Devinder Sharma notes here how post 9/11 the US has used bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) to aggressively pursue its own interests, including the promotion of "agricultural biotechnology".
A classic example of this arose in FTA negotiations with Thailand, as became clear when the Thai Environment minister went public with objections to the US insisting Thailand grow GM crops as a condition of an FTA. http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/service117.htm
Just 2 months later, the Thai Prime Minister suddenly announced that Thailand's GM moratorium would be abandoned. Only a powerful campaign of opposition by Thai farmers, exporters and campaigners prevented this from happening. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=4268
Amongst the most vocal opponents, funnily enough, were Thailand's leading rice exporters who described open-field trials of GM crops as "a big mistake which would jeopardise Thailand's rice markets overseas." http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=4252
How right they were. But alarmingly, Devinder reports that "close to 200 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) - a misnomer for one-way trade -- are being negotiated or have already been signed."
Globalisation after 9/11
Free Trade Explosion
Two days after the third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation began at Seattle, and that was in 1999, I was caught in the mayhem that erupted after the police fired some teargas shells to disperse the wall of protesters. I recall that it was almost midnight when I was walking back to my hotel in the Capitol Hill. I took a turn on one of the labyrinth of city streets to find myself in the midst of the police action.
Protesters of all ages, a majority of them teenagers, were running away to avoid the pungent fumes. As I stepped back, I came face to face with a reporter from an American television channel. Asked, what as a foreigner I thought of the trade talks in the midst of such massive protests, I replied: "While the strong-arm tactics of the American government in the streets is muffling the voice of the peaceful protesters, the high-handedness of the American bureaucracy in the Convention centre is silencing the voice of the developing countries."
As we all know, amidst massive public protests Seattle WTO Ministerial failed. Two years later, the tragic events of 9/11 changed the world in such a dramatic way that globalisation - that links trade with corporate interests - became much easier. With democratically elected governments bending over backwards to side with the United States, security forces continue to be increasingly deployed to make the world safe for the global capital and investment. From Iraq to Pakistan, and from Korea to Colombia, the "security concerns" are essentially aimed at stifling public dissent and furthering the commercial interests of the multinationals.
I'd never been in doubt about the links between globalisation, trade, and corporate interests. But the blatant usurping of human rights and national sovereignty that began some five years back through an unprecedented explosion of discriminatory bilateral and regional trade agreements is something that shocks me. Close to 200 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) - a misnomer for one-way trade -- are being negotiated or have already been signed. A majority of these involves the US, which has either struck a deal or is in a negotiating process in every part of the hemisphere. Many of these are in the name of "security issue" like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta 2004). Some others come as a 'reward' to its allies in the Iraq war, like Thailand and Australia.
With the World Trade talks in limbo, the focus remains on aggressively pushing on the bilateral front. What could not be achieved through a multilateral trade regime, and that was peanut compared to what is now being pursued through bilateral and regional deals. Developing countries have been made to believe, and there seems to be no plausible basis for such a flawed thinking, that getting market access to America is the only way to economic nirvana. In return, developing countries (and also some of the economic giants) have buckled under pressure putting their own economies under a perpetual risk.
Country after country has agreed to eliminate tariffs barriers over the next ten years or so, and have already removed technical barriers to imports. Explicit guarantees have been provided on the treatment to American investors and services. Current barriers to agricultural biotechnology are being removed. Specific commitments pertaining to national laws and commitments to strong and transparent disciplines on government procurement procedures, rules of origin and effective enforcement of domestic labour and environmental laws have been sought. In short, all impediments in the march of the multinational companies have been cleared.
And yet, the American and European markets remain impregnable.
The enactment of the US Patriot Act, 2001 made it still more difficult. Take the example of gems and jewellery trade. Considering that diamonds could be used as a replacement for hard cash in arm deals, money laundering and other crimes, the US has used the provisions to restrict gems and jewellery imports. Thailand is the worst affected, with Bangkok's Anti-Money laundering Office cracking on the domestic gems trade. More than 6000 gold shops and thousands of jewellery shops throughout the country are being targeted. For India, a major player in cutting and polishing of diamonds, the US has threatened to use the same provisions to check the 'blood diamond' trail.
Returning back to bilateral agreements, the common thread that flows through all the FTA is the demand for a stronger Intellectual Property (IP) Protection. No IP means no market access, is the usual American refrain. In addition, generic companies will have to wait until the patent expires before obtaining the marketing approval, which means effectively extending the patent monopoly (Chile 2003, Singapore 2003); rendering "compulsory licensing" provisions useless if generic companies use the "test data" of pharmaceutical companies (Cafta 2004); and extending the term for patent protection and restriction on parallel imports.
The US has already managed to coerce a number of other countries to offer stronger IP protection. Among these are Peru 2005, Morocco 2004, Jorda
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