US President Bill Clinton and King Abdullah of Jordan on Tuesday witnessed the signing of a free trade agreement that for the first time in US commercial history contains protections covering workers' rights and the environment, officials said. The accord was signed at a White House ceremony by US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad Halaiqah.
The agreement would eliminate all tariffs on two-way trade in goods and services over a 10-year period, an arrangement the United States currently has with only three other countries, Canada, Mexico and Israel. The pact also stands out as a tangible accomplishment at a time when the Clinton administration's diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East are faltering.
The deal with Jordan is the first US trade accord to carry specific labor and environmental guarantees, measures that have long been sought by trade unions and are backed by Vice President Al Gore, Democratic Party presidential hopeful.
The parties agreed that labor and environmental standards should not be lowered in order to promote trade and pledged to enforce their own existing laws on workers' rights and environment. "We are not asking Jordan to commit itself to new standards," said a senior US trade official.
"We are asking Jordan simply to enforce the laws it has on the books now." She added that Washington was fully satisfied with Jordan's current labor standards, which she said were compatible with those of the International Labor Organization.
Barshefsky described the deal as "a powerful example to Jordan's neighbors in the Middle East that there are great benefits to peace and is a vote of confidence in Jordan's economic reform program."
The signing comes as the Clinton administration's bid to forge a broad Middle East peace agreement is fast unraveling, with talks between Israel and the Palestinians derailed by the past several weeks of bloodshed on the West Bank and Gaza and few prospects for progress toward an Israeli-Syrian pact.
Barshefsky in an earlier briefing with journalists said that "for the kingdom of Jordan, demonstrating a different path, a different model in the Middle East, was viewed to be of utmost importance, especially at this very critical time."
The agreement outlines a mechanism for bilateral consultations if either party fails to adhere to core labor and environmental practices. It also contains provisions for "appropriate measures" -- which were left undefined -- if abuses persist, according to a US trade official.
Congress must still consider the pact but is only called on to approve the tariff reduction clauses, she said. Lawmakers will not debate the labor and environmental guarantees. — (AFP, Washington)
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)