Little Transparency After Three Rounds of NAFTA Renegotiations

Negotiators from Canada, Mexico, and the United States met behind closed doors for the third round of NAFTA renegotiations in late September, leaving the general public in the dark about how issues were discussed and without any opportunity to provide input.

The first three rounds of negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lacked transparency, as countries have kept trade positions secret and excluded civil society participation. Although Canada proposed including stakeholder negotiation days, the US and Mexico opposed this inclusion. CIEL has demanded that transparency, public participation in negotiations, and stronger environmental regulations be prioritized in the new NAFTA.

One unsurprising outcome was the confirmation that Parties’ negotiating positions will be kept confidential for four years, unless a Party chooses to disclose its position earlier. Government briefings about these negotiations are generally limited to cleared advisors — people who disproportionately represent industry interests. This all but guarantees that civil society will be excluded from meaningful involvement in any stage of these negotiations, while giving big business a seat at the table. This sets NAFTA up to pander to corporate interests at the expense of people, planet, climate, health, and human rights.

Transparency should not be a radical idea; it’s been done before. During the EU-Mexico trade deal negotiations, the European Union made their positions public by publishing them after each negotiation round. This transparency allows the public to know what is going on and to ensure that their interests are being taken into account.

Of particular concern is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provision. This chapter allows multinational corporations to sue governments for unlimited sums, including the loss of future expected profit. Corporations claim that government laws and policies hinder their NAFTA rights, like “fair and equitable treatment.” This means that taxpayer dollars are going to corporations because regulations, like environmental and public health policies, interfere with their ability to make a profit. Social organizations in the US, Mexico, and Canada have all opposed the inclusion of ISDS in NAFTA.

For example, Colombia denied the company Eco Oro a permit to mine in a fragile wetland ecosystem that provides fresh water for millions of people. Unhappy with the country’s decision to protect its people, Eco Oro took Colombia to court through the ISDS system for millions of dollars in lost potential profits.

Further, in El Salvador, the company Pacific Rim sought a mining extraction permit, but the government refused to grant it. Pacific Rim went on to sue El Salvador for lost profits and used ISDS protections for their claim. Even though the tribunal ruled against Pacific Rim, El Salvador still spent $12 million taxpayer dollars to defend itself against the lawsuit. CIEL has supported local communities in their defense of their right to water in these cases and in a similar case in Romania.

There’s no doubt that the world has changed since the treaty’s creation in 1994. Technological advancements and changing opinions on social issues emphasize the need to revisit many topics, like economic equality and climate change. How negotiators engage with these issues will determine if a new NAFTA makes any substantive steps towards not just free but better trade within North America. Without access to information and the opportunity for public input, these negotiations bode poorly for an improved NAFTA that promotes trade that protects people and the planet – and may instead worsen the treaty.

More than 200,000 people have signed a petition against the inclusion of ISDS in the new NAFTA. CIEL, along with these supporters, will be watching the outcomes of the NAFTA renegotiations carefully to ensure transparency, equality, and human rights are upheld for the future of trade and the environment.

By Maddie Bridge, Communications Intern

Originally posted on October 2, 2017