Laws Unto Themselves


A frequent criticism of “free trade” agreements is that corporations are elevated to the level of a country. It might be more accurate to say that corporations are elevated above countries.

The muscle in trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement or the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is the mandatory use of “investor-state dispute mechanisms.” That bland-sounding bureaucratic phrase is anything but bland in its application — these “mechanisms” are the tools used to turn corporate wish lists into undemocratic reality.

The concrete form of these “mechanisms” are corporate-dominated secret tribunals that hand down one-sided decisions with no oversight, no public notice and no appeals. This is so is because governments that sign trade agreements legally bind themselves to mandatory arbitration in these secret tribunals despite (or because of) their one-sided nature. It is a virtually certainty that, should be they passed into law, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will contain some of the most draconian language yet in this area.

Activists in the TPP countries, as well as those in the European Union, should pay particular attention to the experience of Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Canada has been the principal target within NAFTA because of its superior environmental laws in comparison to the United States and Mexico, with U.S.-based multi-national corporations the primary suers. Environmental, safety, labor and “buy local” laws around the Pacific and in North America and Europe will be targets should the TPP and TTIP be implemented.

The rules of NAFTA allow multi-national corporations to sue national governments because rules safeguarding the environment, for example, are interpreted to “unfairly” reduce potential profits. Decisions handed down in the secret tribunals — in which corporate lawyers who specialize in representing corporations in these kinds of cases sit as judges — further stretch the bases on which corporations can successfully sue governments. NAFTA, and tribunal judgements stretching it, constitutes the starting point from which the U.S. government, sometimes assisted by other governments, seeks to impose still more draconian rules.

Corporations can change laws to suit themselves

Decisions made under NAFTA rules are noteworthy because of their outrageousness, but also merit attention because they provide a preview of what is in store for other countries under the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Here are some “highlights”:

* Eli Lilly and Company is suing Canada for $500 million because Canada would not grant it two patents, rulings upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. Eli Lilly claims the denial is an illegal confiscation of profits — it is using NAFTA as a tool to dismantle Canada’s well-developed patent system. (No tribunal ruling yet.)

* Ethyl Corporation sued Canada for $250 million because of a ban on a gasoline additive known as MMT, a chemical long believed to be dangerous to health. Ethyl claimed the Canadian ban was an “expropriation” of its “investment” and a violation of the principal of “equal treatment” even though, had a Canadian producer of MMT existed, it would have had the same standard applied. Canada settled to avoid a total defeat, paying Ethyl a smaller amount and reversing its ban.

* A U.S. company, Metalclad, sued Mexico because a city government refused to grant it a permit for a waste dump (similarly denied to a Mexican company that previously wanted to use the site). Mexico lost, and had to grant the permit despite environmental concerns and pay $15.6 million to Metalclad.

* Another U.S. company, S.D. Myers, sued Canada because of a ban on the transportation of PCBs that conformed with both a Canada-United States and a multi-lateral environmental treaty. A tribunal ordered Canada to pay $5.6 million and reverse the ban, negating the two environmental treaties and ignoring the fact that PCBs are known carcinogens banned since 1979 in the U.S. The tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.” So much for democracy!

The above is merely the tip of the iceberg. How do such extraordinarily one-sided decisions get handed down? Because the corporations dominate the tribunals and play a heavy role in writing the trade agreements to begin with. There are605 corporate lobbyists who have access to the Trans-Pacific Partnership text — officially known as “trade advisers” — but no members of any legislative body are allowed to see it, and the public is completely shut out. The “advisers” are eagerly working to make the TPP a repository for their wish lists.

The key to making corporate dreams come true is the “investor-state dispute mechanism.” Under these mechanisms, governments legally bind themselves to settle “disputes” with “investors” in the secret tribunals. The most used of these tribunals is the International Centre for Settlement of Investor Disputes (ICSID) — an arbitration board that is an arm of the World Bank. Cases that go before one of the Centre’s tribunals are decided by a panel of three judges that are selected from a roster. The judges are appointed by the national governments that have signed on to ICSID, which include most of the world’s countries.

Working to overturn Australian laws, but he’s ‘neutral’

These judges are not disinterested arbiters. For example, one of the judges appointed to the ICSID by New Zealand is David A.R. Williams, who is currently representing Philip Morris in its suit seeking to force Australia to overturn its tobacco regulations. Australia’s rules limiting tobacco advertising and packaging, enacted in the interests of public health, were found to be legal by Australia’s supreme court, the High Court.

Not willing to accept the Australian constitution, Philip Morris moved some of its assets to Hong Kong, so it could declare itself a Hong Kong company eligible to sue Australia under the Australia-Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty, which, unlike some Australian trade pacts, allows corporations to sue one or the other government. (This case is still pending.)

The ultimate arbiter of a constitution, or writer of laws, are not domestic bodies subject to democratic checks, but unaccountable corporate representatives acting in secret. Who are these mercenaries? As an example, each of the eight ICSID judges appointed by the United States has a long career dedicated to serving large corporations. Six are currently partners in some of the world’s most formidable corporate law firms, one is an academic who formerly was a corporate lawyer and one is a lobbyist for a business group that seeks to codify pro-corporate trade rules under law.

That is a common pattern. One of Australia’s appointees is Doug Jones, a lawyer with one of Australia’s largest corporate law firms, and one of Chile’s is Carlos Eugenio Jorquiera, a corporate lawyer and president of that country’s National Chamber of Commerce.

Further titling the scales are that only corporations, not governments nor public-interest groups, can sue under these treaties. Governments must pay expenses that can total tens of millions of dollars, regardless of outcome, with no provisions to block frivolous claims. The judges are paid by the hour, with no defined limits on costs, giving them an incentive to drag out proceedings, which in turn favors deep-pocketed “investors.”

Going beyond NAFTA, the TPP would place no limits on who qualifies as an “investor”: Anyone who applies for a permit or license, or who “channels” resources or capital to set up a business, without placing any limits on what qualifies for such a status, would be eligible to sue.

‘Customary law’ is what a corporation says it is

Leaked article 12.7 of the TPP, for instance, provides a long list of prohibitions against government actions. Under it, laws imposing capital controls (even to ameliorate a crisis), rules governing domestic content of products or any protections of any domestic industry would be illegal. It then provides a generic exception allowing environmental or other measures “that are not inconsistent with the Agreement; necessary to protect human, animal, or plant life or health; or related to the conservation of living or non-living exhaustible natural resources.”

But that exception is rendered meaningless not only by other, superseding, rules but by the rulings of the corporate-lawyer judges in the secret tribunals. Leaked TPP language specifically requires that excepted rules must be “not inconsistent with the Agreement.” The key sentence opens Article 12.6: “Each Party shall accord to covered investments treatment in accordance with customary international law.” The “Party” here are national governments, and the “customary international law” is that already established by NAFTA and the decisions made by ICSID and similar tribunals concerning disputes under NAFTA and other trade agreements.

Last year’s change of government in Australia has left working peoples in the 12 TPP negotiating countries more vulnerable. Under the previous Labor governments, Australia had refused to agree to the insertion of an investor-state dispute mechanism in the TPP. The new conservative Tony Abbott government, however, has shown worrisome signs of reversal on this critical issue, claiming that such mechanisms would provide “greater market access for Australian exporters.”

The world’s 99 percent can’t afford to lose any bulwark against substituting corporate-dominated secret tribunals for democracy because the Obama administration is pushing hard for the most draconian rules. Knowing that secrecy is the only way for the TPP to gain approval of the U.S. Congress, the White House is pushing for “fast-track authority” — under which, should it be passed, Congress could not change so much as a comma of an agreement, would be severely limited in its ability to debate and would be obligated to vote yes or no in a very short period of time.

An increasingly strong pushback by activists in the U.S. has led to more than 200 members of Congress publicly committing themselves to voting against fast-track, which only Congress can impose on itself. Many of the other 11 national governments negotiating the TPP are nervously watching this development, because if Congress votes against fast-track, it will be far more difficult for TPP to earn congressional approval, leaving those governments less willing to buck their own internal oppositions.

A stronger international opposition remains the only hope to stop the drive toward corporate dictatorship, and then reverse it.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

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