On this first day of the Peoples Social Forum, August 21 on the main campus of the University of Ottawa, amongst the one hundred activities, a conference discussed a very current issue : the “free trade” agreement between Canada and the European Union. Six representatives of prominent civil organizations (provincial, federal and international) could be heard, of which three are based in Quebec.
These spokespersons consider that these agreements do not truly seek to improve trade between countries, but instead are considered treaties that give new special rights to corporations, that undermine the democratic rights of peoples.
Trapping democracies with non-return valves
Larry Brown (National Union of Public and General Employees, NUPGE) wants the people to know that “free trade” agreements usually include what is nicknamed check valves (non-return valves) that aim to stop governments from converting a privatized service back to a public service. The agreement between Canada and the European Union is said to contain such a principle where, for example, a city council would lose its right to make water treatment a public service if it was privatized while the agreement stood. If a city council or government changes its mind concerning a privatized service, the corporation or investor can bring that authority before a special tribunal for “loss of profit”. Democracies do not have the right, it would seem, to turn back, unless they assume the high costs of the judicial process and the compensations to be paid to the corporations.
These agreements allow corporations and investors to sue if laws trouble or hamper their enterprises. Social movements believe that legitimate laws, to protect our environment or our health, could fall under such lawsuits. Mr. Brown named the recent example of Lone Pine —a US company that wants to extract shale gas below the Saint Laurence River— that sued Quebec (using NAFTA) for applying a moratorium on fracking.
Mr. Brown notes that many such “free trade” agreements are being created across the world at this moment : one between Canada and the European Union (CETA/AECG), one for the Asian and Pacific regions (TPP), and another between the USA and the European Union.
Agreements that must be kept secret till the last moment
Scott Harris (Trade Justice Network) denounces what is judged as antidemocratic processes. The negotiations do not allow any citizen participation. In fact, even federal MP are excluded from the negotiations and are kept as far away as possible from the texts. Certain interested corporations are said to have received privileged information according to Mr. Harris.
“They have realized that the more people have access to the texts of these agreements, the more the people criticize and denounce them”, analyzes Scott Harris. Without access to the texts, social movements make various hypothesis that cannot be confirmed. In the current case, the agreement between Canada the European Union was made available by the dissidence of an anonymous civil servant. This leak is very recent and civil organizations, in particular trade unions, are analyzing them.
While they give themselves rights …
For Alexa Conradi (Fédération des femmes du Québec), “these trade agreements are part of a globalized capitalism, and capitalism has negative impacts on women and also on marginalized people”. If such agreements increase injustice between countries, especially in third world countries, women and their families are the worst hit. The context of unjust international competition creates more violence, militarization and oppression. “I am not saying that these agreements directly cause such things, but they are part of this unjust and violent context.”
Jacques Létourneau (CSN, Confederation of National [Quebec] Trade Unions) used an evocative example : “as use to say Dorval Brunelle (Centre d'études sur l'intégration et la mondialisation, UQÀM), if it was a question of increasing our importation of wine from Chili and increasing our exportation of maple syrup, there would not be an issue. But such is not the purpose of these agreements, who instead give rights to rich investors.” Mr. Létourneau adds, “I would like to see someone demonstrate that the respect of human rights has improved since these free trade deals. The deterioration of human rights for the concerned populations is rather blatant.”
Jacques Létourneau reminds us that organizations that defend human rights have always demanded, since the very beginning, the primacy of human rights over agreements and treaties. Mr. Létourneau had good news : it would seem that the UN Human Rights Council seeks to give human rights a legal weight similar to that of trade deals.
In this imbalance of rights, Alexa Conradi finds interesting that the rights of nature are now enshrined in two constitutions, those of Bolivia and Ecuador.
Can the peoples win ?
To that question, Scott Harris reminds us that many States have refused such deals. The Council of Canadians, a respected global justice organization, is proud that about 80 cities in Ontario have demanded to be excluded from the free trade agreement with the European Union, unless they give their explicit approval.
According to the speakers, if the antidemocratic mechanisms are exposed or presented to the public, these agreements will not pass, at least if grassroots resistance is offered.
Pierre-Yves Serinet (Réseau québécois sur l'intégration continentale) concludes that spaces must be created to allow the various peoples of Canada and Quebec to struggle together against these treaties and to create alternatives.
That same day at the Peoples Social Forum, the speech given by Naomi Klein (well known global justice author) offered an inspiring message about how humanity can prevail.
- Michaël Lessard (Média reseauforum.org), August 21, 2014.
Translated by the author.