Last week, the U.S. Summit for Democracy came with new cross-government investments and substantial recognition of trade unions’ role in strengthening democracy, but there was too little discussion of how U.S. corporations abroad may incentivize or, if unchecked, disincentivize democracy. The U.S. has a proud history of leveraging trade benefits and access to our markets to advance human rights policies globally, including the right to freedom of expression and other civil and political rights that are essential to democratic governance. Yet the U.S. lags in its efforts to regulate the impact of U.S. corporations abroad and the uptake of laws requiring global companies to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence (mHREDD) on abuses in their supply chains. U.S. leadership has been episodic, but largely missing in this space.
One country not among the Summit participants is Cambodia – where the U.S. successfully leveraged trade incentives and multi-national corporation (MNC) engagement to advance greater protections for workers’ rights in the 1990s. Cambodia’s crumbling democracy and increased restrictions on freedom of expression and worker organizing rights have significantly undermined those gains in recent years.