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Global Civil Society Expresses Rejection of the Report, “The Future of Trade: The Challenges of Convergence”

The following media release was issued by the global Our World is Not for Sale (OWINFS) network rejecting a panel report released yesterday at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch is a participating member of OWINFS.


April 24, 2013 -- Global Civil Society Expresses Rejection of the Report, “The Future of Trade: The Challenges of Convergence”

Contact: Deborah James +41 (0) 76 652 6813

Civil society experts from the global Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS) network expressed rejection of the panel report “The Future of Trade: The Challenges of Convergence,” released today at the World Trade Organization (WTO), both in terms of its content and process.

Last year, at the time of the launching of the panel, OWINFS sent a letter to Pascal Lamy objecting to the formation of the panel, in terms of its lack of diversity, such as its exclusion of LDCs, its inclusion of only one Latin American and one African, its exclusion of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and its paucity of participation by civil society beyond the private business sector.

Today, at the launching of the panel’s report, we reiterate our criticism that we “find the process of the composition of the panel to have been autocratic and not in keeping with the rhetoric of a member-driven organization.” It was clear that even despite the best efforts of representative organizations such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which participated in the panel, to include issues such as “to have the dominant context of inequality and unemployment recognised and the trade regime located in the context of a failed model of globalization,” such concerns were not included in the final text.

Two representatives of the OWINFS network intervened in the public discussion of the report at the WTO. Deborah James told the audience that based on this lack of representation, “it is thus no surprise that even though the report alleges to be focused on not immediate issues but the future, the report them makes specific recommendation to accept Trade Facilitation – which is the current demand of developed countries – for the proposed Bali package!

“At the same time, the report does not call for approval of the LDC (Least Developed Country) package demanded by the LDCs. And it does not deal with emergence of the Food Crisis and need for more policy space for developing countries to feed their poor including increasing livelihood of their poor farmers, which we all know is the emphasis of the G33 proposal. These – along with a fundamental re-taking up of the Implementation agenda issues – are the first steps of the changes needed to be made towards the transformation of the global trading system, to address historical inequities and asymmetries between developed and developing countries, and between benefits for corporations, and the negative impacts on workers and farmers. And I am quite aghast that the report even goes so far as to endorse the long-term developed country proposals that were explicitly rejected by developing countries in Cancun, of course I’m talking about the Singapore issues of competition policy and investment.

“So this report does not have any legitimacy; because it does not reflect the membership of the WTO, and therefore, with all due respect to the hard work of the participants, it must be said that it has no role in the future of the negotiations. This is a point that has already been made by several members at the last General Council meeting. But I also fail to see any way that this report reflects any future pathway of using trade for development, which is not even appear to be its goal, but rather I’m afraid that we must conclude that it is more reflection of the Secretariat’s continued emphasis on helping developed countries achieve their negotiating goals of simply expanding liberalization for the benefit of their corporations, rather than addressing the serious challenges facing the multinational trading system in terms of fundamental transformation needed to achieve trade for the true benefit of development and job creation.

Another member of the OWINFS network, Sanya Reid Smith of the Third World Network, said:

“I would like to thank the panelists for their work. I’ve just been speed-reading, so I haven’t finished reading it thought yet. From what I’ve read so far: in addition to concerns raised by OWINFS, I would repeat that at the beginning, the report says that trade is a means, not and end. Presumably for developing countries, development is the end goal. So it is interesting then that the report is about convergence of trade regimes, not convergence of levels of development. Usually in development, we talk about developing countries reaching desired levels of development, ie a convergence of development levels. So report seems to be about a convergence of trade regimes regardless of the levels of development as fixed time specific goals based on actual levels of development. (And as have seen, because of the financial crisis or HIV/AIDS etc, countries can actually go backwards in objective development indicators like life expectancy). This is despite the fact that there is a commitment to Special and Differential Treatment (SDT) throughout the WTO's rules. I recognize that the comments of some panelists who said that they personally don't believe in convergence at any cost, but the report itself appears to recommend violating or amending current WTO rules on SDT including for LDC status which is set objectively by UN.

Also I am shocked to see that proposal by one developed WTO Member to multilateralise the FTAs appears taken up as recommendation.

So as to future of this report, this panel was established by the Director General, Lamy, on his own responsibility. WTO Members did not choose panel members and did not set terms of reference or review the report before it came out, or agree to the text. So as raised by WTO Members in the past, the report does not seem to be grounds for basis for ministerial conference or any further work."


OWINFS is a global network of NGOs and social movements working for a sustainable, socially just, and democratic multilateral trading system. www.ourworldisnotforsale.org.


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Businesses Crowd Corporate-Hosted Government Hearing on Trans-Atlantic "Trade" Deal

As the Obama Administration gets ready to negotiate a Trans-Atlantic "Free Trade" Agreement (TAFTA) with the European Union that takes aim at a host of health, financial, environmental and other regulations, a smorgasbord of corporate representatives (and a sprinkling of consumer groups) voiced their wishes for the pact this week. The occasion was a standing-room-only "stakeholder session," hosted by the administration's Office of Management and Budget and the European Commission, to get input on what TAFTA should or should not entail.  

What neutral territory did the administration choose to consider such a critical question?  Perhaps one of the many government-owned venues in downtown DC?  Nope.  They went with the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber's not exactly a disinterested party in a pact that could implicate a wide swath of U.S. regulation used to balance big business's quest for profits with the public's quest for financial stability, a healthy environment, safe products, and affordable medicines.  The venue choice is akin to the Environmental Protection Agency hosting a forum on offshore drilling...on an offshore drill.  

But at least the administration granted public interest groups like us some time to offer input.  As in, a half hour.  Total.  For all consumer groups.  In a 1.5-day-long forum otherwise filled almost exclusively by industry representatives.  If relative allotment of time is indicative of the relative importance the administration attributes to industry views on TAFTA vs. the views of everyone else, big business "stakeholders" hold 76% of the administration's attention, technical standards organizations hold 11%, and the opinions of the rest of us are worth 13%. 

During that half hour, I squashed Public Citizen's initial take on TAFTA, one of the largest "trade" deals proposed to date, into a five-minute statement.  For a nutshell view of what's at stake in TAFTA, here's the statement:

Continue reading "Businesses Crowd Corporate-Hosted Government Hearing on Trans-Atlantic "Trade" Deal" »

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Foreign Corporations Launched Record Number of Investor-State Attacks on Public Policies in 2012

A report released yesterday by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reveals that foreign corporations are taking governments to court under the notorious investor-state system at an alarming and increasing rate. In 2012, 62 new investor-state cases were filed - of the known 518 cases to date – which is the highest number of investor-state cases ever filed in a year. In 68% of these cases, it was a developing country whose health, environmental or other public policy was being directly challenged by a foreign firm. The report noted that the firms that have launched investor-state cases to date are predominantly U.S. corporations. These cases are decided by tribunals that sit outside of any domestic legal system, typically comprised of three private sector attorneys. Of the cases publicly decided in 2012, 70% of the victories went to the foreign investor, requiring the government to compensate the firm. 

Investor-state arbitrations in 2012 revealed an increasing trend in foreign investors' attacks against states’ nondiscriminatory public interest policies, including changes to domestic regulatory frameworks concerning nuclear energy and currency stability, revocation of mining and oil licenses (often in response to contract violations), and numerous other government measures affecting public health, financial stability, access to essential services and the environment. The UN report concluded that the “trend of investors challenging generally applicable public policies, contradictory decisions issued by tribunals, an increasing number of dissenting opinions, [and] concerns about arbitrators’ potential conflicts of interest all illustrate the problems inherent in the system.”

In addition to setting the record for most new cases filed in a year, 2012 also broke the record for the largest ever investor-state "award," the taxpayer-funded penalty that a tribunal orders a government to pay to a foreign investor when the tribunal rules against the government. In Occidental v. Ecuador, the tribunal ordered Ecuador to pay Occidental Petroleum Corporation around 1.8 billion dollars, which rose to more than $2.4 billion with interest and fees -- roughly the government's annual expenditure on health care for half the country. The tribunal ruled against Ecuador for the government's termination of an oil contract that Occidental had violated (which the tribunal acknowledged).  To calculate the historic penalty imposed on Ecuadorian taxpayers, two of the tribunalists used logic described by the third tribunalist as "egregious."  

These disturbing trends underlie the growing demands to reform the investor-state dispute system. Upon releasing the report, James Zhan, Director of UNCTAD’s Division on Investment and Enterprise, said that the rise in the investor-state system's "cross-cutting challenges...gives credence to calls for reform of the investment arbitration system.” He noted, “the [investor-state] mechanism is already a source of considered reflection in numerous bilateral and regional [trade and investment] negotiations.” 

One of those negotiations is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the sweeping NAFTA-style "trade" deal under negotiation between the U.S. and 10 Pacific Rim nations, which, according to the leaked investment chapter, would expand the investor-state system even further. But the "considered reflection" of other TPP countries has made them wary of binding themselves to a system that has delivered a mounting number of costly attacks on the public interest policies of 95 countries. Australia has already refused to sign on to any investor-state provisions. Other countries may follow their lead. In the meantime, global resistance to the extreme investor-state system is growing, with countries like Brazil, India, South Africa, and Ecuador rejecting its threats to democratic policymaking in the public interest. As investor-state cases continue to soar, public and governmental opposition is following suit. 

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Two Years after Obama's Colombia "Labor Action Plan," Death Threats against Unionists Persist Unabated

Grim Reality Contrasts with Obama Administration Promises Made to Promote Passage of U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

Death threats against Colombian union members have remained appallingly high since announcement of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Labor Action Plan according to the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), the group recognized in the Plan as an authoritative source of monitoring data. The data shows that unions and congressional labor rights defenders in Colombia and the United States were sadly correct in opposing the Colombia FTA on concerns of continued violence against workers, while the Obama administration’s promises about the Labor Action Plan were incorrect, said Public Citizen on the two-year anniversary of the Plan.

More than a year after the passage of the Colombia FTA and two years after the Obama administration announced a Labor Action Plan with Colombia to improve its labor rights protections, Colombia remains the world’s deadliest place to be a union member. In the year after the launch of the Labor Action Plan, union members in Colombia received 471 death threats – exactly the same number as the average annual level of death threats in the two years before the Plan, according to the ENS data relied upon under the Plan. At least 20 Colombian unionists were assassinated in 2012 according to ENS data, while the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reported 35 assassinations last year. Meanwhile, many perpetrators of the over 2,000 existing cases of unionist murders remain free.

In addition, violent mass displacements of Colombians increased 83 percent in 2012 relative to 2011, when the U.S. Congress passed the FTA, according to the Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento. The 130 mass displacements of 2012 added to the five million Colombians who have been displaced in the world’s largest internal displacement crisis. Recent acts of horrific violence and forced displacement have occurred in venues targeted for development under the FTA, such as the port of Buenaventura, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.

Jhonsson TorresSadly, Colombian unions and human rights organizations had predicted that the Labor Action Plan would not alter on-the-ground realities. Among the unionists who have received death threats since the FTA went into effect is Jhonsson Torres, a sugar cane worker who came to Washington to plead with members of Congress not to approve the FTA until and unless labor protections improved. One year ago the general secretary of Jhonsson’s union, also under death threat, was shot and killed while walking with his wife.

“Many people were shocked that the Obama administration would push a trade deal with Colombia, given the record of widespread deadly violence against unionists and human rights defenders, some of it perpetrated by the military and most of it occurring with impunity,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Now that the Obama administration is responsible for passing this agreement, the question is: what will it do to reverse this horrible trend?”

During his 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama famously opposed the Colombian FTA, stating in the third debate with Republican nominee Senator John McCain, “we have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights.

But in April 2012, as anti-union repression remained rampant in Colombia, President Obama travelled to Cartagena to announce the implementation of the FTA. He stated, “this agreement is a win for our workers and the environment because of the strong protections it has for both – commitments we are going to fulfill.

“The complete flip-flop from the reform trade agenda President Obama campaigned on in 2008 to the retrograde policies the administration is negotiating today with Latin American and Asian nations reveals the deep influence big business has on determining U.S trade policies that affect wide swaths of non-trade related issues,” said Wallach. “Despite members of Congress, labor unions and human rights groups in Colombia and the United States pointing out to the Obama administration the deficiencies in this Plan and the lunacy of implementing the FTA before real improvement could be measured, the sad reality is a failed promise to fix the horrifying daily reality of Colombian workers.”

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Obama Administration Takes Aim at TPP Countries' Public Interest Policies in New Report

Report Indicts Health, Financial, Religious and Other Sensitive Policies as “Trade Barriers” to be Eliminated, Spotlighting Contentiousness of TPP Negotiations

The Obama administration released this week a report that takes aim at a litany of sensitive domestic policies in countries currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), identifying the policies as “trade barriers” that the United States seeks to eliminate. The target list of  TPP nations’ domestic policies, published in the 2013 National Trade Estimate Report by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), offers unusual insight into why negotiations over the sweeping, 11-nation deal are contentious and have repeatedly missed deadlines for completion, said Public Citizen today. 

The 406-page USTR report indicts a wide array of public health policies, financial regulations, politically sensitive manufacturing and agricultural policies and even religious standards as “trade barriers” that should be dismantled. USTR levies such criticism against policies in all current and prospective TPP negotiating parties, including New Zealand’s popular health programs to control medicine costs, an Australian law to prevent the offshoring of consumers’ private health data, Vietnam’s post-crisis regulations requiring banks to hold adequate capital, and Canada’s standards requiring cheese to be made from milk.  

For Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, the USTR report admonishes the government for “requiring that slaughter plants maintain dedicated halal facilities and ensure segregated transportation for halal and non-halal products.”  Instead, the report suggests that the government should conform its notions of Islamic meat-processing requirements to those established by Codex Alimentarius, an international food standards body at which multinational food corporations play a central role. USTR also takes issue with restrictions on importation of pork and alcohol in this TPP negotiating country where three out of every five consumers are Muslims.

“Even before the Obama administration’s not-so-diplomatic target list of other countries’ domestic policies, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was on rocky ground, with negotiators from many countries rejecting U.S. demands to expand patent monopolies for foreign pharmaceutical corporations and to subject their financial, health and environmental policies to foreign investor challenges before international tribunals empowered to order government compensation,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “By openly listing the domestic policies in other TPP countries that it wants dismantled, the Obama administration can only intensify growing public concern about the TPP in these countries.”

USTR reserves some of its most detailed policy critiques in the National Trade Estimate Report for Japan, which recently announced its intent to join the TPP negotiations. The report devotes 16 pages to castigating food labeling policies for providing too much information to consumers, outlining how exactly the country should restructure its public insurance system, urging the government to grant tax benefits to foreign universities, and bemoaning Japan’s preference that its military equipment be made domestically. (The United States has similar rules on military procurement.)

The report also takes aim at Japan’s agricultural policies, recommending, for example, the weakening of protections for domestic rice farmers because “Japanese consumers would buy U.S. high quality rice if it were more readily available.” The political party of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, backed by powerful farmer groups, has approved a policy position that would require the country to exclude rice, wheat and barley, beef and pork, sugar and dairy products from tariff eliminations in the TPP. In contrast, the USTR report explicitly names all but one of these sensitive sectors (sugar) as high-priority targets for liberalization. 

For several TPP countries, USTR’s National Trade Estimate Report encourages the adoption of copyright enforcement measures akin to those proposed under the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that was defeated in the U.S. Congress. For example, the report notes that the Obama administration “has also urged Chile…to amend its Internet service provider liability regime to permit effective action against any act of infringement of copyright and related rights.”

When addressing some TPP countries, the USTR report accuses national governments of broad corruption or even incompetence. For example, the report states that two of Peru’s three federal branches of government lack the “impartiality” or “expertise” required to fulfill their responsibilities.

USTR also chooses to mount public criticisms against TPP countries for “trade barriers” that are so specific in definition and trivial in consequence as to seem motivated by comically narrow U.S. corporate interests. For example, the report lambasts Singapore’s import restriction for “non-medicinal chewing gum,” Canada’s high tariff on “breaded cheese sticks,” and Peru’s refusal to import “cars over five years old.”  

Among the report’s hundreds of pages, the following commentaries on TPP countries are some of the most revealing:

Continue reading "Obama Administration Takes Aim at TPP Countries' Public Interest Policies in New Report" »

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