An update from bilaterals.org

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An update from bilaterals.org
1 September 2006

Dear friends

In September 2004, a number of organisations initiated a collaborative website to support peoples’ struggles against bilateral free trade and investment agreements: http://www.bilaterals.org. The initiators included the Asia-Pacific Research Network, GATT Watchdog, Global Justice Ecology Project, GRAIN, IBON Foundation and XminY Solidariteitsfonds.

When the site was set up, the collapse of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Cancún and the stalling of the US-driven Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) were being celebrated by numerous opponents of neoliberal globalisation. But behind the scenes, powerful governments — especially the US and Europe — were quietly moving to sign far-reaching bilateral free trade and investment deals in order to achieve what they and their transnational corporations (TNCs) had not been able to get at the multilateral level.

Two years later, the WTO is in an even deeper crisis after talks broke down, yet again, in July 2006. Governments across the world are now giving even greater emphasis to the pursuit of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). The Office of the US Trade Representative is trying to beat the clock by concluding as many deals as possible well before Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority — a special power given to the US president to negotiate and sign trade deals with almost no involvement of Congress — expires in July 2007. Topping the list of unfinished FTAs for Washington to conclude in this timeframe are those with South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Ecuador, Panama and the United Arab Emirates for signature, and those with Peru and Colombia for ratification. But many other governments, including quite a few from the so-called developing world, are also pushing more than ever for exclusive bilateral and regional FTAs and investment deals.

Bilateral deals are fast becoming the centrepiece of foreign trade policy in countries as diverse as Chile, China, India, Japan, Pakistan and Switzerland. Regional integration projects between governments — whether Mercosur in South America, ECOWAS in West Africa, the GCC in the Middle East or the ASEAN in Southeast Asia — are struggling to ’keep up’ and provide some kind of ’alternative’ to both the failed WTO and the fractionalism of bilateral FTAs. Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful governments are competing more and more to sign bilateral deals with the same countries in order to serve their distinct geopolitical and military agendas. As many people have learned, FTAs often have little to do with trade and much to do with securing spheres of political influence and control.

Bilateral agreements are a lot worse than the WTO — deliberately so. Negotiated in secret, through the direct hand of corporate lobby groups, they lock countries into far-reaching commitments on issues ranging from investors’ rights, to the environment, to intellectual property. They open up agricultural markets in the South without touching subsidies to corporate agriculture in the North, condemning countless small farmers to bankruptcy. They guarantee extensive rights for TNCs to conduct business on their own terms, including the right to sue governments if their mere expectation of a profit is not met. Bilateral deals are privatising public services, trampling constitutions and forcing countries open to the wishes of TNCs. All in the name of some promised tiny market openings for local exporters, the gains from which have not been trickling down to workers or to producers.

There are now over 2,200 bilateral investment treaties in force. And the number of FTAs is rising by the month. Yet despite the speed of these secretive, far-reaching deals, there have also been victories where these agreements have been stalled or stopped by popular resistance.

Supporting the global anti-FTA movement

Bilaterals.org was set up as an open-publishing site where people fighting bilateral trade and investment agreements could exchange information and analysis and build cooperation. At the time, there was no single website for information about the whole range of bilateral FTAs and BITs and their interconnections. Those campaigning against bilateral deals had found it hard to link up with others around the world to compare notes, share analysis and develop broader and complementary strategies.

Two years down the line, the feedback is that bilaterals.org has become a useful resource for social movements, NGO researchers, journalists and the broader public as a clearinghouse for media stories, texts of agreements, critical analyses and education tools to understand, expose and mobilise against these agreements. It has also helped bring more visibility to bilateral deals as powerful instruments of privatisation and neoliberalism. But the resistance movements need more support and strengthening.

People’s movements to stop FTAs on the ground are growing, particularly in the Third World. Yet movements are often isolated from each other, a direct reflection of the ’divide and conquer’ strategy that bilateralism thrives on. For this reason, FTA Watch, a broad coalition in Thailand, invited bilaterals.org, GRAIN and Médecins Sans Frontières to help co-organise a global strategy meeting of anti-FTA movements. Dubbed ’Fighting FTAs’, the three-day workshop was held at the end of July 2006 in Bangkok. It brought together 60 social movement activists from 20 countries of Africa, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific to share experiences in grassroots struggles against FTAs and to build international strategies and cooperation.

In the coming weeks and months, various documents, audio-visual materials and followup plans coming out of the workshop will be finalised and shared. A number of proposals point to a broader role for bilaterals.org, and this note is to inform you about and invite you participate in these new developments.

Towards a more activist website

Bilaterals.org is entering a new phase of expansion over the coming months in order to expand its role as an activist website that directly serves the anti-FTA struggles around the world. This should include:

- opening a new section for the free and easy exchange of audio-visual materials (videos, photos and audio recordings) between people’s movements
- creating both a Spanish and a French version of the entire site
- integrating a wiki component for people to collaborate more easily on joint documents
- expanding the coverage of critical analyses and perspectives
- more people getting involved in posting, translating and disseminating materials
- building stronger structural links with other activist websites in the global anti-FTA struggle

Bilaterals.org is an open-publishing site. It’s very easy to get involved and use it for your campaigns and education work. The site’s structure is simple. It has three main sections: daily news reports on specific negotiations; background analyses of how bilateral deals affect key issues; and texts of the treaties themselves. It also has a section for getting more involved, where you can post action alerts, campaign materials and links to other websites.

To participate, all you need to do is to register as an editor of bilaterals.org. This allows you to post documents, photos, links and comments. If you want to take responsibility for any section, or if you want to make specific suggestions on how to improve the site, please do. While no one owns or controls bilaterals.org, a small group of people collaborate informally to keep the site going on a day to day basis. You can join the team or simply get in touch with any questions or concerns by writing to admin@bilaterals.org.

Whether we’re engaged in struggles around food sovereignty, access to water, public health, job security, the problems caused by mining or biopiracy, the future of the media or education, bilateral trade and investment agreements are creating dangerous new rules and realities affecting all of us. We need to deepen our understanding of these processes and learn from each others’ experiences in order to build stronger mobilisations and movements against these instruments of neoliberal globalization.

Bilaterals.org aims to provide a modest support to these struggles. We invite you to participate in the further building of this collaborative website, and to spread the word about bilaterals.org among your networks.

In solidarity,

Aziz Choudry, GATT Watchdog; Board member, Global Justice Ecology Project
Paul Pantastico, webmaster, bilaterals.org
Renée Vellvé, GRAIN
Carlos Vicente, GRAIN
the webteam, bilaterals.org

Going further

- The Bangkok Post published two reports from the ’Fighting FTAs’ workshop, one on 2 August 2006 (http://www.bilaterals.org/article.php3?id_article=5386) and another on 13 August 2006 (http://www.bilaterals.org/article.php3?id_article=5521).

- Bilaterals.org has recently been featured in a BBC report on the crisis of the WTO and how it may boost bilateral free trade negotiations (Evan Davis, BBC Economics Editor, ’The Death of the WTO’s Doha Talks’, BBC News, London, 25 July 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/5215318.stm) as well as an International Herald Tribune report looking at the pros and cons of FTAs (Daniel Altman, ’Managing Globalization: A new trade bandwagon - Are rich-poor pacts fair?’, International Herald Tribune, Paris, 8 August 2006, http://www.iht.com//articles/2006/08/08/business/glob09.php).

- bilaterals.org offers customised RSS feeds so that you can monitor new postings on specific topics of your choice (e.g. ’South Africa’, ’US-Korea’, ’intellectual property rights’, ’actions’) and in your preferred language. Find out more at http://www.bilaterals.org/plan.php3.

- Visit the site at www.bilaterals.org or contact admin@bilaterals.org

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