IPS | May 9, 2012
Secrecy blankets trade talks
By Carey L Biron
WASHINGTON — The latest round of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), potentially the largest free-trade agreement to be signed by the United States, began Tuesday with a blanket of secrecy over their content.
Despite claims by the US government of considerable transparency in the process, the talks, being held in Dallas, are covering material that has remained almost completely out of the public’s eye.
"Because the negotiations have been conducted in extreme secrecy, we have no idea yet what is in the text," says Rashmi Rangnath, a director with Public Knowledge, an advocacy group here in Washington. "What we do know is that lack of transparency tends to skew the text of such agreements in favor of large corporations."
Although a draft of the chapter on intellectual property rights was leaked in February, much of the rest of the 26 chapters have been kept away from public scrutiny.
Some outside of the negotiations have had significant time with the chapters, however. Early drafts of TPP content have reportedly been discussed at length with large corporate interests, such as 20th Century Fox, which has a key stake in intellectual property-related regulations.
Thus far, the justification for this secrecy has been minimal. "Basically we have been told two things," Rangnath says. "First, that this is precedent. And second, that this level of secrecy is necessary during negotiations in order to arrive at a compromise."
The TPP would be a free-trade agreement between the US and eight Asia-Pacific countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Canada, Japan and Mexico are also expected to join the talks, although the Japanese have yet to make a final decision on the matter.
The possibility of future Indian and Chinese participation is being held out as a far-off, though for many tantalizing prospect.
Proponents suggest that, if the TPP passes, it could boost intra-regional trade by more than US$1 trillion per year by 2025.
While the official talks are to be held May 11-13, the full 12th round is said to be stretching from May 8-18. This is an unusually lengthy period for face-to-face negotiations, particularly given that the 11th round took place only two months ago, in March in Australia.
According to observers, the President Barack Obama administration is pushing for as many such rounds as possible before the end of the year, in an attempt to bull through the far-reaching agreement.
It is unclear whether that timetable is possible, however, as pushback against the TPP has continued in recent months, from governments and civil society.
Over the past week alone, members of the US government have urged Obama to alter certain draft provisions of the agreement, while a US business lobbyist has rued a great "gap between the ambitious vision of our leaders and what is being proposed at the negotiating table".
Longstanding criticism also has yet to abate. Much of this comes from the fact that, for most countries, the TPP would not offer many trade benefits - including, most importantly, greater access to US markets.
Simultaneously, US negotiators are pushing for significant concessions from potential members.
"This is very unusual for a free-trade agreement," said Sean Flynn, director of the Information Justice Program at American University here in Washington. "There is very little ’carrot’" to counteract some of the more strident compromises.
Flynn said that Chile, Australia, Singapore and Peru have each expressed public reticence over the current contours of the TPP, given that these countries already have expansive trade agreements with the United States. "This means that Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia would pay the highest cost."
According to what has been seen from the leaked chapter on intellectual property rights, the TPP appears to be pushing a "maximalist", enforcement-focused approach, he said.
This directly counters the "development agenda" that has been evolved in institutions such as the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), through processes involving significant input by developing countries, outside of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
"The US clearly wants to go beyond international standards on intellectual property - beyond WIPO," says Krista Cox, an attorney at Knowledge Ecology International, an NGO here in Washington.
For developing countries, some of the most direct impacts of this expansion of punitive powers over intellectual property could be on health issues.
While US global health policy has seen significant strengthening over the past five years, passage of the TPP "would start rolling this back", said Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines Program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group here.
Worldwide over the past 10 years, prices for HIV-related medicines, for instance, have fallen by 99%, largely driven by competition from generic drugs. While the fight against generics by large pharmaceutical interests has largely shifted away from the WTO, Maybarduk suggests, the TPP agreement signals the next iteration of that effort.
"The TPP could well be the worst that we have seen," Maybarduk says. "Not only does it run contrary to the US’s own pledges on global AIDS work, but the TPP will set the template for the entire Asia-Pacific region. That could have an impact on half of the world’s population."
(Inter Press Service)