New trade agreements: Potential for great harm or transnational unity

On February 4, the United States and 11 other countries in the “Pacific Rim” signed the controversial Transpacific Partnership (TPP), which encompasses 40 percent of the world economy. The other countries are Canada, Mexico, Chile, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore and Peru.

Pointedly excluded is China.

Meanwhile, a parallel treaty is being negotiated between the United States and the European Union:  The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  The European Union is also negotiating another such treaty with Canada, the CETA – Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.  Coming down the road is the Trade in Services Agreement, or TISA. All of these treaties are being negotiated in secret without input from the people, or even their elected legislative representatives.  Much of what we know about them comes from leaks (including Wikileaks).

If all of these treaties are implemented, they will encompass most of the world’s economy.  And this is not good news for workers, minorities, indigenous people, small farmers, consumers and the planet. 

There are many things wrong with the TPP, the TTIP, CETA and TISA-too many to cover in one article. But an overarching concern is that under these agreements, transnational corporations will have the power to override national laws, legislatures, governments and courts. 

The “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” mechanisms contained in these treaties, and in others already in force, will empower corporate-dominated tribunals, not accountable to either the governments or the people, to negate national laws and judicial decisions and thus imperil labor, environmental and regulatory protections that the corporations fear will limit their future profits. 

This is already starting to happen under existing “free trade” agreements. 

In El Salvador protests led to the cancellation of a Canadian gold mining project which threatened to harm the water supply of small farmers.  The Canadian company, Pacific Rim, sued El Salvador under the terms of the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, and an Investor-State Dispute Settlement tribunal assessed a penalty of $315 million.  A number of poor countries have received the same treatment under existing “free” trade agreements.  

Under the TPP, TTIP, CETA and TISA, this sort of situation will be multiplied many times.  Among other pressures caused by these agreements, the threat of such penalties is likely to increase the motivation for repressive regimes to use police violence to suppress the people’s protests against transnational corporations that are engaging in abusive or destructive practices.

Even such a well off country as Australia finds itself in the same bind.  An Australian law on cigarette packaging, designed to protect the country’s citizens from lung cancer and emphysema, was successfully challenged by Philip Morris through an Investor-State Dispute Settlement action. In another case, Canadian courts had ruled against the pharmaceuticals transnational Eli Lilly on a question of product effectiveness, and the corporation used an Investor-State Dispute Settlement action to challenge the court order, to force the Canadian government to change its consumer protection laws and to get compensation to the tune of of $500 million.  These and many other examples demonstrate the degree to which corporations under this kind of international treaty are given virtual veto power over the parliaments and courts of sovereign states.  

The TPP has been the target of protests by indigenous people in the United States, Canada, Latin America and beyond.  Indigenous peoples have in many cases found themselves on the front lines of resistance to the most abusive extractive projects that threaten the environment and the people’s livelihoods.  In the summer of 2013 the Nez Percé tribe of Idaho mounted successful protests to prevent the passage of heavy equipment through their reservation on the way to the Alberta Oil Sands operations in Canada.  Members of the Nez Percé nation blocked a key highway over which a company was trying to transport the equipment.  Tribal members were arrested, but a U.S. judge eventually ruled that the tribe was in the right and ordered the company to cease and desist.  In their struggle, the Nez Percé were supported by other U.S. and Canadian indigenous communities, environmentalists and even the U.S. Forest Service.  

In that and other cases, indigenous groups were able to withstand corporate assaults because of their own determination and courage, but also because of the sovereignty granted to them by treaties with the U.S. government over 250 years. In other affected countries there are similar legal protections for indigenous communities.   With the TTP in force, what would happen to that sovereignty and those legal protections?   Would some corporate lawyers in a Corporate-State Dispute Settlement tribunal be able to put an end to the ability of Native American communities to defend themselves and the environment?   Under international and national laws, indigenous people have the right to “free, prior, informed consent” about projects to be carried out on their lands.  Would this laudable principle survive a corporate full court press under the TTP or the TTIP?

The special United Nations Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, notes that poorer countries generally lose in these cases in part because the corporations have the money to mount very sophisticated legal campaigns.  Tauli-Corpuz thinks indigenous groups may have to resort to Convention 169 of the United Nations International Labor Organization in these cases.    This agreement, the Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention of 1989, fixes these rights in international law.  Unfortunately, to date Convention 169 has not been signed by the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan or other major industrialized countries which house the home offices of the most abusive transnational corporations.

For this reason and others, most progressive governments in Latin America are dead set against the TPP.    The right wing governments of Mexico and Peru are enthusiastically pro TPP but face strong opposition from the grassroots.

Beyond Latin America, criticisms of the TPP come from the opposition and are directed at their own governments as well as the United States and the corporations.  In Japan, farmers are particularly worried that under the TPP massive agricultural imports will wipe out their livelihoods, and have organized militant protests.    

The European Parliament and the individual governments of the European Union are still on board with the other monster treaty, the TTIP.  But there are very strong protests movements against it by the labor unions, environmental groups and the left.    In Germany, an organization of judges has strongly protested the idea that corporate controlled tribunals would, under the terms of the TTIP, be able to completely bypass countries’ court systems and thus undermine the national sovereignty of Germany and other countries . Environmental groups are also alarmed and aim to fight against the TTIP.    There will soon be a small electoral test:  The left wing Workers’ Party in Ireland says it is going to make opposition to the TTIP a major plank in its program for the national elections coming up on February 26.   This is a small scale political party but we will see if other Irish parties with higher electoral profiles can be persuaded or shamed into taking the same stance.

In the United States, opposition to the TPP comes from organized labor and environmental activists as well as indigenous groups.  Democratic Party candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have come out against the TTP.  But the Obama administration, which managed to get fast-track authority for the deal, continues to promote it.

Not much is being said here in the United States about the TTIP which has raised such protests in Europe. Yet it is part of the same corporate power grab, and affects us too.  It is instructive to note that European labor fears that under the TTIP, weaker labor standards in the U.S. will drag European labor standards down. European opponents of the TTIP fear that U.S. private corporations will buy up publically controlled health care systems and other public services.    

So we are all in the same boat.  Worldwide opposition to the TTP, the TTIP and the other proposed treaties is united in its goals. What is needed now is actual unity of workers, small farmers, indigenous people and environmentalists in all the countries affected.  To achieve this requires recognition that the enemy is transnational monopoly capital, not workers in other countries. We have to leave behind the divisive notion that “foreign workers want to take our jobs” and understand who the corporate, ruling class enemy really is. 

One thing we must also leave behind is the unfortunate tendency to bash China and Vietnam.  Vietnam has opted to be part of the TPP, probably because, like all countries, they need trade and thus don’t want to be on the outside looking in.  That is their business. But in the discussions about the TPP we see exaggerated and often downright false statements about Vietnam’s labor policy.   In the case of China, which is pointedly being left out of the TPP negotiations, a similar warning is in order.  Scott Marshall of the SOAR Executive Board, District Seven, USW (AFL-CIO) points out that unions and workers in countries like Vietnam and China are not the enemy; that “honor” belongs to the rapacious transnational corporations that want to use these treaties to hurt workers everywhere.

Photo: Popular


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.