Trade negotiators in Singapore recently failed to finalize a deal on the long-awaited Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). They will soon have another chance to complete what would be the world’s largest regional free-trade agreement, but, given serious concern that the TPP will fail to consider important human rights implications, that is no cause for celebration.
The TPP talks involve the US, Canada and 10 Pacific Rim countries with a combined annual output of about US$26 trillion, or about 40 percent of global GDP. Their economic clout is matched by their ambitions, and the talks go beyond traditional trade issues, which account for only five of the 29 proposed chapters and consider a wide range of investment and regulatory issues that will affect many millions of people — not always positively.
Whether trade liberalization generally helps or harms the most vulnerable people is a complex question, but that theoretical debate should not prevent a thorough human rights impact assessment on the terms of the deal currently on the table.
Such an assessment should be conducted before the TPP negotiations reach any final agreement on the relevant issues and it should not overlook how the terms are implemented in practice.
Unfortunately, TPP member states have not only failed to do this, they have also excluded independent organizations from the assessment process by refusing to provide access to draft texts.
An outside view is especially important when a free-trade and investment agreement is, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it, more of a “managed trade regime that puts corporate interests first.”
The TPP’s emphasis on regulatory policies suggests that business interests will trump human rights.
While some proposals (for example against shark-finning) would benefit certain advocacy groups, many more items are likely to cause widespread hardship. Leaked drafts of intellectual property proposals show an obstinate US effort to require patent protections for plants and animals, thereby going beyond the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. The US’ stance could further restrict farmers’ access to productive resources, affecting the right to food. Such proposals would also limit governments’ options when addressing wider food-related human rights issues.
This clash of interests contravenes the basic principles of international law, namely that countries’ trade deals must not conflict with their obligations under human brights treaties. That is why a human rights impact assessment must be conducted — and necessary additional safeguards added — before any TPP deal is signed.
An assessment would also galvanize public debate on the issues being discussed. Although trade negotiations require discretion to avoid political grandstanding by participants, the secrecy that surrounds the TPP talks is preventing important human rights arguments from being aired.
That entitlement to be heard — especially on a subject with such far-reaching significance — is also fundamental. Transparency and inclusiveness should be prerequisites of any deal.
Furthermore, a human rights impact assessment would not be difficult to conduct, as the guiding principles presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 explain how to do it.
The matter is urgent; as the current round of TPP negotiations winds down, the opportunity for an open and rigorous impact assessment is diminishing. Yet, even at this late stage, the negotiating countries could still commission a follow-up assessment that could be linked to reporting requirements.