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The Trans-Pacific Partnership poses a grave threat to sustainable development

These Vietnamese tea farmers are set to benefit from the deal. Others might not be so lucky. Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

The Trans-Pacific Partnership poses a grave threat to sustainable development

This month’s long-awaited release of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) text was the result of years of negotiations on trade ties between nations around the Pacific Rim.

Some six weeks earlier, another set of deliberations came to an end as the United Nations unveiled its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality by addressing critical issues such as food security, health care, access to education, clean and affordable water, clean energy, and climate action.

Unfortunately, the two documents are incompatible. Several chapters of the TPP impinge upon the SDGs, potentially undermining the UN’s efforts to promote sustainable development and equality throughout the Pacific region. Moreover, many developing countries, least-developed countries, and small island states in the Pacific region are excluded from the preferential trade deal.

The global goals of sustainable development.

What does the TPP say on development?

The US Trade Representative has boasted that the TPP’s chapter on development will be a boon for developing Pacific nations, and that it will “focus attention on major development goals including inclusion of women, micro-enterprise, poverty reduction, and education, science, and technology”.

But while the chapter is laden with aspiration, it lacks firm commitments or hard obligations. Here’s how it opens:

The Parties affirm their commitment to promote and strengthen an open trade and investment environment that seeks to improve welfare, reduce poverty, raise living standards and create new employment opportunities in support of development.

It then goes on to discuss the promotion of development, and broad-based economic growth. There is text on economic growth with regard to women (despite the fact that the Sydney TPP talks were an all-male affair). However, in terms of its substance, the TPP does not address gender inequality.

There then follows some empty text on recognising the importance of “education, science and technology, research and innovation” and a pledge to replicate in miniature the existing UN Development Programme (although the UNDP itself has criticised the TPP). But then comes a giveaway statement that reveals the insignificance of the TPP’s development provisions:

In the event of any inconsistency between this Chapter and another Chapter of this Agreement, the other Chapter shall prevail to the extent of the inconsistency.

The US journalist Dylan Matthews has described the TPP’s development chapter as being “like a parody of a treaty, using various formalities to dress up the fact that it does absolutely nothing”.

What about sustainability?

Several other chapters in the TPP reinforce yet more problems with meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Intellectual Property Chapter of the TPP undermines efforts to promote access to knowledge and educational initiatives. Likewise, the patent measures for pharmaceutical drugs and biotechnology will hamper access to affordable and essential medicines. There has also been a concern about the impact of plant breeders’ rights and other forms of plant intellectual property upon food security and farm-saved seed. Criminal penalties and procedures for trade secrets will clash with open innovation.

The Environment Chapterof the TPP has been condemned for its limited coverage, weak enforcement measures, and failure to mention climate change.

Australia’s trade minister Andrew Robb has retorted that the TPP does not need to address climate change:

This is not a climate change policy. It’s not an agreement to do with climate change, it’s a trade agreement.

Yet trade and climate change are intimately related. If we want to reduce global carbon emissions, it is essential to move to a low-carbon economy. In her 2014 book This Changes Everything, the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein comments that we can no longer think about trade and climate change in two solitudes. In her view, trade deals need to promote climate action too.

The Labor Rights Chapter is also a disappointment. It has been criticised by unions who say that it fails to protect jobs, wages, freedom of association, workers’ rights, and human rights more generally.

Moreover, the Investment Chapter empowers foreign investors to challenge government decisions and regulations in international tribunals. There has been much disquiet about the creative and innovative use of investor clauses by multinational corporations.

UN human rights rapporteur Olivier de Schutter and his Columbia University colleague Kaitlin Cordes have raised concerns about how the TPP will affect food security. Margaret Chan of the World Health Organisation has warned of the impact of investor clauses in respect of public health. Maude Barlow of the Council of the Canadians has warned that investor clauses will undermine water rights, the protection of the environment, and climate action. There is widespread concern about whether the value placed on the investment rights of foreign corporations will conflict with the SDGs.

Rethink needed

It is clear that much of the TPP is at odds with key elements of the global sustainable development agenda. There needs to be a thorough human rights assessment of the whole agreement.

Considering this package of measures, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs laments the lack of substance in the Development Chapter, writing:

Yes, they rhetorically defend global economic development, labor standards, and environmental sustainability, but they do so without specific enforcement powers.

Meanwhile, his colleague Joseph Stiglitz is concerned about the TPP exacerbating poverty and inequality.

We need a new kind of trade agreement – one that respects and supports the world’s sustainable development goals. In particular, it is essential that future trade deals promote human development, access to knowledge, public health, human development, and climate action.