Dragging Secretive Trade Talks Into the Light: Activists Expose Slow-Motion Corporate Coup
Leaders from member states of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement.
Photo Credit: Government of Chile/Wikimedia Commons
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While the election season seized everyone’s attention, government officials and 600 official corporate “advisors” were working behind closed doors to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Negotiations have been cloaked in unprecedented secrecy and its proponents have mislabeled the TPP as a “free trade” agreement. In reality, the TPP is about much more than trade. It threatens a stealthy, slow-motion corporate coup d'etat, formalizing and locking in corporate rule over most aspects of our lives.
Thirteen years ago, at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Seattle Ministerial, a similar threat in the form of a massive expansion of the powers and scope of the WTO was stopped.
At the Battle in Seattle, the immovable object called grassroots democracy was victorious over the allegedly unstoppable force of corporate-led globalization. The “Doha Round,” which followed two years later and continued the attempt to expand the WTO’s reign, was alsoderailed thanks to tenacious campaigning by organizations and activists worldwide.
Recalling these historic moments, when people power stopped the dangerous expansion of corporate power, is especially sweet today, when we must again act to safeguard these inspiring victories. All of us who will live with the results must become active to stop the TPP, the latest iteration of corporate coup via “trade” agreement.
What Would the TPP Do?
Eleven countries are now involved—Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States—and there is an open invitation for more to join. Think of the TPP as a NAFTA on steroids, which could encompass half of the world.
This is the largest, most potentially damaging agreement since the 1995 establishment of the WTO. And you may never have heard about it before. That’s because the negotiations, which have been underway for three years, are being conducted in extreme secrecy. The public, Congress, and the press are locked out, but the 600 official corporate advisors have access to the negotiating texts.
The TPP is the latest strategy by the same gang who got us into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and pushed for the expansion of the WTO: American job-offshorers like GE and Caterpillar; banksters like Citi; pharmaceutical price-gouging giants like Pfizer; oil, gas, and mining multinationals like Chevron and Exxon; and agribusiness monopolists like Cargill and Monsanto.
They’ve misbranded the TPP as a model 21st-Century “trade” deal to try to sell it with the usual false promises of it expanding exports. But only two of the TPP’s 29 chapters are about “trade.”
Most of the TPP’s proposed provisions instead comprise a corporate power grab. The TPP would includeextreme protections for foreign investors, which would help corporations offshore American jobs to low-wage countries. These terms would require governments to provide foreign investors a guaranteed “minimum standard of treatment” when they relocate, including special privileges and rights that domestic firms and investors do not enjoy. Foreign firms—or foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms—could extract unlimited amounts of taxpayer money as compensation when investors claim that U.S. government actions undermine a corporation’s expected future profits. Seriously.
Equal Status for Corporations and Country
The investor rules would elevate individual foreign firms and investors to the same status as the sovereign nations that would be party to the TPP. Corporations and investors would be empowered to privately enforce the agreement by suing a signatory government before the World Bank and other foreign tribunals. In this “investor-state dispute resolution,” three private-sector lawyers, who rotate between suing governments and acting as “judges,” could order governments to pay large amounts of our tax dollars to investors who do not want to follow the same laws as domestic firms.
Under similar, if less grandiose, provisions in NAFTA, investors have been paid hundreds of millions of dollars in cases attacking bans on toxic chemicals, land use rules, and more. Phillip Morris Asia has attacked Australia’s cigarette plain packing law—which requires that health warnings be included in cigarette packaging—before such a tribunal. Australia announced in April that it will not agree to be bound to the investor-state regime in the TPP. Negotiators from the United States have declared that all TPP nations must submit to this regime.
Either by winning an investor-state dispute or by preemptively putting a chill on government actions to address critical public needs, the TPP’s investor rights would impose an outer bound of the possible for communities and countries setting policies related to health, the environment, water, or other natural resources. There is almost no progressive movement or campaign whose goals are not threatened, while vast swaths of public-interest policy achieved through decades of struggle are poised to be undermined as these attacks proliferate.
Progressive Achievements Rolled Back
The TPP would also ban existing and future “Buy Local” and “Buy American” procurement policies. These are rules that direct federal and state governments to reinvest our tax dollars to create American jobs by buying domestically made cars, steel, food, and more, and by giving contracts to local construction firms or call centers firms.
The TPP also would expose to attack green and sweat-free procurement rules that specify that only recycled paper, non-old-growth wood products, renewable-source energy, or products made under fair labor standards can be purchased with government funds. Under these terms, democracies would no longer be able to decide that we want to invest our tax dollars to create jobs at home or to create markets for green energy or morally produced goods. Instead, the TPP would require our governments to send our money offshore and spend it with firms trashing human rights and the environment.
The TPP would limit financial regulation by forbidding bans on risky derivatives and other dangerous financial products, as well as the use of capital controls to counter wild surges of speculative investments in and out of countries, which destabilize the global economy. The massive financial firms that caused the financial crisis could use these terms to roll back the new financial regulations implemented in the U.S. and around the world.
As far as health care goes, the TPP would grant new monopoly privileges to Big Pharma that would jack up medicine prices and cut consumers’ access to life-saving medicines in the developing countries involved in the TPP. There is a proposal to allow pharmaceutical firms to challenge the pricing decisions of cost-saving drug formularies, which are used by developing countries and, increasingly, by the United States, to bargain for better prices with drug firms.
One chapter would even attack Internet freedom by imposing through the backdoor damaging aspects of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which citizen activism derailed in the U.S. Congress.
A Trade Justice Coalition Emerges (Again)
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. But it’s precisely the extreme nature of the TPP corporate wish list that is its greatest vulnerability—and our greatest opportunity. The 1-percenter TPP agenda would harm most of us in the United States and in the other countries involved. It can only survive if left shrouded in darkness. Citizen activists in many of the TPP countries are building an inspiring global movement implementing the “Dracula strategy” to drag the TPP into the sunshine so those who will have to live with its consequences can know what’s coming and take action.
Civil society groups representing millions of members worldwide have joined together in raising the alarm. And, given the stunning audacity of the TPP’s prospective corporate power grab, activism is reaching beyond the environmental, consumer, labor, family farm, and access to medicines groups who have been the mainstay of movements against past “trade” agreement attacks. Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Avaaz, Consumers International, tobacco controls groups, and many other organizations have become involved.
From the United States to Australia and even to Malaysia (where any public gathering the authorities consider to be a protest is illegal and participants are subject to arrest), protests are growing. Outside each posh resort where TPP negotiators meet behind closed doors, citizens gather to chant “Flush the TPP,”“Release the Text,” and “Peoples’ Needs, Not Corporate Greed!”
At the next round of negotiations, which will be held in early December in Auckland, New Zealand, negotiators hope to finish several chapters of the deal, so they can sign the whole thing in the first quarter of 2013.
Each of us can make a difference. Given the threats that the TPP poses to a stunningly broad range of fundamental rights and public needs, this is a fight—like the Battle in Seattle in 1999—that can unite a powerful coalition of movements. And it is people power that will be victorious against the TPP corporate power grab, if you help spread the word.
Lori Wallach wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Ms. Wallach has promoted the public interest regarding globalization and international commercial agreements in every forum: Congress and foreign parliaments, the courts, government agencies, and the media. She is director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
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