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Kicking the Victims

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page B06

AFTER SOME initial hesitation, the Bush administration has responded to the tsunami in an impressive fashion. The United States has made a generous promise of aid. It has tactfully deferred to the exaggerated sensitivities of those who thought its steering group of leading donors might undermine the United Nations. Most crucially, U.S. Navy helicopters have delivered relief supplies to remote parts of Indonesia that are hard to reach by other methods. The tide of anti-Americanism in Indonesia, which has flowed strongly since the Iraq war, has already shown some signs of ebbing.

But one aspect of American policy is plain embarrassing. On Thursday a trade panel in Washington imposed anti-dumping duties on shrimp imports from six countries, including India and Thailand. With immediate effect, Thai exporters will be hit with duties of between 6 and 7 percent (the rates vary slightly from company to company); Indian exporters will face duties of between 5 and 14 percent. U.S. policy is thus to extend aid to the tsunami region with one hand while hitting its exports with the other.

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The U.S. International Trade Commission, which voted 6-0 in favor of the duties, appeared to understand how grotesque this is. It coupled its verdict with a promise to review the impact on the tsunami victims and to consider reversing itself. But the panel's recognition of its own perversity is only half-consoling. It shouldn't take the tsunami for people to notice that U.S. trade protectionism harms the poor countries that U.S. aid dollars seek to help.

Nor should it have taken the tsunami to raise doubts about these particular shrimp duties. Like all anti-dumping lawsuits, the shrimp one is based on the contention that foreigners are selling at "unfairly" low prices. But the method used to calculate "fair" price is itself blatantly unfair and violates the rules of the World Trade Organization. If the United States wants to be seen as a generous country that plays by the rules, it should reform its egregious dumping rules so that more shrimp embarrassments don't happen.

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