A shroud of secrecy, by design, continues to envelop the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. The latest statements from participating governments as usual offer nothing of substance, but that rebellion might be afoot is intimated in an article by Chile’s former chief TPP negotiator, who recently resigned his posts.
The article, published in the Peruvian magazine Caretas, did not contain any thundering denunciations; expecting such from someone who had been the director of Multilateral and Bilateral Economic Affairs for the Chilean Foreign Ministry would not be realistic. The ex-director, Rodrigo Contreras, quietly resigned recently without a public statement, but he did summarize his thinking in the Caretas article.
Interspersed among two pages of soft language in which he praised the concept of trade agreements, he explicitly opposed Internet restrictions, expanding copyright terms, extending drug patent terms, restrictions on financial regulations and losing the ability to preserve biological and cultural diversity. Mr. Contreras wrote:
“The extension of drug patent protections beyond the current terms, or the restriction of challenges to frivolous patent applications, would delay the availability of generic drugs and increase the cost of medicines. Public health budgets and access to health services for the most vulnerable would be affected in our countries.”
Smaller countries such as Chile would be particularly vulnerable to corporate plunder as multi-national corporations would be allowed unfettered access to the resources of TPP signatories. Chile’s former chief TPP negotiator concluded his article with these words, likely as firm as anyone who had been a direct participant is likely to issue:
“It is critical to reject the imposition of a model designed according to realities of high-income countries, which are very different from the other participating countries. Otherwise, this agreement will become a threat for our countries: it will restrict our development options in health and education, in biological and cultural diversity, and in the design of public policies and the transformation of our economies. It will also generate pressures from increasingly active social movements, who are not willing to grant a pass to governments that accept an outcome of the TPP negotiations that limits possibilities to increase the prosperity and well-being of our countries.”
A secret, unless you are a corporate executive
It is precisely to minimize potential pressures from social movements that the TPP is being negotiated in complete secrecy, with no text publicly available. Not even the national legislatures of the 11 countries now involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership know what is in it, even though many must vote on it. (By contrast, corporate executives do have access to the text and have significant influence in shaping it.)
The United States Congress, for instance, must approve the TPP for it to become effective in the U.S., and the Obama administration, which is pushing the most draconian rules, seeks a congressional vote on a “fast-track” basis — a straight yes-or-no vote with no amendments or changes allowed to the text. The reason for a fast-track vote is to increase the odds of passage — the vote happens far quicker than under normal rules, and no “free trade” agreement has been been voted down in the U.S. Congress under fast-track rules.
Following the latest round of negotiations, held earlier in May in Lima, Peru, once again no information was forthcoming. The Office of the United States Trade Representative issued its usual boilerplate language:
“[O]fficials reported that they continued to forge ahead toward their goal of concluding an ambitious 21st-century agreement in the timeframe envisioned by President Obama and the Leaders of the other ten TPP countries. … [T]he negotiators made progress across the agreement. The negotiating groups covering services, government procurement, sanitary and phytosanitary standards, trade remedies, labor, and dispute settlement moved their work forward significantly. The TPP countries also successfully advanced work on the other legal texts, including technical barriers to trade, e-commerce, rules of origin, investment, financial services, intellectual property, transparency, competition, environment and other issues.”
“The TPP is a key part of our government’s pro-trade plan to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity in every region of the country.”
No details on what these agreements might be were offered, nor how eliminating workplace safety, labor and environmental regulations as part of an accelerated race to the bottom will create “prosperity.” Governments stripping themselves of sovereignty and allowing multi-national corporations to dictate laws and regulations, elevating corporate profits above all other human concerns, constitutes a perverse neoliberal definition of “prosperity.”
Swatting aside pesky notions of democracy
- Taxation and regulation constitute “indirect expropriation” mandating compensation (an asserted reduction in the value of an asset is sufficient to establish expropriation rather than a physical taking of property).
- An expansion of who or what constitutes an “investor” — extending those eligible to file a claim to anyone who applies for a permit or license, or who “channels” resources or capital to set up a business, without placing any limits on what qualifies for such a status.
- The U.S. is seeking to include government bonds as a covered investment; if that stands, speculators would have the right to recover the full face value of government bonds bought at discounted prices.
- Significantly tighten corporate control of the Internet and force service providers to hand over personal data.
- Energy export infrastructure projects, such as liquefied natural gas facilities, would be automatically approved as a matter of “right.”
The Trans-Pacific Partnership will go beyond, and supersede, the North American Free Trade Agreement and existing bi-lateral trade agreements, themselves already severely one-sided. The first dispute brought by a corporation against a government under the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, for instance, was by a mining company that demanded US$800 million from the Peruvian government because Peru refused to grant it a third extension of a deadline to install equipment to mitigate the toxic effects of a metal smelter that the company agreed to perform under a signed contract. Public Citizen reports:
“Renco v. Peru is a particularly egregious case, pitting one of the world’s wealthiest men, [U.S. multi-billionaire] Ira Rennert, on one side, and children in a poor and polluted community on the other. The case illustrates two deeply worrying implications of investor-state arbitration. First, it shows that corporations will use investor-state cases to put pressure on governments to weaken environment and health policies. Second, corporations are increasingly attempting to evade justice in domestic courts through the investor-state mechanism. And, if Peru loses the case, its taxpayers must compensate Renco. Governments have already been ordered to pay more than $2.5 billion in taxpayer funds to corporations in investor-state disputes under U.S. [free-trade agreements] and bilateral investment treaties.”
Disputes raised by corporations are heard in secret tribunals in which the judges are often corporate lawyers who specialize in representing companies in disputes with governments; each decision become a new standard leading to ever more one-sided results.
“Free trade” agreements don’t have anything to do with trade; they have everything to do with tightening the grip of corporate dominance over every aspect of life. Alisa Simmons of Global Trade Watch, speaking at a May 28 forum in New York City, said only five of the 29 TPP chapters concern traditional trade issues; the remainder cover other issues and three of the chapters are unknown because negotiators refuse to divulge the titles of the chapters.
Trade agreements like the TPP are specifically designed to override national laws by allowing corporations to sue in secret corporate-controlled tribunals empowered to order governments to do as corporate executives demand. Labor and environmental laws would be outlawed as fetters on the right to maximum profits; national sovereignty would be a relic of the past; and smaller countries would have no control over the plunder of their resources by the larger countries’ multi-national corporations. Links hands across borders before it is too late.