- Civil society opposition here has strengthened against a U.S.-proposed free trade zone that would include some dozen countries around the Pacific Rim.
As negotiators head into a 16th round of talks this week in Singapore, around 400 organisations are urging the U.S. Congress to demand greater transparency in the proceedings.
On Monday, the first day of the negotiations, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a humanitarian group, called on President Barack Obama’s administration to “end its stall tactics and revise its proposals for what otherwise promises to be the most harmful trade deal ever for access to medicines in developing countries.”
The Singapore talks will extend through Mar. 13. Critics say civil society and other critical stakeholders have been systematically shut out of the negotiations, supplanted by corporate interests.
The proposal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), currently comprises 11 countries (a 12th, Japan, is also contemplating joining). But the Obama administration has been clear that if passed, the zone would be open-ended in terms of future expansion.
That broad geographical sweep, together with the simultaneous negotiation of a lengthy but highly secretive list of contentious issues not necessarily related to trade, is leading critics to warn that the scope of any pending agreement could negatively impact on nearly half the globe.
And with the Obama administration now saying it wants to wrap up the negotiations by October, some TPP negotiators are reportedly worried that some of the most controversial issues up for discussion are being pushed to the very end in an attempt to “run out the clock”.
According to a new brief released by MSF, U.S. TPP negotiators are pushing for rules that would “enhance patent and data protections for pharmaceutical companies, dismantle public health safeguards enshrined in international law and obstruct price-lowering generic competition for medicines”.
The result could be restrictions on access to affordable generic medicines for “millions” of people.
Judit Rius Sanjuan, U.S. manager for MSF’s Access Campaign, says her office heard that the last time the TPP negotiations included substantive talks on access to medicines was a year ago. At that time, nearly all negotiating partners reportedly rejected a draft chapter on intellectual property rights, which includes the patent provisions.
And while the White House has stated that it would be resubmitting a revised chapter on this issue, Sanjuan says it appears that access to medicines is once again not on the agenda this week in Singapore.
“We are hearing from other negotiating teams that the pressure to finalise this agreement by October is rising, and they fear that if there is not more time for substantive discussion, this chapter could stand,” she told IPS.
“We share the concern that this delay in presenting an alternative text is a U.S. strategy to focus instead on the less controversial chapters and leave behind debate over access to medicines. But doing so would have huge consequences for developing countries.”
In fact, imposing these types of new restrictions would run counter to previous international agreements and national legislation under which Washington has pledged to expand access to generic medicines.
Any restriction in access to such medicines would also affect the United States’ own global health goals. According to Sanjuan, generics make up some 98 percent of the medicines used by PEPFAR, the United States’ flagship anti-HIV/AIDS programme and the world’s largest.
Half the world
Global health wouldn’t be the only sector impacted by the TPP’s passage. Also on Monday, coinciding with the first day of negotiations in Singapore, around 400 groups from a broad range of backgrounds sent an open letter to the U.S. Congress opposing the abnormally secretive way in which negotiations for the trade area have been run.
“This agreement will impact on how trade and investment are conducted in the Pacific Rim for decades, yet the ramifications aren’t fully understood even by people who know about the TPP,” Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Washington-based Citizens Trade Campaign, an advocacy group, and an organiser of the letter, told IPS.
“This is an agreement that wouldn’t just affect the economy and sustainability in these 11 countries, but has the potential to impact the economy and environment for literally half the world.”
In lieu of official consultation, the groups are offering recommendations for draft language on issues from environmental standards and human and labour rights to financial regulation and national sovereignty. Yet the central complaint has to do with lack of oversight and transparency.
“We find it troubling that … U.S. negotiators still refuse to inform the American public what they have been proposing,” the letter states. “Shielding not only proposals but agreed-upon texts from public view until after negotiations have concluded and the pact is finalized is not consistent with democratic principles.”
The groups are calling for an opening-up of the talks to both the U.S. Congress and the public at large. They’re also urging lawmakers not to authorise new “fast track” powers that would allow the president to send Congress trade pacts for straight votes without the possibility of amendments.
Free trade advocates tend to suggest that such powers are necessary to get other countries to agree to large-scale trade agreements in the first place, but President Obama had allowed the “fast track” legislation to lapse. On Friday, however, the administration’s new trade policy agenda noted that the president would work with Congress to re-authorise that authority.
The administration has used similar concerns to rationalise the high level of secrecy surrounding the negotiations, saying that greater transparency would upset delicate discussions.
Yet critics point out that draft trade texts at this point in negotiations are often made public, including by the World Trade Organisation. Similar precedent exists from the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the trade zone agreed to in 2001 covering 34 countries, including the United States.
“There’s a real reason why the draft has been kept secret from the U.S. public – Americans wouldn’t support a huge amount of the agenda that the [Obama administration] has been pushing,” Citizens Trade’s Stamoulis says.
“If they were to negotiate an agreement that put human rights ahead of corporate profit, creating more just and sustainable social policy, the TPP could be a tool for incredible good. But if you look at who has a seat at the table, with the public shut out and more than 600 corporate lobbyists included, there is nothing to indicate that’s the deal we’re going to get.”