Trade is a 'we the people' decision not to be left to back-room dealing

Fast-Track to Freer Trade Promises Bumpy Ride

The Clinton administration is mounting an all-out campaign to get "fast-track" authority for negotiating international trade treaties. Fast-track is a way for the president to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to other countries in the Western hemisphere and force Congress to vote up or down with no debate on the details of these influential treaties.

Instead of our elected representatives leading a public discussion of crucial issues such as how globalization of the economy is affecting us all, fast-track cripples democratic process by preventing Congress from amending treaties negotiated by the executive branch. This removes decisionmaking further from "we the people" and into the luxury suites of corporate lawyers.

If we're going to expand the NAFTA model, a logical question is: How have the majority of people in Mexico, Canada, and the US fared thus far under NAFTA?

Well, the data is in and it's not pretty. Some companies benefited, especially those able to move their factories to Mexico, where they profit from low-cost labor and lax environmental safeguards. But the large majority of workers and small businesspeople in the three countries have seen their living conditions depressed by NAFTA. More unemployment, more small-business failures, more rapid destruction of natural resources, more drug smuggling, and increased health threats from imported food do not spell success in most people's dictionaries of life.

Free-trade agreements lessen government obstacles to the free movement of capital around the world, so transnational banks and corporations get greater flexibility and higher profits. The problem is that most people in the world live from labor, not investments. So greater freedom of movement for companies means they are in a better position to hold down our wages by threatening to move their operations to places such as Indonesia and China, where workers can get the death penalty for demanding trade union rights.

Now Clinton and his country club pals from the major industrial countries are preparing a global bill of rights for investors called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). This treaty will transform government of, by, and for the people into government of, by, and for the corporations.

The MAI will put strict legal limits on how much a national or local government can set investment policies. All signatory countries will be required to treat foreign investors no worse than local investors. Local laws favoring mom-and-pop enterprises over transnational corporations will come to an end.

The MAI will prohibit governments from imposing "performance requirements" on foreign investors. These include laws affecting employment, local reinvestment, and environmental safeguards. The MAI also will undermine the ability of the public to press for laws pressuring corporations on human rights issues. Lori Wallach of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen suggests, "If the MAI were in effect during the days of apartheid, Nelson Mandela would be still in prison."

The MAI would give investors a powerful new tool: the ability of companies to sue governments in a special international business court in order to force governments to change policies contrary to the MAI's "free market" rules.

"We are writing the constitution of a single global economy," Renato Ruggiero, director of the World Trade Organization, admitted.

It's perfectly logical that international treaties that free up large transnational companies wouldn't function in the interests of the broad majority. That's precisely why people like Bill Clinton want to negotiate and enact these treaties behind voters' backs. If the voters knew what fast-track and NAFTA and the MAI are all about, there'd be open rebellion. That's why Bill Clinton wants authority to negotiate secretly before he can be stopped.

Don't sit on your hands on this one. We the people deserve a full public debate on international treaties that facilitate economic globalization.

* Kevin Danaher is a co-founder of Global Exchange, a human rights center based in San Francisco.

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