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Global web of bilateral trade accords and international resistance movements (December 2007)

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Interview with Aziz Choudry of bilaterals.org for Fighting FTAs

An interview with Aziz Choudry, researcher, activist and academic which examines the contemporary context of the push for bilateral and regional trade accords internationally within the context of the faltering of international trade accords such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and international trade institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a result of people’s movements. This interview provides a clear and far-reaching picture of the political and economic logic motivating the contemporary neo-liberal trade strategy on an international scale, while highlighting inspiring examples of people’s movements internationally struggling against neo-liberal economic projects, agreements and institutions. — Stefan Christoff


Global web of bilateral trade accords and international resistance movements


Interview with Aziz Choudry of bilaterals.org By Stefan Christoff December 2007


Across the world, negotiations on the creation of an international network of bilateral trade accords are taking place. Since the collapse of the latest round of WTO negotiations in 2006, amidst major grassroots opposition internationally, and intense internal tensions between governments, Canada, the U.S. and the E.U. have shifted attention toward securing bilateral or regional trade accords.


Through bilateral trade accords, the U.S., Canada or the E.U. are able to retain a higher level of negotiating power with southern nations not found in the multilateral context found in previous negotiations, as with the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Across the global south, from Costa Rica to Colombia, social movements are voicing alarm concerning the contemporary push towards bilateral accords. Increased degradation of national labor laws or environmental regulations are a common feature within bilateral trade accords and directly correlate to the growing grassroots opposition to these agreements internationally.


Major demonstrations against bilateral accords have taken place in Seoul, Korea, where labor movements have staged massive protests in opposition to the proposed Canada-Korea and the signed U.S.-Korea bilateral trade accords. In Costa Rica, social mobilization forced a national referendum on the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) last year. Currently Canada is pursuing bilateral accords across the planet, from Korea, to Colombia, to Jordan, a policy trend that has faced little public scrutiny.


This interview with Aziz Choudry, researcher and academic with bilaterals.org, offers a striking international picture on the contemporary state of bilateral trade accords, while offering insights into the social mobilizations across the globe taking place in opposition to bilateral trade accords.


Aziz Choudry: Today governments and transnational corporations are leaning towards bilateral free trade and investment agreements, particularly since the crisis that hit the World Trade Organization (WTO) and trade initiatives like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). These major international free trade initiatives have stalled due to internal tensions among governments, but also due to huge external pressures from people’s movements that have been consistently denouncing the neo-liberal policies embodied in such trade agreements.


At first bilateral FTAs were seen as a fall-back option, as western governments were attempting to pass through these ‘stealth agreements’, which included elements that weren’t possible to secure through institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO). Today bilateral trade accords are being pursued as the tool of choice by both governments and corporations who are utilizing bilateral accords to push through much harder trade regimes than possible through the WTO.


Today there is a real need to bring together people and movements who have previously been divided and ruled through this bilateral trade accord process. Also it’s critical to understand that agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) between the U.S. and several central American countries, or the European Union’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with seventy-seven countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific also fall within the bilateral framework. Essentially these are regional agreements composed of a multiplicity of bilateral trade agreements.


Right now through the European Union process, there is a divide and rule strategy, not only regionally, but also within regions where some countries are signing onto agreements and some aren’t. Today bilateral agreements are the tool of choice in an effort to lock countries into a neo-liberal framework. Ten years ago many movements were focused on fighting multilateral agreements such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), to some extent the Asia-Pacific (APEC) forum, or institutions like the WTO, however today we must turn our attention to bilateral trade agreements.


It’s critical to not give up the fight against the WTO or the FTAA, which are both in a major mess. However we need to be careful to not completely shift our focus to bilateral trade accords or investment agreements. Today there are many weapons of corporate capital which will be utilized at different times and in different variations depending on the moment, with the simple goal of guaranteeing corporations the most power and control.


Stefan Christoff: You have spoken about a new trade strategy, a new focus as manifested through bilateral trade agreements. Clearly the WTO process or multilateral trade accords like the FTAA are faltering under pressures of massive internal tensions and major opposition internationally. In light of this new neo-liberal trade strategy could you detail your ideas on the economic goals involved in this process?


Aziz Choudry: First it’s critical to mention that big business is heavily influencing the nature of the negotiations on bilateral accords. In the European Union, for example, there is a really strong focus or lobby from water corporations in Europe pushing to prise open the service sectors in those countries which the E.U. is negotiating bilateral trade agreements with. However this push from European corporations to enter service sectors extends past water corporations into multiple sectors, including health and education.


Throughout the world, water privatization has meant that the poor are denied access to water, as water is marketed as a commodity, not a right. From South Africa and other African countries, to Cochabamba in Bolivia, struggles are occurring at a local level against privatized water. Often this privatization process is pushed through structural adjustment policies from the IMF and the World Bank.


A clear interplay exists between structural adjustment policies and bilateral trade accords, pushing neo-liberal reforms that substantially further reforms that often provide corporations in Europe, or the U.S., rights to effectively sue governments if they nationalize industry or refuse to recognize the terms of an agreement with a corporation.


In this context ’free trade’ becomes a package of reforms, that outlines minimum controls on business, that allows business or foreign investors to operate with basically no restrictions or any regulatory framework. This framework favors transnational corporations and investors over local businesses or community cooperatives or the multiple alternative ways that people at a grassroots level are attempting to organize economies.


Besides economic considerations, one trend that is apparent within all these agreements particularly through the E.U. and the U.S. is the geopolitical aspect. This aspect is very explicit with the U.S. government which is always making links between trade policy and the ’war on terror’, or the ’war on drugs’ in Latin America. The U.S. made a big spectacle of the signing of the FTA with Morocco, which is portrayed as a ’moderate’ Muslim country, an ally with the U.S. in the ’coalition of the willing’.


Also there are similar discussions surrounding the FTA between the U.S. and Thailand for example, an agreement that is on hold due to the political climate in Thailand but also due to mass opposition to the agreement across the country.


Also the European Union maintains a similar agenda - when comparing U.S. and E.U. bilateral trade agreements, people often tend to let the E.U. off the hook, as the E.U. agreements include language on human rights and democratic development, terms used to attempt to present E.U. agreements as somehow representing a more humane approach from the E.U. However it is critical to question the fundamentals in these agreements, for example if you study agreements with the Middle East it’s clear that the E.U. is playing a colonial game within former colonies, throughout the Middle East, in Africa, in the Caribbean and the Pacific.


In the 19th century, there were international battles between imperial powers over national spheres of political influence and interest. Today the European Union is attempting to develop similar spheres of influence through bilateral accords, often claiming that national independence for former colonies was granted by Europe and now the E.U. wants something in return for that independence; unfettered market access to the economies and natural resources in former colonies.


Australia and New Zealand also play this game, in attempting to develop spheres of influence in the Pacific. In the North Pacific, you have the U.S. gaming for influence in areas that it heavily funded during the Cold War for strategic interests, including Guam, Micronesia or the Marshall Islands where the U.S. once used to test nuclear bombs, all areas now that the U.S. is attempting to secure once more for its strategic interests.


Aside from the western powers that are pushing these bilateral agreements, we are also witnessing many regional powers emerging, including China, India, South Africa and Brazil. All these countries are negotiating bilateral trade agreements with specific interests in mind, interests relating to business opportunities for their corporations and various economic sectors. For example, China is trying to guarantee secure energy supplies through bilateral free trade agreements or deals.


Bilateral trade agreements are very much an arena in which many different but related goals from different countries are playing out and involved.


Stefan Christoff: Concerning the Economic Partnership Agreements that the European Union is currently negotiating around the world. Countries that Europe is focused on in their efforts to establish these agreements are mainly former European colonies, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia.


Traveling back to the colonial period, clearly economics played a central role, as economics was a driving force for the origins of European colonial expansion. It’s possible to draw parallels between current European trade policies, as defined in bilateral accords, and colonial times. Although today colonial troops aren’t operating on the ground in most cases some argue that such trade policies serve similar objectives.


Aziz Choudry: Let’s look back to the 19th century at a time when the U.S. through the Monroe Doctrine, essentially announced the western hemisphere as being under the U.S. sphere of influence. Colonialism or colonization is an essential reference point in which to understand contemporary trade policy. It’s really easy to simply view bilateral trade accords or related economic policies as something that emerged in the 1990’s, at the end of the Cold War.


It is critical to look back to the origins of multinational corporations as a clear extension from the 19th century colonial era. Our contemporary understanding of globalization as being advanced hand in hand between governments and corporations is rooted in this history. Today it’s clear that there is a revolving door between the current U.S. Administration and the largest U.S. based multinational corporations, Robert Zoellick previously was a paid consultant on the Enron advisory board, then eventually became the U.S. Trade Representative and is now the head of the World Bank.


Now looking back to colonial times, we can reference the old charter companies, the East India Company, operating in India/South Asia during the colonial era as a prototype for many modern day corporations. The East India Company existed as a corporate entity but could also utilize a close relationship to the British Crown, as the company was originally set up within the British Parliament, so this close relationship between the East India Company and the British Parliament fueled colonization in India.


Today we see similar patterns more and more. Activists in Korea, as an example, talk about Samsung as not only a corporation but as having such influence over the government that people talk about the Republic of Samsung. It’s important to not only look at the amount of access that corporations are given in particular but examine how national economies have been remodeled essentially to run along corporate lines. In Thailand, local activists point to Charoen Pokphand (CP) which plays such a major role in influencing the government on free trade agreements internationally and on domestic reforms.


So colonizers today have roots in the old. Colonizers remain western governments; however, the corporations that influence government economic policy so heavily are in a sense the great-great-grand children of the corporations created within the colonial era, such as the East India Company. Current corporate visions are rooted in a process of commodification, while colonization was rooted in a vision that viewed everyone and everything in the areas that you colonized as commodities.


Stefan Christoff: Now on this concept of commodification, let’s talk about the process of commodification from the natural environment, to living organisms, to state services. A process which all social service sectors today are falling victims to, a process of commodification driven by corporations, a process not unique to one particular country but rather occurring in all countries wrapped-up in the push towards bilateral trade accords today.


Aziz Choudry: Bilateral trade accords are accelerating this vision. A clear example on the commodification of life is the entire process surrounding intellectual property rights. A concept that emerged within corporate circles was then brought into the negotiations at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations round which started in Uruguay that led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO). A major impact stemming from these negotiations is the commodification of life, the granting of rights to private companies to take out patents on animals, plants and microbiological material.


Through bilateral trade accords, this process has extended far past what was being negotiated at the WTO. Including intellectual property rights under the WTO was strongly opposed by activists also standing against any corporate-driven international agreement on intellectual property rights. This concept is an ideology that runs completely contrary to traditions and contemporary ideas from the indigenous world because essentially what intellectual property rights means is that life becomes something that you can buy and sell in the market place.


What is happening in many ways through these trade agreements is the commodification of life. Even limited exclusions on lifeform patents that existed under the WTO are thrown out the window. Now companies like Monsanto are saying quite explicitly that they view bilateral trade accords as being tools through which they can really hammer out deals that lock in a privatized enclosure on life.


Essentially this will mean that farmers throughout the world, who have exchanged seeds among themselves for generations, improving their crops, suddenly find themselves locked into a regulatory framework that criminalizes these processes of exchange. Through patents or tougher industry-friendly agricultural laws being advanced through these agreements you have a process of imposing a fixed way to conduct agriculture driven by corporations, not local farmers or peasants. In some cases, these regulations can lead to people being seriously fined or jailed for working outside imposed corporate regulations.


Another key example on the imposition of intellectual property rights regulations in trade agreements is access to drugs. In Thailand, a major force against the U.S.-Thailand Free Trade Agreement were people living with HIV/AIDS. Under the proposed bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Thailand, access to generic drugs manufactured nationally, for people living with HIV/AIDS to have access to some affordable life saving drugs, is completely crushed in the agreement.


In Guatemala, under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), U.S. government representatives openly acknowledge the fact that its intellectual property rights component would be prejudicial to public health in Guatemala, however this simply wasn’t an important issue for the U.S.


Under U.S.-driven bilateral accords, governments bound to the agreement have to abide by regulations that are essentially set by and for the benefit of the U.S. pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. At the end of the day, the rights of people to have access to quality health care or to farm in the ways that they have for thousands of years is thrown out the window.


Through these bilateral agreements you have a very, very commodified concept of life that is being promoted, clearly driven by big business attempting to establish a scenario where they dominate. From a pharmaceutical-driven agenda on intellectual property rights as mentioned or agribusiness having the right to own certain traits or elements within crops, and thus essentially undermining people’s food sovereignty.


Corporations in most cases will have rights to effectively sue governments within provisions under these agreements, as intellectual property rights is covered in the investment sections of these agreements. In North America, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a prime example for this reality. Canada was sued by Ethyl Corporation under NAFTA for passing a law that banned a specific fuel additive due to toxic effects. After launching the process to sue Canada for banning this toxic additive, the government of Canada effectively apologized and provided a major financial payment as compensation, and, also took the law banning the toxic additive off the book.


Essentially we are talking about agreements that promote a reality of corporate control driven by a contemporary colonial ideology, in which corporations can directly sue governments.


Stefan Christoff: On opposition to these bilateral agreements internationally, let’s talk about the different grassroots reactions. In North America or Western Europe, there are certainly people who are writing critically concerning these agreements, writing publications, etc. However a much stronger grassroots response has emerged in many countries in the global south, South Korea is an example in regards to the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Could you discuss this difference between social reactions in the south and in North America / Western Europe to the growing number of bilateral trade agreements around the world?


Aziz Choudry: In Latin America and Asia we have seen major mobilizations to these bilateral agreements. Thailand is a major example in Asia. Today, grassroots coalition building is occurring across Asia, including a diverse network that includes groups that campaigned against the WTO. At the same time there is growing awareness from groups in Thailand who focus on domestic issues, who turned against the bilateral accord with the U.S., due to major impacts on local laws and lives. Many, many groups became involved in the struggle.


For example, peasant movements and organizations representing people living with HIV/AIDS formed a strong nucleus against the U.S. bilateral agreement, fronting a grassroots mobilization that formed in opposition to the U.S.-Thailand agreement due to common cause.


Korea is another example of strong cross-sectoral alliances between social movements, Korean labor movements and farmers worked heavily together. Specifically the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was heavily involved in organizing against the U.S.-Korea agreement.


Also in Korea, a major cultural issue came forward, an issue that really symbolizes U.S. imperialism in a sense. A prerequisite for the U.S. negotiations was the removal for a national screen-quota on local Korean films in the cinema. There was a major mobilization of artists, filmmakers, directors, actors that joined the movement against the U.S.-Korea bilateral agreement.


A clear consciousness is emerging in the fightback against FTAs, that moves away from purely sectoral politics, due to understanding that these agreements are so broad and comprehensive that they impact every national sector.


In Costa Rica a social mobilization against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) led to a very close national referendum vote on the agreement. There, the mobilization was rooted in a multi-sector, multi-layered network that brought in numerous layers of society.


At the same time, it’s important to understand that analysis about, and opposition to these agreements is often rooted in movements that maintain a long history in struggle. In Korea many activists will point back to local experiences fighting corporate economic policies, state repression against workers’ struggles that go back many, many years. This historical lineage behind contemporary struggles against bilateral accords is really important and critical to understanding the groundswell of opposition that exists against these agreements in multiple countries.


In the North there has been less focus on trade agreements generally since the WTO and the Free Trade Agreements of the Americas began running into serious internal and external problems. Also in North America and in Europe there has been a negative impact from some NGOs on these struggles.


Aid or development NGOs often take up space surrounding these bilateral agreements or economic partnership agreements in Europe, whereas the more militant movements or groups have been in a sense marginalized. With the WTO it was possible to see threats to European countries from U.S. corporations leading more liberal groups to take issue in Europe in a more narrow way which gave little attention to opposing the underlying neoliberal framework of such agreements..


However these economic partnership agreements are potentially going to have a much larger impact on countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, in locking in neo-liberal economic policies for E.U. countries.


Stefan Christoff: Let’s discuss the relationship between bilateral trade accords and war in the Middle East and internationally. Today there is a major critique towards the ’war on terror’ throughout the world. However it could be argued that there isn’t the same critique towards economic policies that stand behind the war.


Aziz Choudry: One only has to point to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, which sent a message to all other countries in the region basically implying that a stand against U.S. policy will lead you to face our military; bombs, guns and tanks.


In understanding this relationship, it’s perhaps important to understand these policies through the hand and fist metaphor; on the one hand you have a hand cloaked in a velvet glove represented by ’free trade’ economic policies, then backing the policies are the marines, the guns, the tanks, if nations refuse to comply. This strategy has always been central to U.S. intervention, from Panama, to Grenada, to Chile, which illustrate that any time a government attempts to take an independent economic position from the U.S. they risk repression through economic sanctions and also direct military intervention.


In Thailand for example, we can link to the stalled U.S.-Thailand Free Trade Agreement, to Operation Cobra Gold, an annual U.S.-driven military exercise involving U.S. and Thai troops. Historically Thailand was heavily involved in supporting U.S. efforts during the Cold War. Today there are joint operations taking place within the ’war on terror’ context, particularly in southern Thailand where you have a significant Muslim population. U.S. military officials have called southern Thailand the ’soft underbelly’ of terrorism.


In Latin America you have the pending U.S.-Colombia deal backed by not only the ongoing focus on the U.S.-driven ’war on drugs’, now you have at any given time 50-100 U.S. military advisers, advising the Colombian military in their war against leftist guerrillas but operating close to the border with Venezuela. All these agreements, not only bilateral free trade agreements, but also security cooperation agreements , work together. It’s very clear that compliance with a U.S. economic vision is intimately linked to all other U.S. policy, specifically military policy.


Stefan Christoff: Now you are referencing a U.S. position on trade policy and the war on terror, however let’s also discuss the relationship between E.U. trade policy and military goals.


Aziz Choudry: Now the E.U. presents a ‘softer face’ than the U.S. in negotiating trade policy. However let’s focus on the way that E.U. trade policy pushes normalization with Israel in the Middle East. Striking an official recognition of Israel is a bottom line in the long term political goals for E.U. and U.S. trade policy in the region.


For example let’s focus on the Arab Gulf countries, clearly there is a major interest in oil and gas resources, however when you actually look at the trade that flows between the U.S. and Bahrain, or the U.S. and Jordan it’s clear that these deals aren’t simply about securing a priority trade partner in the Middle East. U.S. trade policy in the Middle East is heavily focused on finding ways to break down the Arab League boycott on Israel.


This attack on the boycott is done through free trade agreements but is also done through setting-up Qualifying Industrial Zones in places like Jordan. These industrial zones maintain a bottom line, dictating a certain amount of product produced by companies to be Israeli owned or managed. These free trade zones are Israeli run zones, often utilizing migrant labor from around the world and also cheap Palestinian labor.


Also it’s important to understand that today, governments are increasingly defining national security as including unhindered access to natural resources, governments are fusing security driven rhetoric to resource access.


In the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand play a similar game to Canada and the U.S. in Latin America . New Zealand is presented as the more benign power in the Pacific while Australia plays a role as the enforcer. Both Australia and New Zealand seek to capture market access in the region, and unhindered access to natural resources. Also concerning the recent Australian military actions in the Pacific region, specifically in the Solomon Islands, a country that happens to have major resources, we can’t view military action as separate from economic interests. The Pacific region also illustrates the major connections between economic, political and military policy.


Stefan Christoff: Clearly an international opposition network has been reinforced by the increased push towards bilateral trade agreements. Also important connections are being drawn between neo-liberal economic policy and the current ’war on terror’. Through these bilateral trade agreements there is certainly a reemergence in localized opposition to ’free trade’ policy throughout the world. Certainly this is an interesting development, providing a new basis on which to organize internationally against neo-liberal economic policy. Can you comment on this reality?


Aziz Choudry: Throughout the world major network building is happening at multiple regional levels.


For example in Asia important exchanges have been taking place between Thai activists and Korean activists, both fighting against U.S.-imposed bilateral trade agreements. Important exchanges have also taken place throughout Latin America. Collective strategies are being developed to resist this push towards bilateral agreements, as people in different parts of the world are learning from each others’ local experiences.


In Thailand campaigning against the U.S. free trade agreement was heavily rooted in a domestic understanding of the agreement, as the accord outlines very tangible local impacts for the agreement which galvanizes people. Now at an international level it’s more difficult to outline the local impacts for such economic policies, however at the local level or bilateral level you can outline which specific corporations are involved in the agreement as has been done in Thailand.


There was a misunderstanding for example after China and Thailand signed an agricultural free trade agreement, there was a sentiment throughout the Thai peasant movement that they weren’t being treated fairly in the trade deal but that Chinese farmers were receiving ample benefits from the agreements. However after a farmers’ delegation from Thailand traveled to China to actually talk with farmers directly, it became clear that Chinese farmers were also being screwed by the agreement.


This delegation from Thailand to China allowed impacted farmers to communicate directly, making it clear that this agreement impacts all farmers. Always the goal from governments and corporations pushing these agreements is divide and rule, even internationally, corporations from the E.U. or U.S. often attempt to influence local governments through divide and rule tactics.


Essentially it’s important to understand that these bilateral agreements are driven by elites, they are driven by big business, by capital. At the end of the line regular people are being shafted by bilateral trade agreements, women, peasants, indigenous people, workers, etc. Building networks between people opposing these agreements internationally is critical, built by people in struggle around the world finding common ground to resist.

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