Free trade agreement - time to criticise big brother

Online Opinion, Australia

Free Trade Agreement - time to criticise big brother

By Sebastian De Brennan

Wednesday, 22 February 2006

With the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) bearing the brunt of some formidable criticism recently, it is perhaps timely to review just how well our proposed trading partner is doing on other indicators.

The picture, I’m afraid, is not a pretty one.

Let’s be clear, the US-Australia FTA is first and foremost an economic arrangement. As such, any discussion that transcends the economic lexicon is unlikely to receive too much space in the broadsheets. Nevertheless, all Australians ought to be concerned about the seemingly unimportant moral considerations attendant in the agreement.

Australia was once regarded as a world leader and bastion of human rights. When nations, even superpowers, abrogated their responsibilities at international law, Australia was regarded as pretty vociferous for its global significance and size. In short, Australia had no qualms about telling other nations to “pull their head in”.

Indeed, once upon a time, Australia might have looked beyond the economic imperatives of a bilateral agreement. No doubt, reservations over the effects of a FTA on the local sugar industry, our intellectual property and the ongoing viability of a pharmaceutical benefits scheme would have been put stoutly, but they may not have been the only concerns raised.

In a different era, social, moral and other human rights issues might just have made the page.

What’s changed?

We live in volatile times. The verities of international trade, international criminal justice, the environment and, more recently, the scourge of terrorism represent but a few of the multifarious challenges facing nation states. The friction points are obvious - the Corby case, Australian police co-operation resulting in the arrest of the Bali Nine, the tension between free trade and human rights in the case of China, and the recent execution of young Australian Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore are just a few examples that reveal the inherent complexity of a globalised legal and economic order.

For all of these challenges, it is important to bear in mind that emergencies do come to an end, and we should not dig trenches for all time. For example, threats to national security in the form of terrorism are grave, perhaps even unprecedented, but principled and well-informed responses are not incongruent with the demands of balance and proportionality in a democratic country.

Ordinary Australians should be concerned, then, when our closest ally and proposed trading partner, continues to oppose a litany of important global treaties - treaties which have been acceded to by nations of all persuasions and ideologies.

Once an exemplar of democratic ideals, the recent contribution of the US to international law includes a decision to reject the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, the convention is often described as the international bill of rights for women, defining what constitutes discrimination against women and establishing an agenda for national action to arrest it.

Today that treaty has been endorsed by more than 170 nations. However, while the entire industrial world fully supports the CEDAW, the United States is the only developed nation that continues to oppose it.

Regrettably, this is not just an aberration by our FTA counterpart. Recently, when the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) voted to adopt a new treaty that protects cultural rights worldwide, the United States was conspicuous in opposing it.

The treaty allows nations to maintain, adopt and implement policies they deem appropriate to protect the diversity of cultural expressions on their territory.

The US grounds for rejecting the treaty seemed to be grounded in economic pragmatism. "This convention invites abuse by enemies of democracy and free trade," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is said to have told UNESCO members in a letter in October.

On the environmental front, the US, along with Australia, remains the only other industrialised nation to reject the Kyoto Protocol on climate control.

In terms of humanitarian law, after influencing significantly the form of the Rome Statute constituting the International Criminal Court (ICC), the US refused to ratify it, while simultaneously requesting, and in some cases coercing various nations dependent on aid, to sign the so-called “section 98 bilateral immunity agreements” favouring US personnel. In doing so, the US acted contrary to Article 18 of the Vienna Convention, which obliges signatories to refrain from undermining treaties that they decline to ratify.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that America has continued to refuse - along only with Somalia in the entire UN system - to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Nor did the US permit the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate, fully, the allegations of torture at Guantanamo Bay (where David Hicks and other Australian prisoners had been held).

Of particular concern also is America’s role in relation to preventing the proliferation of arms. After playing an important leadership role just over a decade ago in securing a rigorous international inspection regime for chemical weapons, the US has gone some way in eroding that good work. Thus, US leaders continue to reject the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons, the Treaty Banning Antipersonnel Mines, a protocol to create a compliance regime for the Biological Weapons Convention and the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

Australian leaders were once reknowned and respected for their ability to provide frank, fearless and robust advice in international circles. With the US-Australia FTA soon to come into force, that fair dinkum approach is needed more than ever.

What message does it send to the world when we unquestioningly enter into an agreement with a country who seeks to change the rules of the international game in order to win?

If we are acting justly, with faith in our cause and truth on our side, then we will succeed: they are sufficient for our purpose and fairly crafted to ensure a legitimate outcome.

Sebastian De Brennan was a member of the 2004 National Youth Roundtable and is principal of De Brennan & Co. Consulting.

source: Online Opinion