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UN Experts Condemn the Human Rights Costs of Secret Trade Agreements

June 3, 2015

UN Experts Condemn the Human Rights Costs of Secret Trade Agreements

Yesterday, ten United Nations experts and special rapporteurs voiced their concern over the adverse impacts upon human rights posed by secret “free trade” and investment agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA).

The concerns that they express are vitally important but nothing new. However, what makes today's statement remarkable is that it comes from such a highly esteemed panel of global experts, cutting across such a broad range of subject areas, including disability rights, independence of the judiciary, health, indigenous rights and others.


The experts urge that all draft treaty texts should be published so that Parliamentarians and civil society have sufficient time to review them and weigh the pros and cons in a democratic manner. They write:

Observers are concerned that these treaties and agreements are likely to have a number of retrogressive effects on the protection and promotion of human rights, including by lowering the threshold of health protection, food safety, and labour standards, by catering to the business interests of pharmaceutical monopolies and extending intellectual property protection.

The Copyright Ratchet

Amongst the experts, Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, is one who has already spoken out on the dangers of intellectual property standards being ratcheted up in secret trade agreements. In her own report [.doc] released in March, she raised concern about:

important themes that may be lost when copyright is treated primarily in terms of trade: the social function and human dimension of intellectual property, the public interests at stake, the importance of transparency and public participation in policymaking, the need to design copyright rules to genuinely benefit human authors, the importance of broad diffusion and cultural freedom, the importance of not-for-profit cultural production and innovation, and the special consideration for the impact of copyright law upon marginalised or vulnerable groups.

Special Privileges for Investors

Another of the experts who has previously spoken out about problems in trade agreements is Alfred de Zayas, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. De Zayas recently criticized [.doc] the use of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions that allow investors to sue nation states in unaccountable, private courts for passing laws that affect the value of their investments. Today's joint statement also tackles this topic:

Investor-state-dispute settlement (ISDS) chapters in BITs [Bilateral Investment Treaties] and FTAs [Free Trade Agreements] are also increasingly problematic given the experience of decades related arbitrations conducted before ISDS tribunals. The experience demonstrates that the regulatory function of many States and their ability to legislate in the public interest have been put at risk.

The statement goes on to recommend that if ISDS provisions are included in trade agreements at all, arbitrators must not be allowed to interfere with domestic regulation, they must work transparently and with accountability, and their awards must be subject to public review.

The experts who have spoken out today are in no way “fringe” or “radical” voices. If anything, the recommendations they make are very conservative. The fringe voices in this debate are, rather, those of the government trade negotiators who believe that it is acceptable, in a democracy, for deals sealed in secret backrooms to lock their countries into long-term commitments to laws that favor foreign investors and multinational rightsholders over users.

Amidst this mounting chorus of criticism from every quarter, we struggle to imagine what it might actually take for the trade negotiators and their responsible ministers to realize that the short-term trade agenda that they are so doggedly pursuing is not actually in the public interest.

Although the administration may not seem to be listening, this doesn't make us powerless. We can still stop the TPP and other trade agreements from sailing through Congress by derailing the U.S. Fast Track bill, which heads to the House of Representatives any day now. If you are based in the U.S., we implore you to contact your representative today.

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