While the Bush administration pushes Congress to approve “fast track” trade negotiation authority, environmental and public interest groups filed suit today in US District Court in Washington, DC, against US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick for stonewalling public access to the US negotiating position on the US-Chile Free Trade Agreement. Zoellick was required, by August 2nd, 2001, to respond to a request for documents relating to the administration’s plans to accept new international trade rules.
The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for International Environmental Law, Friends of the Earth and Public Citizen. These groups are concerned that the new international trade rules could weaken US and Chilean environmental and health standards. When the documents are released, the American groups plan to use the documents to provide input to US negotiators regarding the agreement’s environmental impacts, and will share them with sister public interest organizations in Chile also seeking democratic openness in trade rule making.
“Time is of the essence here,” said Stephen Porter, Senior Attorney with CIEL. “The Administration is rushing to conclude negotiations by year’s end, but is doing so behind a cloak of secrecy. If these trade deal are so important and will deliver the benefits their supporters claim, then why aren’t they conducted in a public manner?”
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the groups asked USTR to disclose documents it provided to Chilean negotiators during meetings over the last two years to discuss provisions of the proposed trade agreement, including rules that would limit the ability of US local and national governments to protect their own health standards and environmental protection laws. Similar investment protection provisions in the NAFTA have been the basis for a $1 billion dollar challenge to a California plan to phase out the use of the harmful gasoline additive MTBE and a $16 million dollar award to the US-based Metalclad corporation after local Mexican government officials refused to authorize the company to build a hazardous waste facility that could have contaminated drinking water. Extending these rules in an agreement with Chile could further weaken the ability of the United States and Chile to protect the environment and human health.
“Shrouding the negotiations in secrecy hardly gives the public confidence that US trade negotiators have the interests of working American families at heart,” said Mary Bottari, director of the Harmonization Project of Public Citizen. “One can only suspect that our trade negotiators are busily spreading NAFTA’s problems to the rest of the hemisphere.”
“USTR appears to be on the verge of replicating NAFTA’s failed and discredited investment rules in new trade agreements, including the one with Chile,” said David Waskow, Trade and Investment Policy Coordinator for Friends of the Earth. “The public should be able to find out whether negotiators intend to give even more foreign investors the right to challenge environmental and public interest protections.”
“Transparency and public participation are hallmarks of democracy,” said Martin Wagner, Director of International Programs for Earthjustice. “If citizens are kept in the dark until negotiations are completed, they will never be able to provide useful advice concerning rules that would directly affect their lives and health. The important decisions happen early in the process. We are only left to wonder what they’re trying to hide. Are US trade officials giving foreign investors the power to overturn our health and environmental laws? The Bush administration won’t say. We are suing for openness.”