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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Trade Deal is an Eco-Justice Failure
distributed 2/28/14 - ©2014

A huge international trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, seems to be in trouble. That is good news.

The TPP "would create a NAFTA-style agreement among the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam (and maybe, just maybe, China ...)", wrote Grist's Heather Smith. For over five years, an intensely secret process of trade negotiations has been drafting the trade agreement.

Within the last few months, the deal was considered close enough that a request for a "fast track" process (an up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed) was taken to the US Congress. But Congress has balked, responding to strong opposition coming from both the Tea Party and labor unions. In recent weeks, the TPP has dropped out of the political news, and no action seems to be pending in Congress.

But this trade agreement is not dead, and others like it are in the works, including one with the European Union. It is important to look at both the content and the process of these trade deals from the perspective of ethics.

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I don't pretend to be an expert in international economics and global trade, and this is a big, complicated topic. I have been trying to track this issue closely for several months, though, and some key points come up again and again.

1) Negotiated in secret
It is fairly common these days that school boards and city councils are required to conduct all of their business in sessions that are open to the public and the press. It is assumed that people have a right to know what their representatives are doing, and that decisions are stronger when an informed public can participate.

The process for negotiating trade agreements goes to the other extreme. All the TPP negotiations have been secret, and even the legislators that have jurisdiction over the TPP have not had access to the US proposals. In 2010, the TPP countries agreed not to release negotiating texts until four years after a deal was done or abandoned.

What is known about the details of the TPP come primarily through rare leaked documents. But the negotiations are not conducted by a select group of governmental employees. "More than 600 official corporate 'trade advisors' have special access" to the TPP texts and an insider role in negotiations.

One of the core principles of eco-justice ethics is "participation" -- the need for all stakeholders to be involved in decision-making processes. The lead negotiator for the US said, "you can't have 435 members of the House and 100 senators negotiate a trade agreement", which is probably true on a practical level. But the level of secrecy, and the role of business interests in defining the terms of the agreement, are a violation of this ethical norm.

2) Gives enormous power to non-elected bodies
It is not only in the negotiations that enormous power is given to non-elected bodies. The TPP would include, and even expand, a system of corporate privileges that has been part of earlier trade deals. Under this system, the TPP would elevate individual foreign corporations to equal status with the sovereign governments signing the deal. Countries would be obliged to conform all their domestic laws and regulations to the TPP's rules.

The TPP's provisions would allow any company based in one member country that has an investment in another member country to sue that country in a secret tribunal if its rules covering things like civil liberties, workers' rights, environmental standards, or public health "mess with the litigant's profitability." The World Bank and UN tribunals that decide such cases "are comprised of three corporate lawyers, unaccountable to any electorate, who rotate between suing governments for corporations and acting as the 'judges.' Tribunals are not bound by precedent and there is no appeal mechanism."

If the TPP takes effect, its rules could be altered only if all countries agreed, regardless of domestic election outcomes or changes in public opinion. And unlike much domestic legislation, the TPP would have no expiration date.

3) Increases income inequality
The Office of the United States Trade Representative (which oversees the TPP negotiations), says, "Trade is critical to America's prosperity -- fueling economic growth, supporting good jobs at home, raising living standards and helping Americans provide for their families with affordable goods and services." But several sources report that the TPP would not help the vast majority of US residents.

A study on the net effect of the TPP on wages (by the Center for Economic and Policy Research) found that the income gains would go almost entirely to the top 10%, and especially the top 1%. The other 90% -- the poor, the middle class, and even some of the wealthy -- would see their income reduced. (The graph showing this is under point #9, "So but wait, how will this actually affect my life?" in the Washington Post's excellent article, "Everything you need to know about the Trans Pacific Partnership.")

What's more, this trade agreement apparently would not really make much difference in the amount of trade. A study (by supporters of the TPP) projected a meager 0.13 percent increase to US gross domestic product by 2025 if the TPP is implemented. By comparison, economists have estimated that the release of Apple's iPhone 5 boosted US GDP by two to four times that much.

4) Weakens environmental standards
The chapter on environmental topics -- just one of 29 chapters in the proposed agreement -- was leaked about a month ago. Wikileaks said:

The Environment Chapter covers what the Parties propose to be their positions on: environmental issues, including climate change, biodiversity and fishing stocks; and trade and investment in 'environmental' goods and services. It also outlines how to resolve enviromental disputes arising out of the treaty's subsequent implementation. ... When compared against other TPP chapters, the Environment Chapter is noteworthy for its absence of mandated clauses or meaningful enforcement measures. The dispute settlement mechanisms it creates are cooperative instead of binding; there are no required penalties and no proposed criminal sanctions. ... the Chapter appears to function as a public relations exercise.

Rather than clear or enforceable standards on environmental protection, the draft only asks signatories to do things like "make best efforts to refrain" from overfishing. All a country found to be violating these principles would have to do is promise to work toward changing its ways.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club commented, "This draft chapter falls flat on every single one of our issues -- oceans, fish, wildlife, and forest protections -- and in fact, rolls back on the progress made in past free trade pacts."

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Several sources -- noting that governments are weakened by the TPP , and that financial benefits flow primarily to the wealthy -- have asserted that the TPP is mainly about new corporate rights, not trade.

That may be an overstatement, but it seems clear to me that both the process and the content of the Trans-Pacific Partnership raise red flags when considered from an eco-justice perspective. The secretive process, the distortions of power and wealth, and the negative direction of environmental actions are all matters of profound ethical concern.

There is -- apparently -- some time before a TPP proposal will come to the US Congress. I urge you to use that time to study up on what is involved, and to communicate your views to your congressional representatives.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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