WASHINGTON--U.S. President George W. Bush has signed into law a bill extending normal trade relations (NTR) to Laos despite calls from human rights groups who favor prolonging a U.S. boycott of the Communist Lao regime.
NTR status--which ends an era of punitively high tariffs against goods imported from Laos--was embedded in "miscellaneous provisions" of the huge "Miscellaneous Trade and Technical Corrections Act of 2004," signed into law Dec. 3.
North Korea and Cuba are the only remaining countries still denied NTR status. Total annual U.S.-Laos bilateral trade in 2003 was just U.S.$10 million.
The Minnesota-based Lao Human Rights Council has campaigned vigorously against NTR for Laos, collecting more than 2,500 letters and petitions from Hmong and Lao Americans against the move.
The council says the Lao and Vietnamese governments have used "ethnic cleansing, war, genocide, and biological and chemical weapons" against former CIA-sponsored fighting forces and Hmong and Lao people in the Xaisomboun Special Region, northern Laos, and in other Lao provinces.
"The actions have killed many thousands of people in Laos," the group said in a statement taking aim at NTR and accusing the Lao and Vietnamese governments of "war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity."
Congress agreed to the bill after an equally protracted campaign by the pro-NTR lobby, which also comprised Lao in exile in the United States and cited development and humanitarian reasons for normalizing trade relations with Laos.
Laos is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 143rd out of 173 countries, based on the United Nations Human Development Indicators.
Half the population lives below the government’s own defined poverty line. Laos has the lowest life expectancy in Southeast Asia and the highest adult illiteracy rate in the region, particularly among women.
"The economic isolation which results from withholding NTR from Laos makes finding solutions to these problems all the more difficult," the U.S.-Lao NTR National Coalition argued in a letter to Congress.
In the absence of NTR, the group said, typical American tariffs on Laotian goods averaged 45 percent and rose to 90 percent on some products.
By contrast, for the great majority of America’s 223 trading partners, tariffs average 2.4 percent, it said.
Congress approved the bill after the Senate passed a separate resolution condemning the Lao government's human rights record.
The U.S. legislation says Congress found Laos had cooperated with the United States in "the global war on terrorism, combating the trafficking of narcotics, and the accounting for American servicemen and civilians still missing from the Vietnam War."
It also argued that "expanding bilateral trade relations that include a commercial agreement may promote further progress by the Lao People's Democratic Republic on human rights, religious tolerance, democratic rule, and transparency, and assist that country in adopting regional and world trading rules and principles."