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Thursday, February 11, 2016
- An accord that would be the largest trade agreement ever negotiated appears to be rolling back environmental safeguards that have been a key part of U.S.-led trade deals for much of the past decade.
For four years, negotiators for 12 proposed Pacific-area member countries have been trying to come to agreement on a sweeping deal for what is being called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). While few details of the talks have been made public, WikiLeaks on Wednesday released a negotiating text for the environment chapter as well as a round-up of related country-level positions.
The documents allow the public a first-time glimpse of where talks stand on green issues, and some of the details have worried civil society. WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange suggested Wednesday that the environment chapter is little more than a “toothless public relations exercise”.
The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) “may be forced to back down from historic negotiating positions on environmental protections,” Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America, a trade association, told a Senate hearing on Thursday, referring to media analysis of the leaked documents.
“At this point in our history, we should be making improvements, not negotiating a retreat on global environmental issues.”
Cohen appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to offer testimony on new legislation that would transfer significant power, known as “trade promotion” or “fast track” authorities, to President Barack Obama to move the TPP into its final stages. While such authorities have been a key component of past U.S. trade deals, critics say that they are undemocratic, barring the Congress from tweaking any eventual agreement.
On Thursday, Cohen told lawmakers that the new legislation would do nothing to ameliorate concerns about the TPP’s weaknesses on environmental safeguards. (Thus far, almost all Democratic members of Congress have refused to formally support the new fast track authorities.)
“Key negotiating objectives that would help ensure that natural resources are protected, such as a ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife and fish, are completely omitted from the current legislation,” he warned.
“It also does nothing to protect our environmental and climate policies from attack by foreign corporations or to put less stress on our scarce natural resources. More must be done to ensure that trade agreements don’t become a global race to the bottom on the environment.”
The newly leaked environment chapter likely dates to November, and so may have changed by this week. If not, however, it appears to fail to include strong enforcement provisions – in a way that could directly contravene U.S. law.
The issue goes back to a 2007 agreement between the Congress and then-President George W. Bush, which set out a series of minimum standards for future trade agreements, including for the environment.
Congress stipulated that countries signing trade agreements with the United States would need to fulfil any international treaties they had signed. It also moved to ensure that agreed-upon environmental safeguards were not afterthoughts, requiring that such obligations be fully legally enforceable.
Green groups and others saw the agreement as an important step, and these requirements have been in place in subsequent trade accords between the United States and Panama, Colombia, South Korea and Peru. Yet while this U.S. law has not changed since then, the leaked TPP environment chapter contains weak requirements that critics say would be unenforceable.
“We’ve been pushing for safeguards around three things – fish stocks, wildlife trafficking and illegal logging – and the current draft falls short on all of these principles,” Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a watchdog group, told IPS.
“The current obligations for each of these give lots of wiggle room for countries not to enforce them. Effectively, there’s a reporting requirement for countries to say that they’re not enforcing these provisions, but no ability to actually apply trade sanctions. That’s like say it’s illegal to speed but then not funding any cops.”
(On Wednesday, NRDC and two other environment groups released a full analysis of the leaked TPP chapter.)
The leaked chapter, for instance, stipulates that member countries “recognize the importance of taking measures aimed at the conservation and the sustainable management of fisheries”. But governments are not required to do so.
Similarly, each country “shall seek to operate a fisheries management system … designed to prevent overfishing”. But, again, members are not required to do so.
“If passed without the proper enforcement, the current draft would be a major step back form previous trade agreements, even those passed by George Bush,” Schmidt says. “We know from lots of previous experience that if you have good laws on the books but no strong enforcement mechanisms, they don’t have any meaning.”
In fact, experience from the four trade agreements that have included the post-2007 environment safeguards has been mixed, as the USTR has never formally imposed sanctions on a country for failure to comply with environment-related provisions. Yet supporters note that the mere threat of trade repercussions has offered an important diplomatic tool in behind-the-scenes talks.
As the TPP talks have progressed, the Obama administration has been roundly criticised by civil society groups who feel they have shut out of the negotiations, even as major multinational corporations have reportedly been given access to both the talks and certain negotiating texts.
On the environment chapter, however, the sense is that U.S. negotiators have indeed been working to ensure that the congressionally mandated safeguards are ultimately in place. In the aftermath of the leak, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative took the rare step of directly addressing the issue.
“The United States’ position on the environment in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations is this,” the USTR stated in the first sentence of a blog post released Wednesday, “environmental stewardship is a core American value, and we will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.”
Yet NRDC’s Schmidt notes that the TPP remains a U.S.-driven agreement, and thus Washington negotiators have a key opportunity to insist on strong enforcement.
“They may be pushing hard,” he says, “but we’ll see if they now follow through and signal to other countries that this is a requirement that must be met before they can bring home any trade agreement.”