Quebec City Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes. You may get it. And we got it yesterday, 41 leaked pages of the most tortuous, turgid prose you could possibly imagine.
Intelligent people who know a lot about this stuff say the document headed FTAA — Negotiating Group on Investment is a road map for multinational corporations to bulldoze governments out of existence. They may well be right. But I have to say, my first reaction to it was a wave of sympathy for the poor souls doomed to negotiate trade deals, and the critics whose grim mission is to keep them honest.
This is the first leak to trickle out of talks on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas — a new economic constitution for the Western Hemisphere. It is one of nine draft chapters, and you can find it at www.iatp.org — the home of a U.S. activist group that was lucky or smart enough to score this coup. If by some miracle it leaves you begging for more, don't despair. In a few weeks, the whole dreary book will be officially released, thanks to the pressure of activists organizing around this weekend's Quebec City summit.
Members of various women's organizations hang banners on the 'Wall of Shame' security fence that encloses the Summit of the Americas meeting zone in Quebec City, Canada, during a brief demonstration Thursday, April 19, 2001. (AP Photo/CP, Tom Hanson)
If nothing else, the leaked chapter highlights the serious difficulties facing FTAA negotiators, who are trying to wrap up the agreement next year for implementation in 2005. They range from money to geopolitics to a lot of very real questions about just what it is that George W. Bush has in mind for the Americas, and whether he can be effective enough as president to pull it off.
But let's assume for the moment that the process has legs. There's enough in this document to indicate that many of the traditional tools of government stand to be stripped away in the name of ensuring equal, non-discriminatory access to markets. Big investors don't want Canada's Jean Chrétien, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez or any other pesky national leader telling them they cannot go somewhere to make money because they don't carry the right passport. Many of these are U.S. investors, and much of the most radical language is probably inspired, if not directly proposed, by U.S. negotiators.
The problem in analyzing the leaked chapter is that right now it's a mish-mash of alternative wordings. You can't tell which country is proposing what. And you can't measure the overall impact, since the potential impact of any given section depends on its relationship to all the others, and no one has signed off on anything yet.
Take the short Article 6, headed Fair and Equitable Treatment. It will probably amount to a couple of lines when they get finished with it. It's now four times that length. I counted five parts to it — with three alternative wordings for each of the first two, six each for the second two, and two for the final one. The general idea is to stop governments from wiping out the value of an investment by imposing arbitrary regulations. But limits as to which investments are covered have been proposed, and some alternatives are much more specific than others on the question of exactly what rights are being guaranteed.
Nevertheless, the broad direction is clear. Drastic limits are obviously being considered on the ability of governments to impose performance requirements on big investors. Again, nothing is certain. But the pact could wind up outlawing rules on domestic-content levels, technology transfer, local procurement or the final destination of goods and services produced.
Moreover, somebody — probably the United States — is trying to replicate the much-maligned section of the North American free-trade agreement that allows corporations to sue governments, claiming discriminatory treatment. As Toronto trade lawyer Steven Shrybman points out, this amounts to a hemispheric charter of rights for entities that are not even parties to the agreement, and who are not obliged to take on any duties or responsibilities in return.
Here's where the arguments of free-trade critics begin to make sense.
Why, on the face of it, should the chapter assure investors' rights and not workers' rights? Or basic human rights, for that matter? They, too, could be jeopardized by a sweeping investment regimen.
In return for vastly improved market access, wouldn't it be reasonable to require environmental and social assessments of major investments, disclosure of key details and monitoring of their impact?
In the past, that would have been considered an impermissible infringement of national sovereignty. But we're in a new game now. If free trade's proponents really believe it will better the human condition, why should they be afraid of putting it in writing?
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