Nothing “free” about expanded trade agreement,
By Robert Jensen
with Rahul Mahajan
Published in Houston Chronicle · April, 2001
[This article was published in the Houston Chronicle , April 20, 2001, p. 35-A.]
AS the Summit of the Americas convenes — and protesters converge — on Quebec today, a central focus of both groups will be the misnamed “Free Trade Area of the Americas.”
We say “misnamed” because the proposed agreement has little to do with trade and even less to do with freedom — at least the freedom of people.
Instead, the FTAA — a proposed expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement to all of Central and South America and the Caribbean, except Cuba — is primarily designed to lock in an economic order that recognizes as paramount the right of corporations to seek ever-higher profits no matter what the cost to people.
Other rights — the right of workers to unionize, the right of people to earn enough for basic needs, our right to protect the environment so that the planet has a future — will be irrelevant under the FTAA. If any of those rights threaten that paramount right of corporations, they can be ignored and the laws that protect those rights repealed. If the freedom of people to chart their own course conflicts with the freedom of corporations, the people lose.
Some examples of how this has worked with NAFTA:
Under the “investor-state” provisions, United Parcel Service last year lodged a claim against Canada Post, arguing that the national service has used its mail monopoly to expand into the courier business and compete unfairly. Though UPS wants more of the post office’s business, it’s unlikely they want to take on universal-service obligations for remote, and unprofitable, rural routes. Such legal actions attack the rights of a nation to guarantee public services to everyone; such basics as water and education are probable targets of future actions. Whether or not they succeed, such attacks intimidate governments.
And sometimes they succeed. California-based Metalclad sued Mexico because the state governor of San Luis Potosi ruled that the company could not construct a hazardous waste dump. Even though Metalclad had broken its promise to clean up a pre-existing dump site, a NAFTA tribunal last year ruled that San Luis Potosi would have to pay $16.7 million to the company in compensation. Metalclad’s chief executive officer, Grant Kesler, expressed disappointment that the compensation was only for loss of property and not also for potential future profit loss.
Even more deadly are the provisions for intellectual-property rights supported by the United States, which will imperil the right of nations such as Brazil to provide AIDS drugs at low prices to their poor. The patent regime that the United States supports would eliminate free competition and a free market in pharmaceuticals, guaranteeing corporations’ super-profits for 20 years by not allowing competition.
The rights being imperiled by free trade agreements — human, labor, environmental — are hardly new inventions of a radical fringe; they can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, ratified in 1948. But the UDHR lacks an enforcement mechanism, perhaps because it concerns real justice for ordinary people. The rules of the World Trade Organization, NAFTA and the upcoming FTAA — which protect the rights of the rich and powerful — allow for crippling economic sanctions on countries that refuse to toe their line.
But history reminds us that we shouldn’t rule out the power of the people. Tens of thousands of people took it upon themselves to enforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and shut down the first day of the WTO’s Millennium Round in 1998 in Seattle, until police tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets chased them from the streets. Tens of thousands will be on hand to protest the FTAA in Quebec.
To contain the people and protect the corporations, Quebec has constructed a 3-mile-long, 10-foot-high fence around the center city and will field 5,000 police officers. Luckily, the police can’t yet build a fence around the Internet, where there’s more information about these issues at www.globalexchange.org/ftaa/ and www.stopftaa.org.