Occupy, Internet Freedom Groups Join Protests Against ‘NAFTA of the Pacific’

Rebecca Burns

If the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) is signed at the end of this year, it may rewrite the rules of the global economy for the foreseeable future. That’s because the TPP, currently being negotiated between the U.S. and eight Pacific rim countries, will likely remain open for other countries to join — as Canada, Mexico and Japan have already expressed interest in doing, even though they will not be permitted input into the agreement. Negotiating further bilateral trade agreements, a process that draws intense public scrutiny, could become altogether unnecessary for Washington. But as negotiators resumed TPP talks in San Diego yesterday, they were met by a coalition of labor, environmental and Occupy groups intent on stopping the mega-deal, glossed by its critics as NAFTA on steroids.”

The Coalition to Stop the TPP, spearheaded by local labor groups and Occupy San Diego, is planning a week of protests and public education events against the agreement. A rally organized by the San Diego-Imperial Central Labor Council on the opening day of the talks yesterday drew about 100 demonstrators, according to the Washington Post, and a series of public panels on free trade, outsourcing and intellectual property regimes will take place throughout the week. A Quebec-inspired pots and pans march” is planned for July 7, with solidarity demonstrations taking place in New York, Portland and several other cities. 

Though TPP negotiations were initiated in 2008 under the Bush administration, talks under the Obama administration have proceeded behind closed doors, which has drawn fire from law professors, members of Congress and demonstrators alike (While, as Lori Wallach of Public Citizen notes, even the World Trade Organization releases draft negotiating texts, in 2010 TPP countries pledged not to go public with these until four years after any deal was signed). A leaked draft of the agreement, posted on the website of the trade advocacy group Citizens’ Trade Campaign, shows that the TPP includes not only new investor safeguards that would expand the ability of corporations to challenge domestic regulations and ban Buy America” policies, but sweeping new provisions on intellectual property. When negotiators last met in Dallas this May, they were interrupted by demonstrators who attempted to give U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk a Corporate Power Tool” award. The Texas AFL-CIO and local environmental groups also delivered more than 40,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the draft agreement be released to the public.

Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens’ Trade Campaign, notes that though 600 corporate lobbyists and representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been given access to TPP negotiating drafts, the drafts have still not likewise been made available to members of the Congress or the public. The administration has done everything it can to keep this under wraps, and we see that as a recipe for a bad deal,” he told In These Times. We’re calling for the TPP to come out of the shadows.”

But he also acknowledges that beyond the issue of transparency, his and other groups and hoping to harness plummetting public approval of free trade agreements (FTAs) to derail another NAFTA-style deal altogether. In the wake of NAFTA, which has seen the U.S. economy shed 5 million manufacturing jobs, subsequent free trade agreements have been met with opposition from civil society. More than 700,000 Koreans protested during negotiations of the U.S.-Korea trade agreement, the largest FTA since NAFTA, before its passage last fall. TPP negotiations have thus far been the subject of demonstrations in Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia, and the possibility of Japanese entry into the talks sparked mass protests last fall.

While opposition to the TPP in Japan and New Zealand is bolstered by a refusal among large segments of lawmakers to support the deal in its current form, the U.S. public remains far ahead of most of the political class on the issue of FTAs. (Though last week, 133 members of Congress wrote to Kirk to demand greater access to the details of the TPP negotiations). In the U.S., a September 2010 NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that only 18% of Americans believe that free trade agreements created jobs, and a majority agree that free trade agreements hurt the nation overall. 

In addition to strong opposition from the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO and other labor-backed groups, environmental, internet freedom and public health groups have also been mobilizing against the TPP.

This agreement has 26 chapters, and only two of them cover trade per se,” explains Stamoulis on why broad opposition to the agreement has been solidifying. The rest are concerned with creating a radical deregulatory agenda … This is really a corporate power grab by Wall Street, Big Oil and Big Pharma.”

One part of the agreement concerns a tougher intellectual property regime for medicines that critics say could could reverse gains in combating the AIDS pandemic and other diseases in poor countries. Though Obama pledged as a candidate to protect access to essential medicines in any bilateral trade agreements negotiated by his administration, leaked drafts of the TPP show that the U.S. is pushing for stricter patent regulations that would likely increase the cost of lifesaving medicines by keeping generic alternatives off the market.

In a statement opposing these provisions of the TPP, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says, Our experience around the world shows that MSF’s treatment programs – and our patients’ lives – depend on the availability of quality and affordable generic medicines.” The U.N. Development Program and UNAIDS have also urged world leaders to abandon provisions of the agreement that could endanger public health. 

Meanwhile, though the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) stalled in Congress earlier this year, the chapter concerning intellectual property would put many of its controversial provisions into effect by creating a a global system of IP enforcement that is stricter than current U.S. law. Many of the advocacy groups that fought SOPA have launched Stop the Trap,” a website and petition that asks viewers to oppose the TPP on the grounds that it would infringe on internet privacy and criminalize some internet use. 

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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