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Departing from USTR, Portman leaves dead US-Southern Africa negotiations behind

American Friends Service Committee (Philadelphia)
April 18, 2006
Pretoria/Washington, DC

Departing from USTR, Portman Leaves Dead US-Southern Africa Negotiations Behind

Today, as US Trade Rep. Robert Portman stepped down to run the Office of Management and Budget, civil society organizations in the US and South Africa are applauding the rejection of the USTR’s efforts to revive the U.S.-Southern Africa Customs Union[1] Free Trade Agreement (U.S.-SACU FTA) negotiations.

Citing elements of the potential deal that could have limited access to affordable generic AIDS drugs and other life-extending medicines and impeded development in the region, activists, unions, and churches today expressed satisfaction that a "comprehensive" FTA is looking increasingly unlikely. SACU countries sent a strong message, say activists, that they will not be held hostage to the U.S. "fast track" timelines and will not sacrifice their ability to address poverty. Instead, negotiators in Pretoria, where Mr. Portman made his departure announcement, are talking of pursing a watered down "joint work program"-a shift civil society groups hope signals an end to the push for inappropriate, pro-corporate trade rules in the region.

The negotiations for what would be the first U.S. bilateral trade deal in Sub-Saharan Africa have been "on again, off again" for the last three years. This is largely because the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office refuses to commit to structuring the FTA in a way that takes the grinding poverty, dependence on agriculture for livelihoods, and lack of access to essential services and medicines in the region into account.

Today, it was reaffirmed that the SACU countries have rejected a "comprehensive" FTA that would have included all economic sectors, and worked from the same template USTR has used for trade agreements in Latin America, Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. Instead, discussions appear to heading down a path of a "joint work program" that could look much like the US-Swiss Cooperation Forum that was developed when free trade talks collapsed between the countries of agriculture subsidies.

"Scholars have studied other U.S. free trade agreements and have found that there is a ’one-size-fits-all’ or as the negotiations would say an FTA framework," said Carol Thompson, Research Chair of the Association of Concerned African Scholars from Northern Arizona University. "By refusing to take issues like patents on life-saving medicines, provision of essential services, and food crops of special importance off the ’trade liberalization’ table, the U.S. is putting Southern African nations in the position of choosing between trade and the very lives of their people," she said.

Among the top complaints of civil society and some legislators is that the negotiations are being held under an anti-democratic veil of secrecy. While it is well known from the statements of trade negotiators that the U.S. is pursuing an equivalently problematic approach throughout the world, keeping proposals secret keeps the populations and many elected official in the both the U.S. and Southern Africa in the dark about essential issues.

Coalitions in both the U.S. and South Africa today applauded the halt to the talks. These coalitions encompass a collection of policy groups, trade unions, faith-based networks, student groups, academics, people living with HIV/AIDS, women’s groups, and environmental organizations.

"Given the unique developmental profile of SACU - including a least developed country, Lesotho - we confront a plethora of socio-economic challenges, aggravated by the unfair and scandalous trade practices of our development partners in the North", says Brendan Vickers, Senior Researcher at the Institute for global Dialogue in South Africa. "It is critical that our government maintains their right to policy space and the right to protect programs like the Black Economic Empowerment initiative used to undo historical injustices of the colonial and Apartheid era," concluded Vickers.

Access to medicines and the effects of intellectual property rights on people living with HIV/AIDS is a hot button issue for the region. The SACU countries are home to the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, with countries like Lesotho reporting well over a third of adults infected, but where only about 14% of those in need of HIV/AIDS medication have access.

"As far as South Africa is concerned, it is under a constitutional obligation not to trade away the health of its population," says Jonathon Burger of the AIDS Law Project based in South Africa. "We are committed to take whatever legal means at our disposal to block any agreement that undermines our right to access to medicines and cannot count out a constitutional challenge of the agreement as a whole," says Burger.

According to experts, the US-promoted rules would have violated a WTO agreement on public health reached at the 2001 Doha WTO Ministerial, permitting countries to prioritize access to medicines while implementing their intellectual property regimes. In the case of SACU, the rules would also violate U.S. Executive Order 13155, which states: "[the U.S.] shall not seek revision or revocation of any intellectual property law or policy of a...sub-Saharan African country...that regulates HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals or medical technologies if the law or policy of the country...promotes access to HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals or medical technologies for affected populations in that country."

"As the largest trade union federation in South Africa with two million members we are concerned about a Free Trade Agreement modeled after other U.S. agreements and its potential negative impact on levels of employment, poverty and government’s ability to meet basic needs," said Tanya Van Meelis of the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU). "In a country that faces 26 percent official unemployment and 40 percent when using the broader definition that includes those too discouraged to seek work," continued Van Meelis, "if an FTA cannot contribute to these goals, we would not support it."

"As a Christian I follow the messages of Jesus - a man who spent his time with the rural poor, who challenged systems of power and disparity between the rich and powerful and the resource poor and powerlessness" said Kathy McNeeley, Policy Analyst from Church World Service, a ministry of 35 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican denominations in the U.S. "Many Christians in the U.S. participated in fighting against Apartheid and they know that these kinds of struggles are for the long hall," said McNeeley.