Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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How the Trans-Pacific Partnership fails human rights

By Rodrigo Bacus

On Nov. 5, 2015, the Obama administration released the full text of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), triggering a three-month Congressional review for approval. The TPP was negotiated between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States, representing around 40 percent of the world economy. The TPP covers a broad range of topics including patents, intellectual property, labor trade, free trade, investments and the environment. Since 2008, the TPP has been negotiated in secret, attended mostly by large corporations and their lawyers, prompting criticism from various groups that were concerned over the effects of the agreement’s provisions. These concerns were exacerbated when WikiLeaks released some draft provisions of the agreement in 2013, confirming many groups’ fears over human rights protections in the agreement. The full 2015 text of the TPP has not made much of an improvement in its rights protection language since 2013, notably lacking any reference to the term “human rights” in any of its chapters. The TPP’s controversial provisions have prompted different rights organizations to actively campaign against the agreement, highlighting various issues relating to labor, the environment and healthcare. What’s worse is that the TPP’s primary enforcement mechanism, which prioritizes the rights of corporations, pulverizes national sovereignty in the interest of profit. Given these provisions, the TPP is deliberately set up to benefit private corporations and the global elite.


The Office of the United States Trade Representative, among other supporters of TPP, promises that the agreement will “level the playing field” of labor rights and standards. Yet, the actual provisions of the TPP belie modest improvements to labor rights that do not address other important concerns of labor organizations around the world. The TPP does not reference the fundamental conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which protect the right to organize, collective bargaining and equal remuneration, and also prohibit child labor, forced labor and discrimination. The agreement refers only to core labor rights in the ILO Declaration of 1998 and completely omits the core right to equal remuneration (sometimes referred to as “equal pay for men and women”). Lacking a reference to ILO Conventions limits the ability to hold state governments and corporations accountable to labor rights to the TPP’s enforcement mechanism. Failing to include the core right to equal remuneration ignores the impact that globalization and free trade has had on the welfare of women laborers around the world.

Moreover, the TPP allows for derogations from “acceptable conditions of work” if the company’s lowered standards do not otherwise impose forced labor, child labor, discrimination, or restrictions on collective bargaining and unionization. This means that a company does not have to meet minimum wage, work hours or health and safety standards so long as their conditions do not violate core labor rights, except for equal remuneration, and the company is outside of export processing zones or other special zones. As a result, most laborers are more vulnerable to violations of labor rights under the TPP.

Not to mention, the TPP omits reference to or protections related to other contemporary labor issues championed by labor organizations around the world. Many labor organizations have been pushing for the creation of a living wage standard, which takes into account the needs of laborers around the world as it is tied to their welfare and conditions inside and outside of work. The language suggested by labor rights organizations is reflected in the ILO’s Minimum Wage Fixing Recommendation, which makes the goal of the living wage standard “to overcome poverty and to ensure the satisfaction of the needs of all workers and their families.” In comparison, the TPP’s provision of adopting and maintaining “acceptable conditions of work” is weak, omitting the goal of standards of wage and labor conditions to address poverty and limiting the interpretation of “acceptable” to TPP’s self-contained enforcement mechanism.


There are similar concerns that the TPP’s provisions on environmental preservation are noncommittal, and trump actual obligations by nation-states under multilateral environmental conventions. The TPP does not prohibit the trade of lumber and wildlife products acquired through means that violate environmental laws, obligate countries to abide by trade-related provisions related to conservation or ban certain forms of industries that affect wildlife and environmental conservation. Instead, it asks countries “to combat” illegal trade, “endeavor not to undermine” country obligations to the conservation of fish and other industries and only “promote” the conservation of sharks and other species. The TPP’s language on environmental issues is essentially retrogressive of many multilateral environmental conventions that have been made in the past. Moreover, it only mentions one such multilateral environmental convention, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, binding only the TPP signatories who are also parties to that convention.

Despite a global message from people’s movements fighting against climate change, the TPP makes no mention of “climate change” in its chapter on the environment. What it does have are weak provisions on emissions and the protection of the ozone layer. The low emissions provision only “acknowledges” a “transition” to a low emission economy. The provisions on the ozone layer only control the production, consumption and trade of substances in the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The Montreal Protocol only lists various fluorocarbon gases known to deplete the ozone layer (CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs); it does not cover a wide range of other products that directly impact climate change, such as fossil fuels. The TPP does give corporations the ability to enforce their expectations of profit on fossil fuel extraction on signatory states through the TPP’s self-contained enforcement mechanism. Looking at analogous trade agreements suggests that such a mechanism will have a chilling and damaging effect on efforts to protect the environment. As an example, El Salvador’s choice to listen to its people and hold off on resource exploration to preserve the environment was met with an arbitration case with damage claims far exceeding the country’s GDP.


The TPP’s provisions on intellectual property also raise concerns about healthcare and the access and availability of affordable lifesaving medication. Modeled after the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, the TPP’s patent provisions significantly strengthen the ability of pharmaceutical companies to easily acquire patents over newly developed medication and, in most cases, extend the monopoly period of such medication after the patent is acquired. In return, the TPP includes some “understandings” that merely “affirm” the signatories’ commitment to public health and provides for a limited option for countries to protect public health during health crisis situations. Countries may take other measures, but they are not otherwise obligated and are still subject to the TPP’s self-contained enforcement mechanisms when taking such measures, which will be discussed later.

The concerns related to access and availability of medication under TRIPS and similar agreements (generally known as TRIPS plus agreements) are well-known. The traditional intellectual property rights regime creates two problems when it comes to lifesaving medication. On the one hand, pharmaceutical companies are incentivized purely through sales profits when inventing medication, thus leaving inadequate incentive to research and develop products that save the lives of poor people. In addition, even if a company has created a particular medicine, the monopoly provisions of a traditional intellectual property regime allows the company to raise the drug prices for maximum profit, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the poor to afford the available medication. The provisions in the TPP do not address either problem of access to and availability of lifesaving medication, leaving states to address public health crises, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and Ebola, with whatever methods or devices they had in the past. Yet, such practices could come under attack due to the private enforcement mechanism that is available only for corporations under the TPP, which will be discussed in-depth in the next section.


The biggest problem with the TPP’s provisions is its overarching enforcement mechanism that uses private arbitration tribunals to resolve disputes between companies and states. Even if the TPP’s provisions on labor, environment, and health care were more rights-respecting, such an enforcement mechanism still highly favors companies over the interests of the signatory governments, let alone the people of those countries. An arbitration tribunal comprises of a panel of arbitrators, usually three individuals, who make decisions over a dispute between two parties. Because the arbitration is private, the parties are often under contract not to disclose the details of the case. However, unlike companies, states have to be accountable to their constituents, particularly relating to their obligations under human rights law. Investor-state arbitrations are still generally private affairs, with some cases released to the public under mounting pressure from people directly affected by them.

Investor-state disputes have also historically favored corporate interests over state interests. When analyzing disputes based on their merits, corporations win a favorable decision 60 percent of the time. Arbitration panels also tend to comprise of a small group of career arbitrators, with an “elite 15” making decisions in 55 percent of investment treaty cases. This essentially creates an oligarchy of arbitrators that favor corporate interests over the state or its people. Meanwhile, the interests of the people, including their human rights and dignity, are generally left out of such a dispute. In particular, under the TPP, states are unable to uphold human rights and other obligations because they are explicitly left out of the TPP’s provisions.

The most egregious issue with investor-state dispute arbitration is that only companies have a right of action against states. States do not have a right of action against companies under the TPP, although it provides for a right of action against other states. This means that while states cannot sue or take action against companies using the TPP’s mechanisms, companies can sue countries over the loss of their expected profits, even if these profits were lost due to regulations or actions in the public’s interest. This is of particular concern for indigenous peoples, who are not adequately protected under the TPP. The TPP does not include the concept of free, prior, and informed consent, one of the foremost protections that indigenous people have to protect and retain their land and resources. With such strong protections for corporations under the TPP enforcement mechanism, corporations will be free to exploit the ancestral lands of indigenous groups for gold, timber and other natural resources.


Right now, if the TPP is ratified, it will only bind signatory countries. However, more countries will be able to join the TPP once it comes into force. Members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), for example, have already expressed optimism about the TPP and their interest in creating a regional market hub after its passage. This means that the TPP has the potential to drastically alter the global economy and conditions for millions of people. The fact that corporations can act with impunity within the TPP framework while benefiting their bottom line tremendously has sparked condemnation and action from human rights organizations in opposition to the agreement. Many are concerned over the effects of TPP in the long term.

In the face of water cannons, tear gas, and other forms of severe state repression, protesters of the APEC Summit, held in the Philippines, protested the summit and the unveiling of the TPP. In the U.S., over 1,500 advocacy groups signed a letter opposing the TPP. And from Malaysia to Peru, protesters have gathered to urge their governments to not sign the treaty. Rights organizations have decried the TPP’s attack on “sovereignty, human rights [and] efforts to create sustainable communities and limit climate change.” Other activists and organizations, such as KARAPATAN, a Philippine human rights organization, have criticized the agreement as imperialist, advancing the expansionist ambitions of the United States over the Asia-Pacific. While the U.S. is expanding militarily through agreements such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in the Philippines, it is achieving economic expansion through the TPP. With much at stake, activists and groups are calling on countries to say #NotoTPP.

Rodrigo Bacus is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: GlobalTradeWatch/Creative Commons

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Standing in solidarity with indigenous people impacted by human rights violations in Mindanao

By Rodrigo Bacus

Recent killings of indigenous people in the region of Mindanao in the Philippines have shed light on the ongoing human rights violations in the region, leading to international calls for solidarity and demands for justice. In the early morning of Sept. 1, a paramilitary group of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Magahat Bagani Force, also known as the Marcos Bocales Group, shot and killed cousins Dionel Campos and Juvello Sinzo in Mindanao. Both of these men were members of an indigenous people’s rights organization, the Mahalutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (MAPASU). On the same day, witnesses found the body of Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), in one of the center’s classrooms. Samarca’s body showed signs of torture before the paramilitary group either shot him to death or left him for dead. The same paramilitary group also set fire to a community cooperative store and part of another indigenous people school, the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS). These murders and abuses are part of a larger pattern of human rights violations by the AFP and its paramilitaries against indigenous people in Mindanao, who are called the “Lumad,” meaning “people of the earth.”


Human rights activists link the Magahat Bagani Force paramilitary group with the Eastern Mindanao Command of the AFP, and see increased militarization in Mindanao as part of what is spurring the violence. Paramilitary groups in Mindanao are private armies of people recruited from the local community, including “datus,” the honorific title referring to tribal leaders. The AFP and the Philippine government deny direct or indirect involvement with paramilitary groups. However, the AFP’s and the paramilitaries’ harassment, displacement, and extrajudicial killings of the Lumad and human rights defenders in the area is undeniable and was recently highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. The pattern of human rights violations, according to the special rapporteur, is directly linked to either the militarization of the area or the increasing presence of industrial mining companies, which have been criticized for displacing indigenous people from their land. Moreover, the special rapporteur added that Lumads and their datus have been killed specifically for their activities in protest of mining companies.

For human rights activists and people directly impacted by the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency tactics, officially known as Oplan Bayanihan, the increased militarization to protect the interests of mining companies is very real, and has placed many of them at serious risk of physical harm and other human rights violations. For example, Samarca ran a human rights-based alternative learning center, and was actively involved in activist farmer organizations. Similarly, Sinzo and Campos were members of Lumad rights organizations. The paramilitary groups specifically targeted these three victims because of their association with Lumad organizations and alternative schools. In a process known as “red tagging,” the AFP and its paramilitary groups have historically targeted innocent human rights defenders with threats of death and accusations that they are members of the New People’s Army, a military group in the Philippines waging a protracted people’s war against the government. These red tagging incidents can result in the death or injury of the targeted person. Witnesses have testified that the same red tagging occurred with Samarca, Sinzo and Campos before they were killed by paramilitary group.


The three deaths represent deplorable extrajudicial killings that must be condemned. The Human Rights Committee has explicitly identified “arbitrary killings” in the hands of government security forces as a violation of the right to life under Article 6 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Philippines is a party. Since red tagging identifies someone as a criminal and often results in the death of that person without a proper trial or sentencing by a competent court, these red tagging killings are a violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR, which protects the liberty and security of persons. Moreover, the deaths of Samarca, Sinzo and Campos are only the tip of the iceberg. Human rights violations committed by the Philippine government are rampant in Mindanao, and there must be accountability.

The targeting of Lumad school leaders and activists coupled with the burning of the schools themselves deny the Lumad their right to education and right to cultural life under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which the Philippines is a party. ALCADEV, the alternative learning center that Samarca headed, was created to fill a void in educational access for the Lumad who live in rural areas of Mindanao. ALCADEV provides secondary education to Lumad children, and teaches classes on sustainable agriculture, Lumad culture and human rights. ALCADEV was so successful in its curriculum and in reaching students from remote areas that it received an award for its efforts from the Philippine Department of Education. However, the mission of ALCADEV to promote self-determined and sustainable growth and to oppose industrial mining companies is at odds with the Philippine government’s interests in opening up the Philippines to industrial agriculture, logging and mining companies. The targeting of community leaders, human rights activists and schools—including through arson—represents a deliberate act by the Philippine government to retrogress the educational rights of Lumad children. The government is seeking to cut off their ability to learn and to deny their rights to cultural life and to self-determination over development. The Philippines, which is a state party to the ICCPR, the ICESCR and many other human rights treaties, must meet their legal obligations immediately. The Philippine government must ensure that these human rights abuses stop and that the AFP and its associated paramilitary groups are held accountable.


The interests in acquiring the land of the Lumad to monetize its wealth are very strong. The Philippines is one of the largest depositories of gold and has similarly large deposits of nickel and copper. These deposits lie within regions that are home to the Lumad, who regard the flora, fauna and land as part of their heritage and cultural life. The terror spread by the AFP and paramilitary groups have displaced the Lumad from their home, paving the way for industrial mining companies to establish their foothold in these lands, and to disregard the principle of free, prior and informed consent. The deaths of Samarca, Sinzo and Campos as well as the targeting of the schools have resulted in the displacement of 2,000 Lumad who have evacuated the area for fear of their safety. In addition, the attacks on schools in general have kept almost 3,000 children from enjoying their right to education.

All of this highlights the horrifying reality of what some have described as the “ugly face of our current rapacious global material and energy consumption.” As the international community stands with the Lumad and these three recent victims of paramilitary attacks, it must also strive to recognize a broader system of development that promotes participation, and respects and centralizes the fundamental human rights of all, particularly those who are directly impacted.


Local people demonstrated their overwhelming support of the Lumad school leaders by arriving in the tens of thousands for Samarca’s funeral. I regret being unable to personally pay respects to this dedicated and friendly man, who I had seen co-participating in the International People’s Conference on Mining. Furthermore, under the hashtag #StopLumadKillings, directly impacted people, activists and their solidarity networks have continued to send updates about human rights violations in Mindanao and highlight the abuses of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and its paramilitary groups. The international community must continue to call for justice and accountability: the Philippine government must abide by its international human rights obligations and address the killings and abuses perpetrated by the AFP and its paramilitary groups.

Rodrigo Bacus is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Keith Bacongco/Creative Commons