THE WORLD'S largest journalists' group, the International Federation of Journalists, today condemned a "sinister process of secrecy" that has excluded civil society groups and citizens from negotiations on a new trade agreement between 34 countries to be discussed at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec next week.
The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is the name given to the process of expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to all other countries of the Western Hemisphere except Cuba. With a population of 800 million and a combined GDP of $11 trillion (US), the FTAA would be the largest free trade zone in the world.
In a statement issued today, and backed by its member organisations throughout the Americas, the IFJ claims the new trade pact will be "a charter for state-corporate power threatening the fundamental rights of millions of people in the western hemisphere and undermining social programmes, environmental protection and natural resources."
The IFJ accuses governments of negotiating in secret with scant regard for citizens' rights. At the same time more than 500 representatives of corporations in the region have had privileged access to FTAA negotiating documents.
"This is a shameful exercise. The most far-reaching free trade agreement in the world, with a scope that will reach into every area of life for citizens of the Americas, is being discussed behind closed doors," said Christopher Warren, President of the IFJ, "It threatens the foundations of democracy."
The IFJ demands that the current FTAA negotiations are revised in favour of an inclusive and democratic process that will promote open government and will respect the concerns of all people. "The debate about international trade should no longer take place within a charmed circle of sheltered political elites, bureaucrats and corporate power brokers", says the IFJ.
The IFJ, representing unions and associations of journalists in more than 100 countries, says that the FTAA is part of a poisonous web of secrecy that cloaks international trade discussions. In February the IFJ protested to the World Bank over undue secrecy in its work and the IFJ's regional group in Europe, the European Federation of Journalists, has been campaigning for years to end secrecy within the institutions of the European Union.
"The business of international trade and politics is increasingly subject to confidentiality and secret deals in which the public are denied access to vital information," says the IFJ.
IFJ associations and trade unions of journalists throughout Latin America and the United States and Canada will be taking up this theme in protests to their national governments over the way the talks on the FTAA have been conducted. "The danger is that the FTAA will encourage more secrecy in public life, not less," says the IFJ.
Under the draft text for the FTAA to be discussed next week corporations will be able to sue governments in the region for compensation if national laws hit their profits. These cases will be heard through secretive international tribunals used under the NAFTA.
"While confidentiality may protect commercial interests it amounts to secret government when it can influence the enforcement of national laws," says the IFJ. " Corporations are using NAFTA to challenge the functioning of national government."
The IFJ warns that national rules covering environmental protection, trade union and labour rights, public services and cultural heritage are all under threat. Corporations are suing governments for profit loss - even where it acts to protect the health of its citizens.
The IFJ points to the example of the Ethyl Corporation that used NAFTA rules to challenge Canadian government restrictions on production of an ethanol-based petrol additive, which was considered hazardous to health. The company received 13$million compensation and the Canadian Government had to lift its ban.
Another tribunal case pending concerns United Parcel Service a corporation that is challenging the very existence of the publicly financed Canadian postal system claiming that it represents unfair competition. If the claim is upheld it could undermine government participation in any service that competes with the private sector.
Despite claims by its supporters in the early 1990s that NAFTA would make countries more productive, it has only enabled large corporations to expand the scale of their operations at the expense of the public interest.
"The prospect of a dramatic expansion of the excessive powers enjoyed by corporations under NAFTA to other countries in the region is disastrous," warns the IFJ.
The IFJ says closer ties between countries in the Americas and around the world are vital, but they should not be based upon the assumptions and goals of the FTAA. An international trading system based upon democracy, sustainability, diversity and development must be the priority. But first "it is time for governments to open themselves up to public scrutiny and give democracy back to the people."