been much ado about the recent passage of insane stone-the-gays laws in Brunei, with the Gill Foundation rightfully pulling its major donor conference out of the Beverly Hills Hotel that is owned by the Sultan of Brunei. In addition to the major LGBT donor conference pulling out, UNITE HERE, the largest hospitality and food service worker's union, announced a boycott of all Dorchester Collection properties.
There's a larger story here for LGBT Americans and the Brunei piece is only one aspect of a far more impactful drama playing out on the international stage. Right now, the U.S. government is negotiating a major trade agreement that contradicts its assertions of respect and equality for LGBT people. Whether increasing the cost of HIV/AIDS medications or giving a wink and a nod to radicalized nations that jail or kill LGBT people, the Obama administration's schizophrenic trade policy is horrible for the LGBT community.
If enacted, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be the largest free trade agreement in history. This massive corporate giveaway utterly belies any pretense that LGBT rights are of equal or greater importance to our government than corporations making a fast buck. More detrimental than NAFTA and more insidious than any previous trade deal, the TPP would devastate what remains of the American middle class -- and for LGBT people it's a slap in the face on multiple fronts.
Inflating HIV/AIDS Treatment Costs
Just a decade and a half ago, HIV/AIDS medications could cost more than $10,000 a year. Today, thanks to competition and the introduction of generic medications, that cost has been reduced by 99% to an average of $140 per month.
In leaked drafts of the TPP text, the U.S. Trade Representative (the ambassador-level Obama administration appointee responsible for negotiating international trade deals) has advocated for language that would increase the duration of prescription drug patents. Longer-duration patents drive up costs by increasing the time mega-pharmaceutical companies can lock out generics manufacturers to maintain their monopoly on a drug.
Biologics, a type of drug derived through biological processes and used to treat certain HIV/AIDS-related conditions like anemia and some types of kidney failure, are a particular sore spot. Currently, corporations are allowed exclusive rights to the biologic test data used to create these medications for 12 years. As if to highlight the duality of their position, the administration's recent budget proposal would lower this limit to 7 years, but at the same time, they're proposing to maintain the 12 year time frame through the TPP.
Even if U.S. law didn't already give trade agreements precedence over existing domestic laws, there are provisions in the TPP to ensure that the patent length most beneficial to the corporation would prevail.
Ignoring LGBT & Human Rights Violations
In a 2011 speech before the UN, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid down the gauntlet on LGBT rights worldwide by declaring the U.S. would actively use every power at its disposal to protect the human rights of LGBT people. Yet, at the very moment she was giving this speech -- and in the intervening years since -- the U.S. has been negotiating a deal that would grant privileged trade status to at least three countries that have abysmal LGBT human rights records.
Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia -- a full quarter of the 12 countries in the TPP pact -- have atrocious human rights records. By any standard, none of these countries should qualify for any sort of privileged trade status with the United States.
- Brunei - Brunei's new stone-the-gays law, which makes "homosexual acts" punishable by death, goes into effect today. Even before this new law was put into place, homosexuality was a crime in Brunei; it just wasn't punishable by death. It's also not the best place to be a woman. There are precious few legal protection securing the rights of women and the law, in most cases, favors men. In one of the most egregious examples, the law carves out an explicit exception for spousal rape.
- Malaysia - In Malaysia, sodomy is still banned and punishable by 20 years in prison and, possibly, corporal punishment. There's also a separate law criminalizing "gross indecency with another male person."
- Vietnam - LGBT rights are a mixed bag in Vietnam, but they make up for it by trafficking in child slave labor. Three U.S. government agencies -- the State Department, the Labor Department, and the Department of Homeland Security -- have all documented Vietnam's use of forced child labor. And worse, many young girls and women are sold into prostitution or the bride-buying trade.
Do these sound like the kinds of countries we should be offering up our most privileged trade status? What message does it send the world about America's commitment to human rights if we're willing to ignore such gross violations for nothing more than profit?
Nigeria and Uganda have gotten a lot of justifiable attention for their monstrous human rights abuses, but Brunei's new law is effectively identical.
And what, exactly, do we get in return for obliterating our moral standing on human rights and decreasing access to vital health care? We get lower wages for the fortunate workers who get to keep their jobs, we get more cheap imported goods made in sweatshops, and, of course, corporations get to make obscene profits while most of us struggle to scrape by.
Free trade deals have already cost us over a million jobs and ballooned our trade deficits to record highs. Now, the TPP wants to expand on that folly while also decreasing access to life-saving medical care and outright ignoring systemic human rights violations.
Is this the change you thought you could believe in?