What Trump's vow to quit TPP trade deal means for human rights

President-elect Donald Trump will make withdrawing from the TPP a priority 'from day one,' he said. 

President-elect Donald Trump's reiteration Monday of plans to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has some international trade scholars wondering if the agreement – and its included human rights protections – will be able to survive without US participation.

In a video outlining his priorities for his first 100 days in office, Mr. Trump declared withdrawal from the TPP a "day-one" priority and announced that he would issue a note of intent to withdraw from the multilateral trade agreement, which was signed in February but has yet to be ratified. In its place, he said, he will “negotiate fair, bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores.”

If the US does not ratify the treaty, the other 11 partner nations may choose to authorize a version of the agreement that maintains the rights protections embedded in the treaty, or the entire agreement may collapse.

Of course, US ratification of the deal was never a foregone conclusion. Even before the election, the TPP faced bipartisan opposition.

Both Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, said during the campaign that they opposed the agreement. Sen. Charles Schumer, who will lead the Senate’s Democratic minority in the next Congress, told labor leaders that Congress would not approve the deal, while Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said that it would not get a look during the lame duck session.

The US public is slightly more divided, and most people still don’t know much about the terms of the treaty. An August Morning Consult poll found that 62 percent of voters surveyed had heard little or nothing about the agreement.

Proponents of the TPP, a multilateral trade deal between 12 countries which represent 40 percent of the global economy, say the deal would deepen economic ties between countries and simplify trade by replacing dozens of multilateral agreements between participating countries.

Opposition within the US tends to center on a desire to keep jobs at home. According to Raj Bhala, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law who writes about international trade law, there’s a “false premise about what the gains from TPP are.”

Free trade was intended not to create jobs, he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, but to allow for specialization and the production of more goods at lower prices.

“We’re not losing jobs simply because we’ve opened trade,” he explains. “We’re losing jobs because of technological change and inadequate investment in education.”

Scrapping the TPP won’t bring jobs back, Professor Bhala argues. And without the TPP, “positive legal developments” that tie trade policy to other issues – including labor, the environment, and women’s rights – would be lost.

But not everyone agrees that the TPP is the best way to protect those social benefits. In an email to the Monitor, three professors from the State University of New York, Buffalo, Trina Hamilton, Marion Werner, and Abigail Cooke – who recently organized an international symposium about the deal – write that TPP could have detrimental impacts on health care and the world environment, among other areas.

The intellectual property provisions, for instance, reduce competition in the pharmaceutical industry and push drug prices up, they argue.

“This is obviously an issue for health care access in developing countries, but also part of the problem of skyrocketing health care costs in the United States,” the professors explain.

They also note that fossil fuel companies may use certain provisions in the agreement to challenge future government environmental regulations, “creating another barrier to global progress on climate change.” Withdrawing from the deal might prevent some of these negative consequences, though the professors emphasize that they do not support Trump’s reasons for rejecting the agreement.

Current rules say TPP will enter into force once it has been ratified by 6 countries constituting 85 percent of the group’s gross domestic product. Without the US, which represents 60 percent of the combined GDP, this looks unlikely. But Bhala suggests the other 11 countries should not despair if the US carries through on its promise to leave.

“This should not be a case of ‘the Americans or nothing’,” he says, suggesting that the remaining TPP countries could lower the benchmark for ratification and enter into the agreement themselves. “The US can still join later.” Several of the remaining TPP countries could continue the push for rights protection, he says.

But keeping the deal alive may involve amending it to remove provisions the US pushed for, notes Meredith Kolsky Lewis, a law professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School, in an email to the Monitor.

Moreover, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called the deal “meaningless” without the US, suggesting that momentum may shift toward other trade deals that have less focus on rights.

[Editor's note: The article has been corrected to clarify the types of environmental regulations that may be challenged under the agreement.]

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