NGOs in OECD countries protest against MAI

A new and significant development concerning the MAI has been the upsurge of protests against the treaty by consumer, environmental, development and public citizen's groups in the OECD countries. Clearly, concern over the treaty and its impact is no longer confined to the developing countries.

by Martin Khor

AS delegations from OECD countries met in February in Paris to continue negotiations on a Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), citizen groups in many of these countries staged protest actions demanding the treaty talks be suspended or scrapped altogether.

There has been an upsurge of activities from a broad coalition of consumer, environmental, development and public citizen groups in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, challenging the rationale and effects of the MAI in their own countries as well as on developing nations.

This is a new and significant development, as previously the concerns about the MAI have come mainly from NGOs and governments in developing countries which believed that such a treaty would have negative effects on the firms and economies of their countries.

Recently, however, since the full text of the draft MAI was leaked to a Canadian group, large and growing numbers of Northern NGOs have been expressing outrage at what they see as the devastating effects of the treaty on their own societies, including on national sovereignty, the environment and consumer interests.

'International Week of Action'

Concern and protests against the MAI have thus spread to the OECD countries themselves. Groups in many countries launched a series of actions in an 'International Week of Action' on 7-17 February.

'The MAI would give foreign corporations unprecedented power to directly challenge Governments' environmental, health, worker and other laws, or circumvent them entirely,' said a circular letter sponsored by an international coalition of NGOs.

'Though the treaty has been under negotiation for nearly three years, they have been conducted largely in secret and without any public transparency or participation.

'Critics' demands to open the MAI to public debate and ensure that the agreement protects the rights of citizens have largely been ignored.'

In a statement addressed to the OECD, endorsed by more than 500 environmental, development, labour, consumer, church and women's organisations from 67 countries, the coalition of groups called on the OECD to suspend the negotiations for the MAI.

Public campaigns launched by these groups have already had significant results in some countries. In Canada, where the 100,000-strong citizen group the Council of Canadians has been campaigning across the country, three provincial governments have declared that they would not recognise the MAI even if signed by the federal government.

In the US, a lobby campaign spearheaded by Public Citizen (led by consumer advocate Ralph Nader) and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth-US, has won support from many members of the Congress who are already sceptical about new trade agreements.

Flurry of citizen actions

In February, citizen groups staged an anti-MAI demonstration on the steps of Capitol Building where members of Congress were presented with handcuffs symbolising the MAI's restrictions on their law-making authority.

The NGOs also organised 'national call-in days' with phone calls from members of the public to Senators and US Negotiators urging them to reject the MAI. A letter from many national environmental organisations was also sent to the US Administration.

In several European countries, there has been a flurry of citizen actions since the MAI's last negotiating session last October.

According to a senior official of an international NGO based in Switzerland, who has been following these activities: 'It appears that all hell has broken loose, in some European Union member countries, with a combination of street protests, NGO critiques, outraged parliamentarians and inter-agency fights within governments on key issues. The word "war" has even been applied to the situation in both Finland and Sweden. Things are also moving fast in Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK.'

In the Netherlands, activists on 12 February occupied the entrance of the office of the Chairman of the OECD's MAI negotiation group, Mr Engering, at the Hague. Some 40 people from the Dutch anti-MAI action group 'MAI niet gezien' ('MAI not seen/MAI not for me') went inside the Ministry of Economic Affairs to protest against the MAI and to demand the negotiations to be extended by at least a year.

Out of control

The protesters constructed a 'factory' of cardboard boxes in the main hall of the building, to indicate that investments would be out of control under the MAI.

After an hour, the activists met with Mr Engering and negotiator for the Netherlands Marinus Sikkel.

In the presence of several media personnel, the protesters made the point that trying to finish an agreement by the deadline of the end of April was 'undemocratic and dangerous'. They said that since criticisms against the MAI from civil society are growing day by day, more and more parliaments are demanding a thorough analysis of its impacts.

The activists demanded that to allow time for serious impact assessments of the MAI and for a genuine public debate to emerge, the MAI negotiations should be postponed for at least another year. They also called for a far more open and accessible negotiation procedure, with full information made available and public participation.

Mr Engering told the protesters that such decisions could only be taken by the governments and also declined the request that he would postpone the deadline for the treaty's conclusions.

In London, a demonstration was organised by several NGOs on 13 February in front of the Department of Trade and Industry whilst other actions were taken by local activists including in Oxford, Brighton and Essex.

Director of the UK development advocacy group, World Development Movement, Barry Coates, described the MAI as 'the biggest corporate takeover in the history of the world'. In a campaign letter to the public, Coates said the MAI was secretly negotiated to give multinational companies more rights but fewer responsibilities.

'Unscrupulous companies would be free to act unethically and would actually be able to sue governments who try to stop them,' he said.

Devastating analysis

The London Guardian has recently been carrying several reports and letters on the MAI. On 13 February, a full-page article by the paper's Economics Editor gave a critical analysis of the treaty, to which the UK Minister of Trade and Industry Lord Clinton-Davis replied, defending the MAI.

On 17 February, a letter by leaders of the World Development Movement, Friends of the Earth and WWF-UK responded to Lord Clinton-Davis, stating that 'there is a real danger of the MAI leading to a reduction in environmental and labour standards for the sake of more foreign investment. The effects on the poorest countries are likely to be devastating.'

In another letter in the Guardian, the founder of the Right Livelihood Award (popularly known as the Alternative Nobel Prize), Jakob von Uexkull, also responding to the UK Minister, said: 'Transnational corporations are already more powerful than many nation states.

'To describe them as victims of discrimination needing more protection is another example of the Orwellian Newsspeak of global corporate rule. A democracy which abdicates the right to favour its citizens over foreign corporations will soon lose its public legitimacy, with potentially disastrous consequences.'

Other NGO actions include:

  • In Finland, NGOs made use of street theatre in Helsinki and in the provinces to depict how small businesspeople would lose their economic independence under the MAI, and questions were raised on the MAI in Parliament on 12 February.

  • In Sweden, flyers were handed out by NGO activists outside the head office of Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications TNC, pointing out the contradiction between what the company says it wants in its environmental report and the position of the International Chamber of Commerce of which it is a member, and asking what they intend to do about it.

  • In Australia, citizen groups made calls and sent letters to Members of Parliament and also launched a petition drive against the MAI.
    - (Third World Resurgence No.90/91, Feb-March 1998)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.