Secret trade deal must be opposed

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is set to be the largest economic treaty ever signed. It currently involves 12 countries, including Australia, that represent more than 40 percent of the world’s GDP.

Yet it is being negotiated in secret to ensure it is free of any public criticism or scrutiny – so secret that the text of the agreement will be released only four years after the deal has been signed. How do we know what’s in the agreement? We know parts only because sections of the working documents have been leaked and published by whistleblower website Wikileaks. These leaks have exposed how the rich and powerful are conspiring to make tougher the lives of millions of people across the globe.

Investors’ rights

On 25 March Wikileaks released the “Advanced Investment” chapter of the TPP. It details a massive expansion of the rights of the rich and their corporations to rampage across the world. The most controversial part is the establishment of an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) arrangement. This will give “investors” the right to sue governments if they pass laws that impede profits.

A case would not be held in the country that is being sued, but in a special international court with no right of appeal. This not only grants exceptional legal rights to corporations but also erodes the basic right of countries to make their own laws.

An example of how this can be used involves the provincial government of Quebec in Canada. It is currently being sued for US$250 million by US-based Lone Pine Resources Inc. over the government’s ban of gas fracking. Lone Pine is not suing primarily for loss of income, but for the loss of future profits expected from fracking. This is being conducted through the ISDS clauses in the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement.

Another important case involves French multinational Veolia, which is suing the Egyptian government under a similar bilateral agreement for increasing the minimum wage. Egypt is also being sued by Indorama Corp. for the nationalisation of a textile factory during the 2011 revolution.

Intellectual property

Another leaked chapter of the TPP concerns intellectual property laws. Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, writes: “The TPP’s intellectual property regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons. If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs.”

The provisions would allow companies such as AOL Time Warner the right to order the shutting down of websites they claim infringe copyright, and to obtain the details of anyone who allegedly downloads that content. This will turn internet service providers (ISP) into a police force for these companies.

This is already beginning to happen in Australia with the recent court victory of Dallas Buyers Club LLC against Australian ISP iiNet. The court ruled that iiNet must hand over the residential address of everyone alleged to have downloaded the movie. The TPP gives the green light for many more such cases to be heard and for strict monitoring of our internet usage globally.

A sick approach to health care

The TPP’s approach to intellectual property will also have enormous implications for health care and access to generic medications. Medecins Sans Frontiers has referred to the TPP as “the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines in developing countries”.

The commodification of all goods, even life-saving drugs, means the research to develop new therapies is not driven by a desire to heal the sick. The incentive to make new discoveries is the profit associated with securing a patent. Typically, patents expire after 20 years, which then allows cheaper generic versions of these medicines to be produced. According to the Journal of the International AIDS Society, 80 percent of anti-retroviral medicines used in the developing world are generic.

The TPP proposes to change all this. It would allow pharmaceutical companies the legal right to prevent the production of generics and extend existing patents every 20 years. This would make new life-saving drugs unaffordable for people in the developing world and vastly more expensive in the West. The draft also had a clause allowing for surgical procedures to be patented. Fortunately, this has now been removed due to the backlash from doctors fearing they could be sued simply for performing surgery to save someone’s life.

The environment

The other chapter that has been leaked is on the environment. Following in the footsteps of all the major environmental summits in recent years, it is all talk and no action. It is the only section of the TPP released to date that contains nothing that is legally binding or enforceable. Yet even talk is deemed to be too much for some. One section recommends that countries discuss ways of dealing with climate change; Australia and the US are lobbying to have even that suggestion removed.

The use of ISDS in previous free trade agreements shows that the environment is set to be further destroyed. By the end of 2013, more than 560 legal cases had been launched against 98 governments. According to the US-based environmental group Sierra Club, “70 percent … are from challenges to natural resource and environment policies”.

The lie of ‘free trade’

Free trade under capitalism can never be anything but the greater right of one section of the capitalist class to make profit and exploit workers. The massive corporations that exist today are the result of the logic of economic competition, through which increasing amounts of wealth come to be held in fewer hands.

Negotiating such “free trade” deals not only reveals the power of these corporations, but also the strength of the home state that backs them up. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once remarked, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.”

In that regard, China is conspicuously absent from the TPP negotiations. This is widely seen as a strategy by the US to contain a rising rival by shutting it out of some international markets.TPP negotiations. This is widely seen as a strategy by the US to contain a rising rival by shutting it out of some international markets.

Today there is much we still don’t know about the TPP. However, we can be certain that workers and the poor are in the firing line. It is conducted in secret to prevent us from knowing the truth of what the rich have in store for us.

What is needed today is not more free trade, but a world where the resources are shared and used for the benefit of the majority of the population. A world in which the sick aren’t priced out of life-saving medicines. A world in which those who do the work democratically control what we produce.

This is the complete opposite of the world the TPP stands for. The TPP must be opposed.

The author can be contacted at [email protected] using this public key if encryption is required.