Human rights and trade | Opinion

US pushes human rights in Trans-Pacific Partnership

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Plenty of space for trade

A Pacific trade deal looks set to include environment and human rights provisions. But will they have any teeth?

Whenever transparency is lacking, rumour and speculation rush in. This is exactly what has happened with a currently under-negotiation mega trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP is an attempt to forge common standards and terms of trade between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, which between them represent about 40% of global GDP.

The talks have been a long slog. Discussions started in 2005, broad outlines were agreed in 2011 and since then negotiations on the details have been ongoing. A conclusion might now be in sight, though there is no definite end date. US lawmakers are getting ready by reaching agreement on a law that will give President Obama the authority to conclude the TPP.

Closed doors

Rumour surrounds the TPP because negotiations on the deal are conducted behind closed doors. This, the US government says, is because “negotiators need to communicate with each other with a high degree of candour, creativity and mutual trust”. 

But inevitably, the lack of information fuels speculation about agreements being cooked up that are less about boosting the common good or sustainability, and more about benefiting governments and large multinational companies.

This is particularly the case for TPP because among its strictly trade-related objectives for the negotiations – such as elimination of tariffs – the US included in its plans measures on workers’ rights and environmental protection, for example, that all TPP signatories would undertake to respect international environmental agreements.

Obama obligation

In addition, the currently under-discussion US law to give Obama the authority to finalise the TPP includes human rights considerations, meaning the president must ensure these have been properly included before he signs off on the pact. The White House is making a big deal of this, saying that it is the first time in history that human rights have been included as an objective of a trade treaty.

But what exactly are the negotiations focusing on when it comes to human rights? Only the negotiators know exactly.

US Democrat-party lawmakers who back the trade bill – and there are many who oppose it – say that the TPP will contain provisions directing all partners to adopt and adhere to core international labour standards. This might be unlikely to make much difference in countries such as Australia, but could be significant in Vietnam where, for example, freedom of expression is limited and unions and human rights organisations are banned.

Repression and discrimination

Beyond rights in the workplace and many other areas of concern, such as whether the parts of the agreement dealing with intellectual property will end up limiting freedom of expression, campaigners are also calling for TPP to address issues such as Brunei’s and Malaysia’s repressive treatment of LBGT people, and discrimination against women in a number of countries.

Perhaps campaigners should not expect too much, however. Libertarian thinktank the Cato Institute says that the US human rights objective for the TPP was, so far, “sufficiently vague as to be completely meaningless”.

The extent to which human rights and broader sustainability issues have been factored in will only become clear when the full text is published, which the US will do – and will start a public debate on – before signing the agreement.

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