Will the Trans-Pacific Partnership make people sick?
Probably not, but it may well prevent sick people in the global South from receiving treatment.
My colleagues in the labor movement have criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership largely because some of the nations in this proposed new common market limit, repress or prohibit independent trade unions. It’s unjust that Vietnam forbids workers to form labor unions outside of the supervision of the communist government, and it’s unfair to American workers to force them to compete against workers who can be jailed for unsanctioned labor activity. The president has promised that the language protecting worker rights in the T.P.P. is more powerful than ever before, but that is small comfort. Proponents of every trade agreement, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement, have promised much the same. A quarter-century after Nafta, Mexican workers trying to organize outside of the “official” trade unions still find it very rough sledding.
But this is hardly the only issue in the T.P.P. that has alarmed social justice advocates. In this week’s Commonweal, Fran Quigley of Indiana University discusses the unhappy relationship between modern trade agreements and access to medicines. In the 1990s, recently developed antiretroviral drugs began to save the lives of H.I.V.-infected Americans—but millions in Africa and Latin America were dying of AIDS because they could not afford the prices demanded by the patent holders. Brazil and South Africa yielded to popular pressure and announced plans to buy or produce unlicensed generic versions of the critical drugs. U.S. officials threatened trade sanctions, but in the event, American activists shamed the companies into waiving their patent rights in these hard-hit countries.
Will we see this sad tale replayed in a future epidemic in Vietnam or Malaysia? Intellectual property is always a high priority for American trade negotiators. But it’s one thing to go after knockoff Mickey Mouse backpacks or pirated copies of the latest Avengers DVD—and another thing to deny lifesaving medical treatment to the gravely ill in the global South.
The Vatican sees this issue clearly. Speaking on behalf of the Holy See, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi warned three years ago about “mega-regional trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” and observed,
Among the most damaging concessions developing countries make in regional and bilateral agreements are those enhancing the monopolies on life-saving medicines, which reduce access and affordability and those that provide excessive legal rights to foreign investors, limiting the policy space for nations to promote sustainable and inclusive development.