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There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The task may be difficult but it is not impossible — there is still time to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Activists on both sides of the Pacific Ocean forced a couple of concessions in the final TPP text, agreed to earlier this week after years of negotiation, so we are not without hope.

More hard work by activists is the only power that can stop the TPP from becoming law in 12 countries. If we fail to stop it, the TPP promises to tighten further the dominance of the world’s biggest multi-national corporations with the implementation of nearly unlimited rights of corporations to overturn health, safety, labor and environmental laws through secret tribunals that bypass and override national legal systems.

Although the Obama administration, which had consistently pushed for the most draconian rules, yielded some ground on pharmaceutical-industry profiteering, the TPP is a thoroughly anti-democratic deal. Just how awful won’t be fully known until the text is published on the Internet in coming weeks. In the United States, there is a 60-day period after the text is published before President Barack Obama can send it to Congress for approval. Congress must act within 90 days, voting either yes or no with no amendments allowed (not even a comma can be changed) and limited debate. And even this “fast-track” process, voted into being by Congress earlier this year, represents concessions to persistent public opposition to the TPP — the text has been held as a state secret, hidden for years from members of Congress until public outcries embarrassed the Obama administration into letting elected representatives have a peak.

Parliamentarians in Canada and Australia have also not been allowed to see the text. The Canadian Parliament can’t take up the TPP until after the October 19 elections. The Harper régime is intent on passing the TPP, but if the Liberals or New Democrats unseat the Conservatives, there would be uncertainty. Neither opposition party, however, has openly opposed it, instead reserving judgment before seeing the final text.

In Australia, the Parliament doesn’t get to vote on the TPP, only on legislation necessary to implement its provisions once agreed to by the cabinet ministers. A committee of senators from parties in government and in opposition issued a report in June strongly condemning the TPP and the secrecy of it, but it remains to be seen what, if anything, opponents can do to block it. One glimmer of hope is that two small parties, Palmer United and the Greens, hold the balance of power in the Australian Senate, and the Greens are opposed to the TPP.

The biggest compromise concerned biologic medications. This had been one of the main areas of contention, with the U.S. wanting to impose a 12-year period of exclusivity to pharmaceutical companies that originate biologics before other manufacturers could introduce generic versions (“biosimilars”) of the drugs. Other countries, including Australia, wanted that period cut to five years.

It is still not clear what agreement was reached, but reports indicate that the period will remain 12 years for the U.S., and either five or eight years for other countries. The longer period is seen as a means to guarantee pharmaceutical companies, especially those in the U.S., super-profits for a longer period of time and thus driving up the costs of medicines for public health systems in other counties, including Australia and New Zealand.

Activist work forces concessions but still a bad deal

Sustained public opposition to the longer period pushed the Australian and New Zealand governments to hold out against intense U.S. pressure on this issue, so activists can take credit for whatever better terms were attained. But that does not mean the TPP is a good deal for health care. Far from it.

Peter Maybarduk, the director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Program, had this to say:

“The deal … fell short of Big Pharma’s most extreme demands but will contribute to preventable suffering and death. … [T]he deal includes mechanisms that would help the [U.S. trade representative] browbeat countries, now and in the future, to get what Big Pharma wants, and pull countries toward longer monopoly periods.”

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières is no more optimistic:

“TPP countries have agreed to United States government and multinational drug company demands that will raise the price of medicines for millions by unnecessarily extending monopolies and further delaying price-lowering generic competition. The big losers in the TPP are patients and treatment providers in developing countries. Although the text has improved over the initial demands, the TPP will still go down in history as the worst trade agreement for access to medicines in developing countries, which will be forced to change their laws to incorporate abusive intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical companies.”

New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, which provides thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs, is a particular target of the U.S. pharmaceutical industrybecause it is an example that drug companies do not wish to be emulated elsewhere. The agency says it has saved about NZ$5 billion in the past 10 years.

Don’t buy the snake oil proponents are selling

Although the U.S. trade representative is trumpeting the TPP as the “most progressive trade deal ever,” don’t buy that snake oil. To provide one example, the U.S. trade representative claims that “A Party may elect to deny the benefits of Investor-State dispute settlement with respect to a claim challenging a tobacco control measure of the Party.” This is a claim that corporations can no longer challenge government regulations on tobacco, as has happened to Australia, Uruguay and other countries. (“Party” means a government in the TPP text.)

Another snake oil salesperson, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, who has been perhaps the senator most responsible for the advancement of the TPP in the Senate and a consistent liar on “free trade” agreements, packed quite a lot of misinformation into one paragraph this week:

“I’m pleased to hear reports that the deal reached today includes, for the first time, an agreement to curb currency manipulation and new and enforceable obligations on countries like Vietnam and Malaysia to uphold labor rights, including in the case of Malaysia enforceable commitments to address human trafficking. I also understand that the agreement will include commitments to stop trade in illegal wildlife and first-ever commitments on conservation. Importantly, I understand that this deal will ensure that countries that are part of it can regulate tobacco without fearing intimidation and litigation by Big Tobacco.”

Don’t be fooled. The Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health issued this correction:

“The precise effects of this ambiguously worded compromise are unclear. … Tobacco companies could still file charges [in secret tribunals] if they assert the regulation is ‘discriminatory’ to the trade interests of a particular country. For example, when the U.S. banned clove cigarettes, which are important in hooking kids, Indonesia filed a successful trade charge, as the main producer of clove cigarettes.”

Senator Wyden’s words are hollow, coming after the Obama administration cynically removed Malaysia from the State Department’s list of worst countries for human trafficking to keep the developing country eligible. People without hope of work at home or who are refugees are recruited to work in Malaysia, where they are subject to forced labor and sex trafficking. Jamie Kemmerer, regional organizer for MoveOn NYC, said:

“The TPP is a terrible deal for workers, but is even worse for those who are subject to forced labor and human trafficking. Granting favorable trade access to nations engaging in these barbaric practices would be a huge step back for humanity in the name of commerce.”

Language in the TPP that purports to provide protection for environmental and health laws are meaningless boilerplate without effect, just as such language has been in existing “free trade” deals. The real-world effect is that any corporate entity can move to overturn any government action, simply on the basis that its “right” to the maximum possible profit, regardless of cost to a community, has been “breached.” The TPP places no limitson who or what corporate entity or individual is eligible to sue for the “loss” of “expected profits,” and only corporations can sue, not governments.

In effect, corporations are raised to the level of national governments, and it might be more properly argued that corporations are raised above national governments. This is the future that awaits all of us, and only the united actions of activists in countries on both sides of the Pacific can stop it. And, once we do, we need to go on the offensive and begin to roll back existing deals. Democracy or corporate dictatorship: The choice we now face is that stark.

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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