This article was originally published in Fair Observer.
By Craig Moran
The July 2015 U.S. State Department Trafficking in People report was met with staunch criticism both from congressional lawmakers and human rights activists after Malaysia, previously given the worst available Tier 3 ranking for modern slavery and trafficking, was upgraded to a Tier 2 status, despite the lack of evidence to justify the move. Critics were quick to note that the decision was a political one. U.S. President Barack Obama’s newfound authority to lead the fast-track Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations essentially banned any Tier 3 countries on the trafficking list to partake in it, leading Democratic Senator Bob Menendez to argue that Malaysia’s upgrade “is a clear politicization of the report.”
That’s enough of a problem in and of itself, but what is even worse is the fact that, in an attempt to fast-track the deal, the U.S. may not even include the environmentally protective measures necessary to change such harmful international business practices and ensure that obligations are enforced.
But the word on the street is the TPP, set to be the largest and “most progressive” trade agreement in history, affecting 792 million people and making up 40 percent of the world economy, could significantly slow down and even stop harmful business practices that lead to environmental damage. So far, the TPP is still a pending trade agreement between the United States and 11 nations: Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Japan.
One crucial issue from the negotiations has come to the forefront of the current discussion and attracted some of the largest criticisms from environmental advocates: the environmental impact of the deal. According to a summary of the environment chapter of the deal obtained by The New York Times, the 12 countries “cover environmentally sensitive regions from tundra to island ecosystems, and from the world’s largest coral reefs to its largest rain forest.” The document says the deal “addresses these challenges in detail.”
In most of the countries that would fall into the agreement, illegal logging, wildlife trafficking, and overfishing are common. If enforced, such a concrete chapter would be a game changer for these countries’ environmental landscape. For Vietnam and Malaysia, stringent environmental requirements on wildlife trafficking could oblige environmental ministries to crack down on poachers. Furthermore, for Malaysia—which not only suffers from migrant and wildlife trafficking, and deforestation from palm oil plantations, but also a ballooning illegal bauxite mining industry—the environmental chapter of the TPP could provide incentives to regulate these industries and promote a sustainable development growth model.
Currently, Malaysia’s unregulated bauxite mining industry, having grown significantly over the past year as China seeks to replace imports of bauxite ore from Indonesia (the country banned exports of raw materials in January 2014), has largely contributed to the deforestation of vast rainforests, releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere that have led to an uptick in health problems for the population concerned.
According to local media, the unregulated industry could be “leaking radioactive material into parts of the Malaysian state, turning natural green waters to a deep dark hue.” The TPP environmental chapter could play a vital role in ensuring stringent guidelines for the industry are adopted to ensure mining operators are bound by strict health and environmental regulations. This would weed out the illegal bauxite miners, loggers, poachers, and traffickers. This is one instance where the controversial investor state dispute settlement clause could actually be used to force compliance from states.
An Agreement Shrouded in Secrecy
However, the key issue today, in the event of the deal being successful, is the fact that the enforcement of environmental protections in the agreement would be very difficult to uphold. Promoting “obligations” over “requirements,” the environmental chapter may result in a failure of these countries to adhere to environmental standards. But ignoring obligations may result in trade sanctions, which supporters claim will discourage countries from failing to comply.
According to Jeffery Frankel, a professor of capital formation and growth at Harvard: “In most international trade agreements, and international agreements of any sort, enforcement is always an issue because no country wants a violation of their sovereignty. But trade sanctions as part of trade agreements have turned out to be pretty effective relative to anything else in enforcing international agreements.”
Despite optimistic promises, another complaint against the TPP is the agreement is too secretive, with access reserved for certain Congress members and staffers with security clearance, essentially eradicating any method of accountability for the deal. While assurances from negotiators that agreements have been reached for the “environmental protection of some of the most sensitive, diverse and threatened ecosystems on earth,” a previous version of the agreement leaked in January 2014 poured cold water on such reports. According to the Wikileaks report, the use of language such as “seek” or “attempt” mean that any steps taken to protect the environment would lack legal enforce-ability.
But hope still remains that challenges can be addressed and the TPP can indeed become a game-changing agreement with positive impacts on the environment. It is up to the U.S. to ensure that it respects its own values enough, and not bend over and sacrifice vital parts of the agreement, in the name of “fast-tracking” one of the most important trade deals the world has ever seen.
Craig Moran is an independent geopolitical consultant. He has experience in energy and natural resources planning, assessing and advising on political and security risks, and handling constitutional and legislative issues across multiple territories.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]