We have seen a rise of political leaders campaigning on a nationalist platform of ‘taking back control’ across the world.
While optically opposed to globalisation, these same leaders are committed to forcing secret trade and investment agreements that prioritise neoliberal privatisation over social protection, enabling a race to the bottom on workers’ rights and climate, environmental and food standards.
Under these agreements, it becomes systematically difficult for political leaders to genuinely protect civilians from health crises (including Covid-19), economic hardship, and unmitigated climate change.
This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.
Doing so can elicit legal challenges in secret tribunals through ‘investor-state dispute settlements’ (ISDS) - a mechanism included in many trade and invest- ment agreements.
Several global law firms have predicted that corporations will sue countries for loss of profits due to measures enacted to protect people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sondhya Gupta, a UK campaign manager at SumOfUs, told The Guardian: “Clearly, companies shouldn’t sue countries over emergency measures to save lives in a global pandemic, and we shouldn’t sign trade agreements that let them.
"We know lower-income countries are struggling most to contain the virus. The threat of rich corporations bullying them out of badly needed public funds to ‘compensate’ them for profit losses will further hamper efforts to fight the virus and add to the burden on future generations.”
As predicted, Spanish, Canadian, Italian, Dutch, British and US corporations plan to sue governments in the Global South for daring to institute regulations aimed at protecting communities from Covid-19 impacts.
At the same time, the Energy Charter Treaty locks signatories into fossil fuel dependence.
In May 2017, UK-based oil and gas company Rockhoppersued Italy after the Italian Parliament banned new oil and gas operations near the country’s coast due environmental and earthquake risks.
The company demanded compensation for “very significant monetary damages”, including lost future profits.
The claim was made under the Energy Charter Treaty’s investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, despite Italy exiting the treaty more than a year before the claim was registered.
This is possible as the treaty protects investors for 20 years after a country withdraws from it, thereby instituting investor interests over the popular political will in the long term.
Indeed, even if investors lose their claims, states incur significant legal costs in defending health, employment, social protection or climate regulations designed to protect us and our environment.
These arbitration mechanisms fail basic standards of judicial independence and fairness, and threaten the re- sponsibility of states to act in the interests of their citizens and the planet.
For this reason, public interest groups, trade unions, and academics have called on governments to oppose investor-state arbitration of the type included in the Treaty.
Furthermore, intellectual property regimes embedded in trade and investment agreements make it more difficult for people to access affordable medicine, green energy, and prevent farmers from saving seeds.
Alongside the race to develop a vaccine for the Covid-19, there is also a rush to patent such developments, which will likely impede universal - or even widespread - access to what will likely be the world’s most in-demand shot.
While the development of almost every Covid-19 drug has been made possible by public research and funding, licensing schemes will hand these treatments over to for-profit corporations, who will then control access to what is and should remain a universal public good; allowing them to profit off the pandemic.
Rather than learning from the mistakes and missteps of the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 1990s, we are repeating them again.
The well-known violations of labour and environmental standards taking place throughout global supply chains are also actively facilitated by global trade agreements.
Goods are made in areas with limited workers’ rights and environmental regulations, and almost no enforcement of any local standards - such conditions are implemented in order to offer the promise of cheap land and labour for global corporations.
As well as factor labour, international trade requires millions of cheap, informal workers on ports to facilitate the transfer of goods like food, drinks, clothes, jewellery, toys, pharmaceuticals, vehicles, minerals, metals and chemicals.
The ‘cheapness’ of these workers is facilitated by the fact many of them are migrants working in dangerous contexts with limited (or no) state recognised rights, and the fact many of them are racially minoritised women. In other words, they are people who have structurally lower political and social power.
At the same time, the pollution produced from shipping these items between ports and where consumers use them are not covered in emissions targets of the Paris Agreement, our international climate change accord.
This omission has huge impacts, as the shipping sector emits over 1 billion tonnes of CO2 a year - more than all but the top five biggest emitting countries.
The International Maritime Organisation sees these emissions levels increasing even more over the next decade. While the goods and merchandise move freely, the carbon embedded in their movement is unregulated and the workers that mine, assemble or pack them are often trapped.
In these ways, trade deals systemically entrench global inequality, climate breakdown and worker exploitation.
Tackling trade and investment agreements must therefore be an essential step in achieving justice-oriented action on climate change, health inequities and economic injustice.
So long as these treaties are intact, genuine advances towards global climate justice are im- possible. Indeed, even treaties agreed on the premise that trade should not happen at the expense of the environment or labour conditions, and - on the contrary - promote sustainable development, largely fail to realise that potential.
They also fail to acknowledge the historical reasons - rooted colonialism and slavery - why some countries have power to determine the terms of trade and investment, while others have do not.
Globally just trade new deals would embed this historical understanding and require a new way of thinking about who has access to what, and the principles underpinning international relations.
More immediately, impact assessments into climate, environmental and labour conditions affected by trade should review the intersecting challenges faced by the paid and unpaid labourers who make global trade possible.
Trade agreements can require the reduction of carbon emissions, ensure protection against deforestation, protect the rights of indigenous peoples, require decent work and ensure foreign investors pay towards social protection schemes through proressive forms of taxation.
However, the countries that negotiate these trade agreements must not forget their differing responsibilities for funding the work required to transform these commitments from paper to action.
Civil society can continue to have a role in monitoring whether trade and investment conditions are being met and require enforcement action through independent, transparent, accessible and binding dispute resolution processes and mechanisms.