Robin Broad and John Cavanagh
Over the past several decades,
multinational corporate Goliaths have helped to write and rewrite
hundreds of rules skewing tax, trade, investment and other policies in
their favor. The extraordinary damage these policies have caused has
become increasingly apparent to the communities and governments most
directly affected by them. This, in turn, has strengthened the potential
of a movement that’s emerging to try to reverse the momentum. But just
like David with his slingshot, the local, environmental and government
leaders seeking to revise rules to favor communities and the planet must
pick their battles carefully.
One of the most promising of these battles takes aim at an egregious
set of agreements that allow corporations to sue national governments.
Until three decades ago, governments could pass laws to protect
consumers, workers, health, the environment and domestic firms with
little threat of outside legal challenge from corporations. All that
changed when corporations started acquiring the “right” to sue
governments over actions—including public interest regulations—that
reduce the value of their investments. These rights first appeared in
little-known bilateral investment treaties. Twenty years ago, corporate
lawyers embedded them in the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA). Today, more than 3,000 trade and investment agreements and even
some national investment laws grant foreign investors these powers.
The Obama administration is attempting to insert similar
anti-democratic investor protections in new trade and investment
agreements with countries that border the Pacific and with the European
Union. Hoping to expedite the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)
and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP),
congressional leaders introduced fast- track trade promotion legislation
on January 9 that would severely limit Congress’s ability to amend such
agreements. The widely anticipated move set off a storm of protest from
unions, environmentalists, liberal members of Congress and others, and
will likely remain a high-profile fight in the coming weeks.