As trade ministers gathered in New Zealand on Thursday to sign the sweeping, controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), thousands of protesters gathered throughout Auckland and beyond to protest the 12-nation agreement they say "gives power to corporations and takes it away from the people."
Hundreds of protesters set up camp in front of the Sky City Convention Center in Auckland, where the signing took place, while thousands of others blockaded nearby streets and highway ramps around the area, bringing traffic to a standstill. No arrests were reported, although police violence reportedly occurred.
The deal, which was finalized in October following years of negotiations, creates a so-called "free trade" zone between 12 Pacific Rim nations, including the U.S. and Canada, which collectively account for about 40 percent of the world's economy. Opponents say the contents of the agreement, made public in November after five years of secrecy, threaten everything from human rights and public health to the environment and the very fabric of democracy.
"It's kind of a Cold War by proxy of trade and investment agreements," one protester, University of Auckland law professor Jane Kelsey, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday. "And that's a real worry because not only do the corporations who have special insights and input to this agreement get to be center stage, but also there is no balance of interests."
Rowan Brooks, one of the organizers of Thursday's action, told Al Jazeera, "Basically it eats away at New Zealand's sovereignty and the whole process was undemocratic."
"The agreement gives power to corporations and takes it away from the people," Brooks said.
Greenpeace New Zealand executive director Russel Norman said the protests in Auckland were "a direct way for people to show their feelings to the politicians and the large corporations, whose interests all too often appear to be in conflict with those of the people. And that’s certainly the case with the TPP."
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"Peaceful protest is the beating heart of any democracy. And that’s why today’s peaceful protests in Auckland are so important," Norman said.
The TPP must still be approved domestically by individual partnership countries. Among Thursday's protesters was MP Hone Harawira, of the Mana Party, one of New Zealand's leading voices against the TPP. Harawira told the crowd they had no choice but to keep up large-scale actions to convince the government not to approve the agreement.
"We can't afford not to send a signal on this day, the day of the signing, and keep sending it day in and day out," he said.
In the U.S., approval would mean ratification by Congress. It is unlikely that lawmakers will take up the issue until after the 2016 presidential election in November, which gives opponents time to strengthen the movement against it.
As Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said Wednesday, "Thankfully, it’s not too late to stop this toxic deal. Congress holds the trump card on the widely unpopular TPP, so now is the time to urge our representatives to reject the toxic trade deal and build a new model of trade that puts the health and safety of people before the profits of big corporations that are already polluting our air and water."
One trade minister who supports the deal said getting the U.S. on board was key. "To achieve anything that's a wide-ranging, international agreement on trade, especially in agriculture, you must have the United States involved," Sir Graeme Harrison, the founder and chairman of meat processor ANZCO Foods, told Radio New Zealand. "And if I look at the protests against TPP, I'd say, in a nutshell, they're anti-American."