Today, April 18, tens of thousands of people in over 500 cities across the world are taking action against corporate trade and investment regimes that are threatening our environment and human rights.
From a picket in the Philippines to a public forum in Ecuador and a direct action in Australia, participants in this unprecedented “Global Day of Action” are taking back control of our democracy.
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Trade and investments agreements are no longer just about import tariffs, but about a range of issues that determine the food we eat, the energy we use and the ability of our governments to regulate in the public interest.
As of today, four massive new global trade agreements are being negotiated away from public scrutiny, despite the fact that they will affect the lives of over 1.5 billion people.
They are: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
Trojan horse treaties
These “trojan horse” treaties vary in many complex and differing ways, but all would reverse decades of progress towards better protection for citizens and our environment, and give big business extraordinary and unprecedented power over our society.
The rules controlling things like food safety, toxic chemicals, and dirty energy would be substantially weakened.
For example, in Australia the Trans Pacific Partnership could make it impossible to set higher standards on imported foods or labelling, because labelling regulation can be deemed a “barrier to trade”.
One of the most unfair parts of these trade agreements is the inclusion of the “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) process. This enables corporations to sue governments in “private tribunals” for policies that frustrate their expected profits. Globally, 608 investor-state disputes were known of at the end of 2014.
Some notable ISDS cases include the Quebec government being sued for $250m for banning fracking; tobacco giant Phillip Morris launching a lawsuit against the Australian government in relation to the introduction of plain-packaging laws; and the German government facing a billion euro lawsuit for its decision to phase out nuclear power stations.
The reason usually given for these extreme corporate rights is that “ISDS is needed to drive and protect investment”. Yet Brazil, whose Congress refuses to sign trade treaties that include ISDS, is the biggest recipient of foreign direct investment in Latin America.
There is a growing global movement of civil society groups, trade unions, farmers, and concerned citizens working together to stop these trojan horse treaties.
Private corporate tribunals lack transparency, independence, impartiality and offer no right of appeal. Just 15 arbitrators, almost all from Europe, the US or Canada, have decided on 55 percent of all known disputes based on investment treaties, according to 2012 statistics.
Yet these unaccountable private tribunals continue to deal out hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. On April 9, Argentina was ordered to pay $405m to French company Suez for cancelling its contract and taking back water provision into public hands.
Sadly, the new trade deals act only to strengthen and expand corporate tribunals. What we are witnessing is a profound attack on democracy and the sovereignty of states to regulate in public interest.
Turning the tide
However, there is a growing global movement of civil society groups, trade unions, farmers, and concerned citizens working together to stop these trojan horse treaties. This weekend, as part of the International Day of Peasants’ Struggle, hundreds of actions against “free” trade regimes have been organised by La Via Campesina, which represents over 200 million small scale farmers globally.
Some governments have begun to pull out of treaties that include extreme corporate rights.
In 2014, Indonesia announced plans to terminate 60 of its international treaties with ISDS. Ecuador and South Africa have also began a similar process, with a South African official stating that: “Bilateral investment agreements can pose profound and serious risks to government policy.”
Trade is no longer fringe issue. In Europe, over 1,600,000 people have signed a petition against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and tens of thousands marched to protest the TTIP.
The German town of Erkrath and hundreds of other local municipalities across the continent also voted to be TTIP-free zones. Greece’s new government has already stated it will not ratify TTIP and many other EU countries have raised grave concerns about the ISDS clause.
In the face of growing inequality in our societies, we need a fairer trade system, one which helps develop sustainable societies by supporting local economies and sustainable jobs, a clean environment, better social protection, and more responsible energy and food production for all.
Ten years ago in Mar del Plata, Argentina, a trojan horse treaty known as Free Trade Agreement of the Americas was defeated by strong social movements and progressive governments.
As people around the world take to the streets today, we know we have the power to stop the current unfair trade and investment regimes and we will continue to expose them until they are defeated.
Sam Cossar-Gilbert is economic justice and resisting neoliberalism coordinator at Friends of the Earth International.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.