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UN criticizes Obama's big trade deals

UN human rights experts warn that controversial Pacific, European trade pacts could 'aggravate' extreme poverty

The United Nations this week waded into the debate over two controversial trade deals championed by President Barack Obama, warning that the agreements could “aggravate the problem of extreme poverty” and damage human rights, and calling for more transparency in negotiations.

The statement from the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed the controversial 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a separate treaty being negotiated between the United States and the European Union.

“There is a legitimate concern that both bilateral and multilateral investment treaties might aggravate the problem of extreme poverty, jeopardize fair and efficient foreign debt renegotiation, and affect the rights of indigenous peoples, minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, and other persons [living] in vulnerable situations,” the statement read.

In addition to lowering tariffs and improving market access for participating countries, the two agreements would set international standards on environmental regulations, food safety standards, worker rights and intellectual property, among other trade issues. Critics say the deals have been written to benefit corporations. Detractors are also challenging the assertion — made by Obama and other defenders — that free trade agreements raise labor standards and wages around the world.

The U.N. statement, which included analysis from 10 independent experts in subject areas ranging from democratic governance to cultural rights, highlighted particular unease with a provision called “investor-state dispute settlement,” which allows international investors to legally challenge government regulations that might undermine their profits.

These provisions “provide protection for investors but not for states or for the population,” the statement read. “They allow investors to sue States but not vice-versa.”

The U.N. statement also called for greater transparency, recommending that draft texts of the treaties be available to the public and that the negotiations include labor unions, consumer protection groups and environmentalists. Most of the text of the two agreements remains classified — available only to lawmakers, lobbyists and staff with a security clearance. The Obama administration has argued that such secrecy is required to keep countries at the negotiating table.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the statement.

Organizations that have rallied against the Trans-Pacific Partnership say U.N. statement validates their concerns.

“We realize the policymakers here don’t take too much notice of what the United Nations says anyways, but it does add to a chorus of voices of concerns here and around the world and shows that this is not a fringe opinion,” said Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization that lobbies for digital rights.

In the U.S., Congress is currently debating legislation to give the president the authority to accelerate the passage of such trade deals by subjecting the pacts to only majority votes among lawmakers. The bill passed the Senate after a protracted battle and now goes to the House of Represenatives, where its fate is uncertain.

Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, said that preventing Obama from gaining this so-called “fast-track” authority is the last best chance to include provisions more favorable to workers.  

 “There’s a different way to do this that respects human rights and workers’ rights of the people involved, and when you can do that, you have far better economic outcomes,” Drake said. “[This model of] trade and investment or nothing — that’s not the choice."

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