Meera Nair

TPP and ISDS – more acronyms

In Posts on December 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm

“Countries that want to preserve flexibility on copyright term pretty much have no strategy in the TPP. Canada is about to fold.”

This tweet came early Friday morning from James Love, Director of Knowledge Ecology International. Love is in Singapore watching the latest drama of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. However, given that Canada officially has no negotiating power, its efforts to opposing copyright maximalism may not matter anyway. (Thomas Walkom, of The Toronto Star reported in 2012 that Canada’s admittance to the group did not include the right of negotiation.)

As many readers know, the TPP is a trade agreement in the making, negotiated in secrecy (except for privileged members of the business class). In November, Wikileaks published details of the negotiations with respect to intellectual property rights; they did not look promising. At that time, Michael Geist offered a series of posts detailing the shortcomings of the agreement. In his first post, Geist wrote:

The good news is that Canada is pushing back against many U.S. demands by promoting provisions that are consistent with current Canadian law. Canada is often joined by New Zealand, Malaysia, Mexico, Chile, Vietnam, Peru, and Brunei Darussalam. Japan and Singapore are part of this same group on many issues. Interestingly, Canada has also promoted Canadian-specific solutions on many issues. The bad news is that the U.S. – often joined by Australia – is demanding that Canada rollback its recent copyright reform legislation with a long list of draconian proposals. …

And in his regular column with The Toronto Star, Geist added:

The U.S. finds itself relatively isolated on many issues, with only Australia offering consistent support for its positions. For example, Canada and most other TPP countries support a general objectives provision that references the need for balance, promotion of the public domain, protection of public health, and measures to ensure that intellectual property rights themselves do not become barriers to trade. The U.S. and Japan oppose these objectives.

If the U.S. is successful in pressuring other countries to meet its demands, Canada would be required to radically overhaul its current law, reversing course on many of the rules the government recently enacted as part of its long-awaited copyright reform package or negotiated in the trade agreement with the European Union.

Returning to Love’s assessment of the current talks, the prospects of Canada (or any country) maintaining a sovereign system of copyright looks bleak. Copyright term extension is high on the list of demands; earlier today Love tweeted: “One USTR official I talked to said, yes, 70+ life copyright terms [are] wrong. But Europe made us do it, and now, we need everyone to follow.” Even more disturbing was the news that Mexico is arguing for “at least” life plus 100.

Yet copyright may be the least of our problems.

By far the most insidious part of the TPP is the determination by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to further entrench the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) process. This mode of dispute resolution allows corporations to sue governments, not through courts of law, but in private tribunals. Earlier this year, law professor Brook Baker published a comprehensive examination of the risks ISDS poses to access to medicines:

Suddenly intellectual property rights, already hugely protected, are given another mantle of protection, namely protections as investments.  In addition, investors are given rights to bring claims for private arbitration directly against governments whenever their expectations of IP-based profits are frustrated by government decisions and policies.   Decisions of these private arbitral tribunals consisting of three international trade lawyers are not subject to judicial review, but are reducible into court judgments that can be levied against government property.

The principle behind compensation for thwarted expectation may have seemed rational at its outset (investor-state dispute mechanisms were first introduced in NAFTA in 1994) — to ensure corporations have recourse against unstable governments whose court systems may lack objectivity and rigour. But the mechanism has allowed egregious actions by corporations directly against governments, sidestepping robust courts of law. That health, environmental, or financial regulations seem to hinder corporate profit, is considered sufficient cause to bring action. That these regulations serve the citizens of that elected government is irrelevant.

In a TPP information session in Singapore, Melinda St. Louis of Public Citizen gave a presentation describing actions brought under ISDS; video available here.  Some of the highlights:

  • Even municipal actions can provoke claims of frustrated expectation.
  • The private attorneys who participate in the proceedings rotate between serving as arbitrators and serving as judges.
  • Tribunal rulings are not bound by precedent.
  • There is no means for appeal.
  • Governments cannot counter-sue investors.
  • The proceedings are very expensive for governments; it is in the interests of the tribunal arbitrators to drag out proceedings as even if the government wins, “almost always they are ordered to pay half the tribunal costs.”
  • Tribunals have the discretion to award unlimited damages.
  • Each year, the number of disputes increases.
  • An example from St. Louis’ list (there were many): Occidental Petroleum (OP) breached their contract with the Ecuadorian government; the tribunal recognized the breach of contract but still awarded OP $2.4 billion to be paid by the government.
  • Canada features in the list a few times; including the matter of Eli Lilly.  As I have written before, the U.S.-based pharmaceutical company has taken issue with Canadian courts’ invalidation of patents for two drugs and is seeking $500 million. St. Louis emphasizes how significant this case is: “[Eli Lilly is] actually challenging Canada’s entire patenting system.”

As a result of numerous actions against governments, many countries are starting to question whether ISDS should be part of trade agreements. Intriguingly, all 50 state legislatures in the United States passed a resolution opposing ISDS in trade agreements. Which makes it all the more perplexing that Canada appears to have already agreed to such terms in the purported Canada-EU free trade agreement. Announced in October by the Harper government as an agreement in principle, the text has not yet been publicly disclosed.  But in the summary document provided by our government, discussion of ISDS is artfully worded:

The process that investors follow to seek compensation is called “investor-to-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) and involves an independent arbitral panel hearing facts and making a decision on the merits of an investor’s claim. ISDS rules have been a standard feature of Canada’s comprehensive free trade agreements since the North American Free Trade Agreement and give assurance to investors that their investments will be protected from discriminatory or arbitrary government actions (p.21).  …

When individuals have disagreements, they have various ways to resolve them. They can try to negotiate  among themselves or, if that doesn’t work, they can seek the help of an impartial third party such as a mediator, an arbitrator or a court. Trade disputes between countries work much the same way. Trade agreements include various dispute resolution mechanisms so that governments can resolve their disagreements. For instance, when consultations fail to resolve a problem, trade agreements provide governments with the option of using impartial third parties to help resolve the dispute. In some cases, these third parties act like courts in the sense that they hear evidence from both sides and ultimately render binding decisions (p.38).

While our government assures us that the agreement, “includes provisions to guard against frivolous claims in order to ensure that the process will not be abused,” the disparate bargaining positions vis-à-vis the Europeans do not bode well for Canadians; see this assessment of the imbalanced negotiation by Gus Van Harten (an Associate Professor at Osgoode Law and well-versed in international trade).

Our best hope seems to be that saner Canadian heads will prevail before the final language is set. And that other countries can remove the deleterious conditions of ISDS from the TPP.

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