Activists press governments on promise to share draft FTAA plan

by Gumisai Mutume

Washington, 21 Jun 2001 (IPS) - More than two months after 34 governments, negotiating a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), pledged to publish their draft agreement, citizens’ groups are still trying to pry the document from officials’ hands.

“They promised to release the document more than 70 days ago,” says Carrie Biggs-Adams of the 740,000-strong labour union, Communication Workers of America (CWA).

“The reason why they will not release it is because they know we are right when we say the FTAA will negatively affect the lives of millions of poor people in the region.”

Negotiations over the FTAA - which will encompass more than 750 million people and constitute the world’s biggest free trade area when established in 2005 - have until now only been privy to government officials and their corporate advisers.

“There needs to be public debate on the agreement, but by seeking fast-track (trade promotion authority) the Bush administration seeks to stifle debate,” says Biggs-Adams, referring to President George W. Bush’s push for the power to negotiate trade pacts without fear of Congressional amendment.

A number of groups including the CWA this week intensified calls for the official release of the draft text of the 250-page FTAA agreement. A draft of the document’s chapter on investment was leaked in April, during the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec, Canada, but the rest of the document remains shrouded in secrecy.

Bill Frenzel of the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, sees no need in rushing the release of the proposed agreement.

“Until governments are ready to seek ratification, it would be unusual to have drafts of an agreement floating around,” says Frenzel. “It is in the nature of activists to throw everything out onto the streets and they say just about the same things about every other trade agreement.”

A US trade official blamed the delay in releasing the document on the process of translating it from English into French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Unimpressed by such explanations, the US-based Alliance for Responsible Trade, a network of labour, environmental, and political groups and think-tanks, is asking sympathisers to write to members of Congress, urging them to vote against fast-track.

Ministers from prospective FTAA member states promised in April that, “in keeping with our commitment to transparency, we have agreed to publicize the draft FTAA Agreement in the four official languages, after the Third Summit of the Americas.”

The 20-22 April Quebec summit ended with similar declarations of intent by the leaders from all the countries of the western hemisphere except Cuba, which is excluded from the FTAA.

“If our governments are truly committed to transparency, they must release the text and also commit to releasing future drafts,” says Hector de la Cueva, general secretary of the Hemispheric Social Alliance (HSA), an umbrella organisation claiming a combined membership of some 45 million people.

The HSA also released this week an analysis of the leaked investment chapter.  “The people of the Americas have the right to know what type of deal our negotiators are attempting to impose on the hemisphere,” says de la Cueva.

According to the analysis, the FTAA investment chapter extends rights to corporations much like those enshrined in the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States. It would allow investors to sue governments for breach of any of a list of obligations. This, opponents charge, will restrict the ability of states to protect the environment and public welfare.

Concerns over similar provisions helped galvanise opposition to the abortive Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

“The investor-state provisions were first proposed in order to avoid nationalisation of foreign companies by governments,” says David Waskow, international policy analyst at the non-governmental group Friends of the Earth- US. “They go way beyond most national laws and are rather out-dated.”

Also like NAFTA, the draft FTAA investment chapter proposes that governments treat foreign investors as favourably as domestic ones although it would grant member states one opportunity to list exemptions to this rule.

“The prospects for obtaining effective exceptions are limited by the lack of consultation in most countries between negotiators and the general public, as well as parliamentarians and sub-national governments,” the HSA says in its critique of the chapter.

However, the entire text of the leaked chapter is enclosed in brackets, indicating a lack of official consensus. – SUNS4921

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