Welcome to the TPP
Sri Lanka 2012
Trading our rights away: Welcome to the TPP It is not an uncommon belief that national governments should be sovereign, and certainly that they should be more powerful than the corporations that do business within that country's borders. Most of us would feel that governments enacting laws to protect public health, the environment, and workers' rights is a good thing, that following global financial crises we need to re-enact protective measures governing capital flows and other financial practices, and that local procurement policies would go far to reducing fuel use and to regenerating local economies. But the rights of governments to protect their citizens, their environment, and their economies is being eaten away in a perverse form: through so-called "free trade agreements."
In a twist on Orwell, it is not Big Brother as government but rather as corporation that is interfering with the ability of local, state, and federal governments in the US and elsewhere to pass needed laws and policies. Although the process will affect hundreds of millions of people, it is occurring behind closed doors and without the knowledge of the vast majority of those likely to be harmed. This isn't mere alarmist talk; the damage is already being done from previous such "free trade agreements" (FTA). (As others have pointed out, FTAs restrict rather than expand freedom, involve far more than trade, and are foisted on the unwilling as opposed to being genuine agreements.)
The most recent culprit here is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement under negotiation by the US and eight other countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. According to Public Citizen, which has taken the lead in fighting it, the TPP represents the latest corporate power tool, seeking to expand to an even greater extent corporate power over governments. A major aspect of this corporate power is the "investor-state" system, which allows foreign corporations to challenge local laws that protect health, consumer safety, and the environment, not before local courts but rather before international tribunals composed of private sector lawyers. The basis of their claim? That local laws diminish their "expected future profits." If the corporation wins—and experience with previous FTAs shows they often do—then taxpayers are expected to compensate the corporation, even in cases where the corporation has violated its contract and has been shown to cause severe damage to human health or the environment. That is, under the investor-state system, a corporation or investor gains equal standing with the TPP signatory country's government. As for that country's citizens...well, why worry about them?
So buy-local contracts, laws that protect the environment, that provide pharmaceuticals at a low price, that ban dangerous toxins, that rregulate the financial sector, all can be challenged under the TPP...just as they are successfully being challenged under existing FTAs.
According to Public Citizen, the concerns over the TPP are based not on speculation but experience. There are currently 17 pending cases under existing agreements, invovling a total penalty of over $12.5 billion. None of these claims relates to trade, but rather to public health, the environment, and transportation policy. Thus far, governments (read taxpayers) have paid $350 million in compensation to corporations under these claims. And even when governments win, they pay high costs to defend their policies, and the very threat of a lawsuit or a loss can cause governments to overturn policies meant to protect health or the environment.
Specifically, some of the areas in which the TPP is likely to harm the US population include:
- Jobs. Extreme protections of foreign investors help corporations to offshore jobs. There are multiple reasons for the decline in manufacturing in the US, but clearly the shift towards manufacturing overseas to save costs and to avoid all the hassle of dealing with domestic policies that protect workers' rights and the environment have contributed greatly to the trend. With help from NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, the US has lost 5 million (one of every four) of its manufacturing jobs. How many more can we afford to lose?
- Local procurement policies. It would become illegal for contracts to specify the use of local or domestic products. Also under threat would be specifications such as "renewable/recycled" and "sweatshop-free."
Domestic laws that protect health and the environment. If such laws can be shown to harm the "expected future profits" of involved corporations, then a corporate tribunal could demand compensation to corporations.
- Attempts to safeguard against financial disaster. Past trade agreements have forced countries into the extreme deregulation that had, well, precisely the expected results: financial crashes. Current attempts at re-regulation are under threat from the TPP.
- Affordable pharmaceuticals. Frighteningly, this extends beyond "mere" patents to include the decisions by governments to use cost-saving drug formularies. This isn't just a problem of "socialist" countries; such formularies are used in the US for Medicare and Medicaid.
Despite all the gloom, there are some signs of hope. A significant portion of Democratic congress members in the US voted to oppose the TPP, against the wishes of a Democratic president. Unfortunately, with strong Republican support, that wasn't enough to defeat it, but the momentum is there. As experience builds with existing FTAs, governments and the public are beginning to understand the need to resist this ongoing extension of corporate control (and assault on human rights).
How can we fight back? Public Citizen suggests the following:
- Learn more and get involved: www.citizen.org/tpp, firstname.lastname@example.org", 202.454.5140.
- Contact your Senators, Representatives, and state legislators and ask them to demand release of the negotiating texts which have been kept secret till now, and to stop the use of trade agreements to harm the 99 percent.
- Write President Obama, telling him that you loved his State of the Union focus on American manufacturing, but that we will continue to lose jobs unless he gets his trade negotiators on a new track on TPP. Tell him we cannot afford another NAFTA-style trade deal that kills jobs, floods the country with unsafe imports, and crushes democracy and the ability of governments to act in the public interest.