Trade negotiators and policymakers of the developed world seem to have very short memories. They have apparently already forgotten the lessons of the failed 1999 WTO Seattle Ministerial when anti-globalization demonstrations played their part in delaying the start of the WTO Doha negotiating Round. This distrust has continued to provide the backdrop to the WTO round, which was launched under heavy security in Qatar, Doha.

The 2003 Cancun Ministerial held two years later also failed spectacularly as developing countries refused to expand the talks into new areas which they felt ill-equipped to handle. In response to the continued protests of developing countries and of citizens around the world, the negotiating agenda for the Doha Round has been so watered-down that the corporate interests and developed countries no longer see any benefits to be gained from concluding the Round.

Instead, they have turned their efforts and interest to negotiating bilateral free trade agreements, apparently, however, ignoring the lessons of the past.

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Talks

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is being negotiated between the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Chile and Peru. The Obama Administration has made the TPP the center of its external trade policy. Civil society organizations, on the other hand, are viewing the TPP as a “secret deal” to serve corporate interests. (Trans-Pacific Trade Pact Reveals U.S.’s Unbridled Corporate Agenda) Reports are that leaked copies of the text indicate an aggressive campaign by the United States to restrict access to affordable generic medicines, in the name of protecting intellectual property rights of the pharmaceutical companies. Reportedly, the provisions would bypass the WTO measures that ease access by poor countries to affordable generic medicines. This provision has generated concern from such eminent NGOs as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) which relies on access to generics to carry out its mission of providing impartial and independent medical assistance to poor countries.

Other TPP provisions generating concern include proposed investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanisms that would allow corporations to sue domestic governments if they disagreed with public policy. This could be another way to undermine a country’s policies aimed at protecting access to affordable medicines, or to protect the environment, for example.

EU-India Trade Talks

The European Union-India trade talks are generating similar concerns. Reportedly, a leaked copy of the text indicates that the EU is seeking provisions that will ultimately reduce India’s capacity to continue to produce and export generic medicines. Enforcement provisions would include detention and destruction of medicines at the border, increased sanctions against alleged patent and trademark violations, extended liability against distributors of generic medicines including such non-profits as MSF and even regulatory authorities. Stronger investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanisms would also allow corporations to bring suit against the Indian government.

Protests against these provisions have been held in India, Malaysia, and Thailand. The MSF also protested in front of the offices of the European Commission and has launched a campaign to have the provisions removed

Yes, trade deals bring winners and the inevitable losers. But the losers are supposed to be uncompetitive businesses and industries. It is not acceptable that ordinary citizens be counted among the losers. Agreements that reduce access to life-giving medicines create losers of poor countries and their citizens. Trade negotiators and policymakers who pursue such agendas are inviting more Seattle’s and Cancun’s, or alternatively agreements that can be signed only in relative secrecy and under high security. None of this fits the rhetoric of trade deals as a means of promoting growth and development.