An interfaith coalition on Feb. 17 announced it opposes what it called "undemocratic" actions proposed by the Obama administration regarding the much-anticipated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and called on other people of faith to do the same.
The Interfaith Working Group on Trade and Investment, based in Washington and made up of representatives from a range of faith-based organizations, criticized the administration for fast-tracking the agreement.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade pact that has been in negotiation for about 10 years between the U.S. and about a dozen Asian countries that is expected to lift tariffs on goods and services and will govern an estimated 40 percent of U.S. imports and exports.
Fast-track negotiations "would limit Congress to only 90 days of deliberation for the bill with only 20 hours of debate and no amendment process," the interfaith group said in a statement at the news conference.
The Trade Act of 2002 gives the U.S. president authority to negotiate international agreements that Congress can approve or disapprove but cannot amend or filibuster.
Besides holding a news conference, which was led by Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobbying group Network, the Interfaith Working Group on Trade and Investment also sent a letter to President Barack Obama and all 535 members of Congress.
In the letter, the coalition urged the White House and Congress to "oppose fast-track trade promotion authority for any trade agreement currently being negotiated" on the grounds that "'fast track' is a broken and undemocratic process because it privileges the views of powerful global corporations in defining the terms of trade agreements, while excluding voices of those adversely impacted."
Trade agreements should "receive a fair hearing in the public square, protect people living in poverty, promote the dignity of all workers, and responsibly protect God's creation," the letter said, adding that trade, "like the rest of the economy, must be a means of lifting people out of poverty and ensure a country's ability to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of their citizens and the planet."
"This shortcut is not aligned with the democratic values of our nation or the moral values of our faith traditions," the Rev. Michael Neuroth said at the news conference. He is a policy advocate for international issues at the United Church of Christ's Justice and Witness Ministries' office.
The fast-track process contradicts American ideals and principles, said the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, director for public witness at the Presbyterian Church (USA).
It "undercuts the principles of real democracy" because "the intention of our Founding Fathers and these (constituting) documents was to include people in the ongoing development of this country," he said.
"Eleven other countries will be involved in these partnerships and they will encompass 40 percent of global trade," Rev. Nelson added, saying that people of faith "need to challenge (fast track) at its very core."
The Trans-Pacific Partnership also has been brought up by advocates for victims of human trafficking.
At a recent Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, a panel of witnesses discussed the agreement in terms of its potential to curb the practice of "modern-day slavery" in the Pacific.
"Our diplomacy must be much more robust and aggressive on tackling the root causes" of forced labor, Shawna Bader Blau, executive director of Solidarity Center, told the committee, adding that "it's not too much to ask that we see real systematic changes" in how countries operate before agreeing to anything in trade negotiations.
"Slavery exists on a massive scale in the world today because there are huge swaths of the world where people don't get in trouble for enslaving other human beings. In some regions of Southeast Asia, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be prosecuted or jailed for enslaving a poor person," Gary Haugen, president and CEO of International Justice Mission, told the committee.
During the interfaith group's news conference, Gerry Lee, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, said he agreed with Bader Blau and Haugen's points, saying the potential impact of such trade agreements on human trafficking needs to be discussed. "We now only know rumors and leaks of TPP ... and it's certainly a concern," he said. "Trade policies have an effect on that issue."
Lee cited Harvard University research illustrating trade policies' effect on how people are trafficked worldwide, before reminding the media that "we forget that trafficking is not only about sexual slavery but also about labor trafficking and it's a huge problem."