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Trading Away Human Rights

NEW YORK – Trade negotiators in Singapore recently failed to finalize a deal on the long-awaited Trans-Pacific Partnership; they will soon have another chance to complete what would be the world’s largest regional free-trade agreement. But, given serious concerns that the TPP will fail to consider important human-rights implications, that is no cause for celebration.

The TPP talks involve the United States, Canada, and ten other Pacific Rim countries with a combined annual output of around $26 trillion, or about 40% of global GDP. Their economic clout is matched by their ambitions; 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 – and not always positively.

Whether trade liberalization generally helps or harms the most vulnerable is a complex question. But that theoretical debate should not prevent us from carrying out 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 the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted, more of a “managed trade regime that puts corporate interests first.” Indeed, the TPP’s emphasis on regulatory policies suggests that business interests will trump human rights.