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Saturday, April 19th, 2014

In the Dark, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Advances to the Next Round of Negotiation

By Nicolas Rochon

THURSDAY APRIL 18, 2013

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US Trade Representative Ron Kirk discusses the Trans-Pacific Partnership in regards to US economy in December 2012.

Besides its potential to be the greatest “free trade agreement” in history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is worth attention simply for the fact that its design and objectives are shrouded in complete secrecy. Currently made up of eleven countries – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States – the TPP has already completed sixteen stages of deliberation by participating governments and some 600 transnational corporations in private locations protected by locked doors and armed guards.

Dissent held at bay

Those who have attempted to enter the discussions have been stopped immediately. Last September, a rally was held outside the Lansdowne Golf Resort where the TPP was being discussed. Groups like Avaaz.org, Rainforest Action Network, Health GAP and It’sOurEconomy.org were represented by protesters and picket signs.

Actress, director and rights activist, Q’orianka Kilcher, along with others, brought over 350,000 signed petitions to hand them to an official with the US Trade Representatives. Bringing light to the situation, Kilcher recorded the interactions, on her cell phone, that took place outside the resort between protesters and local police. The audio reveals a police officer saying, “Are you filming this? That’s it! You’re trespassing!” Suddenly, Kilcher was forced to stop recording and was immediately handcuffed.

Prior to her arrest, Kilcher argued, “The Trans Pacific Partnership would be devastating for people around the world and it is being negotiated in complete secrecy to hide the content… While hundreds of corporate advisors have access to the information contained within these documents, the American public, the media and even members of Congress do not.”

Three months later, as another private meeting was underway, hundreds of New Zealanders rallied outside the Sky City Convention Center in downtown Aukland, New Zealand. The crowds set fires to petition boxes, representing nearly a million signatures worldwide, to demonstrate their opposition to the TPP agreement. But as the demonstration escalated, protestors were confronted by an equally impressive police force ready to subdue the scene.

Specializing in international economic regulation, the University of Auckland’s Jane Kelsey proclaimed to government: “We say to our prime minister, whose theories of democracy are that you should ignore the people when they are telling you that they don’t want what you are doing in secret in their names, we say, shame, shame, shame.”

Seemingly unaffected by public outcry, the TPP’s authors – corporate lobbyists and national leaders – continue to work in the dark.

A 21st century ideal?

Described on the US Trade Representative’s website, the TPP is considered to be “an ambitious, next-generation, Asia-Pacific trade agreement that reflects US economic priorities and values.” The department goes further to say that one of the main reasons for US involvement is for it to become fully integrated into the Asia-Pacific economic market.

Authors of the TPP highlight five distinct features that they argue make it a “landmark, 21st century trade agreement” set to “boost the competitiveness of TPP countries in the global economy.”

First, the TPP provides comprehensive market access to create opportunities for employees, employers and consumers by eliminating tariffs and other barriers on goods and services. Next, the TPP employs a fully regional agreement, so that participating country members can better development production and supply chains to promote sustainable growth into the future. It also incorporates four “cross-cutting” trade issues that are designed to improve trade and investment efficiency to allow for a more cohesive union between TPP members and their local enterprises. Furthermore, the TPP will work to tackle the new trade challenges of the modern age, as innovative digital and green technologies become the building blocks of future economies. Lastly, the TPP will remain as a “living agreement,” allowing for updates to be made as challenges emerge.

Or a corporate coup?

Arguing against those in favor of the TPP, Andrew Marshall cites that of the twenty-six chapters constructing the body of the agreement, only two chapters actually discuss trade. Instead, the majority of the chapters focus on intellectual property rights, environmental standards, government procurement and a deregulation of various international industries.

In fact, a letter from the US Congress to US Trade Representative Ron Kirk affirms that the agreement indeed goes far beyond trade: "[The TPP] will create binding policies on future Congresses in numerous areas,” like “those related to labor, patent and copyright, land use, food, agriculture and product standards, natural resources, the environment, professional licensing, state-owned enterprises and government procurement policies, as well as financial, health care, energy, telecommunications and other service sector regulations.”

One of the most vocal groups opposed to the TPP, Public Citizen, leaked internal documents which concluded that the Obama administration "intends to bestow radical new political powers upon multinational corporations… [with] policies that environmental activists, financial reform advocates and labor unions have long rejected for eroding key protections currently in domestic laws.”

In reference to transnational corporations, the TPP would protect multinational corporations from the national laws and regulations of foreign countries, transcending any rights given to domestic companies or even citizens. In addition, these transnational corporations could legally sue governments for any loss of potential profit that stemmed from such laws and regulations.

On this point, Marshall writes, “[L]et’s be clear: for corporations, such regulations and concerns over health, safety and environmental issues are perceived solely as ‘barriers’ to investment and profit. Thus their ‘government’ would sue the foreign government on behalf of the corporation, on the premise that such regulations led to potential lost profits, for which the corporation should be compensated.”

Another characteristic of the TPP is its potential stronghold on medicine. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a French secular humanitarian-aid non-governmental organization, worries over the “evergreening” effect that TPP members are working to implement. Defined by MSF, ‘“evergreening’ allows pharmaceutical companies to obtain or extend monopoly protection for old drugs simply by making minor modifications to existing formulas," even if the modifications do not serve to increase efficacy.

Furthermore, negotiators of the TPP hope to eliminate the ability of third parties to challenge the granting of unjustified patents of drugs, which many consider as public health safeguards.

As written in their “Dangers for Access to Medicines in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement,” authors Burcu Kiliç and Peter Maybarduk assert that such “opposition [to unjustified patents] is a safeguard against patent abuse, improvidently granted patents and unwarranted pharmaceutical monopolies,” while “[t]he absence of pre-grant opposition would make patent examination less informed and would be likely to increase… costs associated with the patent opposition system… and lead to low-quality patents and unjustified drug monopolies…”

But the most potentially harmful tool of the TPP is “the setting up of a three attorney tribunal, with no checks on conflicts of interest, to judge foreign corporate complaints regarding government regulations in the countries they are setting up operations in,” as reported by Mark Vorpahl on truth-out.org.

The danger posed by such a corporate tribunal is the potential for offers transnational corporations the ability to essentially govern themselves in a court of law, except, in this case, the law is themselves.

Speaking with The Real News Network’s Paul Jay, co-director of It’s Our Economy.org, Activist Kevin Zeese describes the backwardness of such a court: “By individual corporations in a trade tribunal… Most of the judges will be corporate lawyers on leave from their corporate job, putting on their robe and being a judge, deciding in favor of the corporation, no doubt, and then going back to their corporate job.”

Besides these possible implications, the TPP would also affect food staples, internet privacy, the environment, and many other such resources that we appreciate in today’s world.

The future of the Asia-Pacific region

As an already expansive economic market, the Asia-Pacific region is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, economically speaking. Specific to the US, the Asia-Pacific imported an estimated $895 billion of US goods and services in 2011, which accounted for 60% of all US exports that year.

In her 2011 publication, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership: New Paradigm or Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?” author Meredith Lewis opines that the US’ decision to join the TPP is most considerate of future relations with a quickly developing Asia Pacific. She writes, “[a]t present there are three major economic blocs – the Americas, Europe, and Asia – and the American bloc is not necessarily the most economically powerful among these. An Asia-Pacific integration has the potential to alter the balance into a two-bloc model comprising Europe and the Asia-Pacific, with the latter including Asia, the United States, Oceania, and much of South America.”

“Therefore, joining the TPP could help the United States play an active role in altering the regional power balance, thereby inserting itself into what is likely to be the more powerful of two large blocs as opposed to remaining on the wrong side of a divided Pacific,” Lewis writes.

As to the effects of a signed TPP, many sides disagree. Regardless, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as an agreement between employers, employees and consumers across industries and nations, deserves a significant amount of transparency. The next round of negotiations will take place from May 15-24, 2013 in Lima, Peru.