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Corporate Lawyers Hijack UN Meeting, While Civil Society Is Sidelined

By Melinda St. Louis

As originally published in TruthOut

Thanks to years of public education and organizing around the globe, the once-obscure investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system is on the ropes. The ISDS system, buried in trade and investment agreements, grants new rights to multinational corporations to sue governments before a panel of three corporate lawyers. These lawyers can award the corporations unlimited sums to be paid by taxpayers, including for the loss of expected future profits, and their decisions are not subject to appeal. The corporations need only convince the lawyers that an environmental law or safety regulation violates the expansive investor rights granted by such pacts.

As governments are increasingly questioning the legitimacy of this system, the law firms and corporate beneficiaries of the regime are trying defend it, including by rigging international intergovernmental meetings like the one I recently managed to attend despite being banned. 

Supporters of the ISDS regime are on the defensive for good reason. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) never achieved majority support in the US Congress in large part due to bipartisan opposition to ISDS -- from the Republican-majority National Conference on State Legislatures and US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, to Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The EU Trade Commissioner admitted that ISDS was "the most toxic acronym in Europe." As the number of ISDS cases filed each year has exploded and corporations have won billions in attacks on a stunning array of policies, governments from South Africa to Indonesia to Ecuador have terminated many of their treaties that include ISDS. Even the Trump administration has proposed eliminating ISDS from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The law firms, tribunalists, hedge funds and private equity firms getting rich off of these raids on governments' treasuries have been scrambling to figure out how they can save the system, even as they are being forced to reckon with massive opposition to ISDS by civil society and governments alike.

The result has been a high-stakes shell game, with ISDS defenders setting up discussions about whether the system requires "reforms" that are designed to avoid real change.

Biased ISDS "Reform" Discussions

Exhibit A: The little-known United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), which provides one set of rules under which many ISDS cases are litigated, has now been forced to engage in a discussion about the need to reform ISDS. Very few people -- even within governments -- have paid much attention to UNCITRAL. But the arbitration industry, and all the law firms who make millions bringing ISDS cases on behalf of corporations or sitting as arbitrators in these ad-hoc tribunals, have been heavily invested in this process.

Whose views is UNCITRAL most interested in hearing, as the agency holds a series of meetings to discuss whether ISDS reform is desirable and what those reforms should be? The report from the first November 2017 UNCITRAL ISDS "reform" meeting made that quite clear: Of the 27 the groups listed as non-governmental "observers," all but two (93 percent) represented the arbitration industry. If this were not sufficiently galling, many of the governments' own delegations to the meeting included private ISDS lawyers and arbitrators. Indeed, some governments, including Mauritius, Iceland and Bahrain, were solely represented by practicing arbitrators. 

The arbitration industry is obviously not keen for UNCITRAL to engage in meaningful reform of the system. Those who wish to save the ISDS regime are aiming to hijack the UNCITRAL reform discussion to maintain the status quo or promote half-measures around the margins that do not address ISDS's fundamental flaws. For instance, the European Union has been pushing a proposal to establish a "multilateral investment court" within this process, which could actually institutionalize and formalize the ISDS system.

Critical Voices Not Welcome?

Concerned about this danger, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, along with other international civil society organizations, applied to be observers at the April 2018 meeting in order to provide more critical views of some of the emerging proposals. UNCITRAL's observer application process is opaque and unclear, but we sent a detailed letter explaining how we met their observer criteria relating to international focus, competence and expertise in the subject area, and whether we would contribute to reaching the goal of a more balanced representation of major viewpoints.

We fully expected to be approved as observers, given our deep expertise in the issue and that we have been accredited to attend all the World Trade Organization Ministerial meetings and other UN meetings on ISDS. But Public Citizen and other close allies received rejection letters from UNCITRAL.

The message seemed pretty clear: UNCITRAL welcomes the arbitration industry to be a part of these discussions, despite the clear conflict of interest. But several civil society organizations like ours that represent the public interest were to be kept away.

A Fly on the Wall

Despite being officially banned from the premises, yours truly managed to attend the April 2018 UNCITRAL meeting in New York as a guest of an approved organization. The flawed, biased process became even more evident.

The arbitration industry dominated observer and governmental delegations in the actual formal sessions. Thirty-seven of the 44 non-governmental observer organizations represented private lawyers and arbitrators, while only seven represented broader civil society interests. Hardly "reaching the goal of a more balanced representation of major viewpoints" that was the remit of the UNCITRAL secretariat.

An "academic forum" -- held on the sidelines of the UNCITRAL meeting -- was organized by a well-known arbitrator who served as an official member of Switzerland's delegation to the meeting. Many academics who participated in the forum were also arbitrators themselves with a personal financial stake in the ISDS system. Not only were well-known academic critics of the system notably absent from the invitation list, but the event itself was held at the New York International Arbitration Centre -- not exactly a neutral, academic venue. 

The UNCITRAL secretariat did not have its story straight about the role of this academic forum or a separately organized "practitioners' forum," which even more explicitly represented the views of the arbitrators. 

During an introductory meeting with civil society organizations, the UNCITRAL representative explained that the practitioners' forum and the academics' forum were separate from the UNCITRAL proceedings. The official said that results of those discussions would only be linked to the UNCITRAL website if they meet a "test" of "objective, neutral and fact-based, technical and not political, and from research and not political organizations." It is peculiar that the views of people with a personal financial stake in maintaining the ISDS status quo as arbitrators might be considered "neutral" and "not political" in a discussion about reforming the ISDS system.

It only got more bizarre. During the UNCITRAL meeting, an official US government delegation representative took the floor and invited all the government delegates to an evening event hosted by his law firm, King and Spalding. The firm has represented corporations in some of the most egregious ISDS claims, including the infamous Chevron v. Ecuador case. No one in the room seemed to question the propriety of a private law firm that earns millions from the ISDS system speaking on behalf of the US government delegation to invite delegates at an intergovernmental meeting to that law firm's event. 

At that King and Spalding event, the UNCITRAL secretariat announced that because they "wanted to ensure the widest possible input, [UNCITRAL] set up the practitioners' forum and the academic forum," and they specifically wanted "to hear from arbitrators because they are the people most affected by the UNCITRAL process." Yes, those would be the same forums that UNCITRAL officials said were unrelated to the meeting. And of course, no mention of the communities around the globe who are affected by ISDS attacks against their environmental, public health and safety laws.

Further, while civil society organizations were informed by UNCITRAL that no space was available inside the UN building for side events, the International Chamber of Commerce held just such a side event down the hall from the official meetings in the UN building.

Perhaps perceiving the public relations nightmare that might arise from their biased meeting, towards the end of the week, some governments and the UNCITRAL secretariat took some small steps to include the perspectives of the few civil society organizations present.

But the takeaway from the UNCITRAL's process for its so-called "reform" discussions thus far is that lawyers making millions in ISDS cases are welcomed, while the voices of the millions of people whose lives are harmed by ISDS cases brought by multinational corporations are barely an afterthought.

Venues like UNCITRAL and the arbitration industry may want to tamp down the wave of opposition to the unjust ISDS system, even as they go through the motions of considering "reform." But sidelining the growing critique against ISDS from across the political spectrum around the globe will most certainly backfire. Worldwide, the call to end ISDS is only growing louder, and pro-status quo forces ignore those voices at their peril.


NAFTA Talks Should Continue Until a Good Deal Is Achieved

Statement of Lori Wallach, Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, released the following statement upon the conclusion of today’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ministerial meeting:

“Until a deal is achieved that eliminates NAFTA’s job outsourcing incentives and foreign tribunals exposing our laws to attack, and that adds strong labor and environmental standards with swift and certain enforcement to raise wages, talks should continue. The administration has been making progress on important elements of the major NAFTA replacement deal that is needed, and we hope they continue negotiating until they get a deal that would enjoy broad support.

Only a deal that eliminates NAFTA’s job outsourcing incentives and investor-state dispute settlement tribunals and adds strong labor and environmental standards with swift and certain enforcement can obtain broad support in Congress, a reality demonstrated by the Trans-Pacific Partnership falling dozens of votes short of passage in the previous Congress.

Certainly the continuation of the status quo of NAFTA helping corporations outsource more jobs to Mexico every week and attack health and environmental safeguards in secretive tribunals is not acceptable. President Trump promised to bring jobs back with a quick NAFTA renegotiation, but more important than a fast deal is the right deal that transforms the failed NAFTA model. Members of Congress, unions and small businesses, state legislators and consumer groups have articulated for decades the structural changes needed to NAFTA to reverse its outsourcing incentives, downward pressure on wages and attacks on our health and environmental laws.”


New Data Show Trump’s First Quarter 2018 China and Mexico Trade Deficits Largest on Record as All Eyes Focus on This Week’s Trade Discussions in China, Looming NAFTA Deadline

U.S. Trade Deficit With World Largest Since 2008 Financial Crisis, Contrary to Trump’s Campaign Pledge to Quickly Reduce Deficit to Bring Back Manufacturing Jobs  

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Record-high first-quarter trade deficits add to the urgency of the Trump administration succeeding in reworking the terms of U.S.-China trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Public Citizen said today.

The 2018 first quarter goods trade deficit with China and with the world is significantly larger than figures for the first quarter of 2017 even as the March monthly goods deficit with China declined as U.S. exporters accelerated shipments to beat tariffs that may be imposed relating to the 301 action, which gave an extra boost to U.S. exports overall this month.

President Donald Trump’s pledge to quickly reduce the U.S. trade deficit remained unfulfilled after the U.S. trade deficit rose in 2017. As his second year in office begins:

  • The first-quarter goods trade deficit with China is the largest ever recorded at $91.1 billion, up from $80.7 billion for the same period last year;
  • The goods trade deficit with the world of $196.7 billion is larger than any period since before the 2008 financial crisis – up 8.5 percent over the first quarter of 2017 deficit of $181.4 billion.
  • The first-quarter goods trade deficit with Mexico is the largest ever recorded at $33.3 billion, up from $30.6 billion for the same period last year. After improving from 2011 to 2016, but worsening in 2017, the NAFTA first-quarter 2018 goods deficit is up slightly relative to the first quarter of 2017 – an increase from $49.1 billion to $49.6 billion. (NAFTA data exclude re-exports, which account for 20 percent of U.S. exports to NAFTA countries.)
  • The 2018 first-quarter goods trade deficit with the world is up $24.4 billion compared to the $172.4 billion first-quarter global goods deficit in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. The deficit in manufactured goods remained 88 percent of the overall deficit from 2016 to 2017, contradicting Trump’s promises to help manufacturing workers.

(All data in inflation-controlled terms.)

With the comment period on proposed China 301 tariffs closing at the end of May, Trump’s senior trade and economic advisers are in Beijing this week seeking major changes to the terms of U.S.-China trade. NAFTA talks must be completed within weeks for a pact to be voted on this year, but only a deal that removes NAFTA’s job outsourcing incentives and adds strong and strictly enforced labor and environmental standards could change the trade deficit trends. Given the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to obtain majority support in Congress, such a major redo of the past U.S. trade agreement model is also necessary for a new pact to be approved by Congress.

“This ever-expanding trade deficit is like the ghost of Trump trade promises past that is haunting the U.S. negotiators now in Beijing trying to remedy the debacle of our China trade policy and those trying to conclude a NAFTA replacement deal that ends the outsourcing incentives and thus could win broad support,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

The Deficit Is Now Mostly Made Up of Manufactured and Agricultural Goods, With the Oil Deficit Down

Economists who critique the significance of bilateral deficits nonetheless agree that large sustained overall trade deficits can suppress demand and slow economic growth. The overall U.S. trade deficit is mostly made up of manufactured and agricultural goods. Growth in U.S. oil exports and a decline of oil imports since 2011 have masked the deterioration of the non-oil trade deficit.

Over the past three years, the worsening of the non-oil trade deficit has been comparable in magnitude to the worst part of the 2000s “China shock” period, reaching 3.5 percent of GDP between 2014 and 2017 compared to 3.6 percent of GDP between 2002 and 2005. The non-oil trade deficit increased from $573 billion to $756 billion from 2014 to 2017, including the increase in Trump’s first year of office from $703 billion to $756 billion.

“Expect ever-expanding trade deficits that eviscerate Trump’s grand trade reform promises unless the administration transforms our failed China trade policy and removes NAFTA’s job outsourcing incentives, adds strong labor and environmental standards, and thus achieves a NAFTA replacement that can get through Congress,” Wallach said.

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