Barack Obama’s response to public criticism on the US trade deals with Europe and Asia-Pacific is less than convincing.
UNITED States President Barack Obama will soon be making a trip to
Asian countries, including Malaysia. The Trans Pacific Partnership
Agreement (TPPA) will
be on his agenda, just as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment
Partnership (TTIP) was
a priority during his trip to Europe last week.
The TTIP is the agreement the US and European Union are negotiating — a counterpart to the TPPA that the US is negotiating
with 11 Asian and Pacific countries, including Malaysia.
At a live-TV press conference in the Netherlands, Obama responded to strong
public criticism against the TTIP and TTPA.
There is no point worrying about the provisions having effects on
consumer and environmental protection until the deal is done, he said.
Consumer and environmental protection would in fact be strengthened by
“I spent my whole political life fighting for consumer protection,” he said, adding there
is no ground for worries that companies can take action to weaken consumer and environmental protection.
The President’s comments on the TTIP presumably apply also to the
TPPA since both contain similar provisions, and the criticisms from US
and other lawmakers and NGOs also apply to both. Consumer and health
groups have indeed been vocal in their criticisms and protests against
the TPPA and TTIP.
They include Public Citizen, an organisation of America’s leading
consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the
Nobel Prize winning medical group.
In Malaysia, groups representing consumers, patients, health and the
environment, including the Consumers Association of Penang, Malaysian
Council for Tobacco Control, the Malaysian Aids Council and several
patients’ organisations, have been actively campaigning against the
Obama’s response will not assure the critics. His first point, that
there is no point worrying until the deal is done, will hit a raw nerve.
Lawmakers, including in the US Congress, and NGOs in countries
involved in the two trade deals, have been disgruntled that the talks
are held in secret and that they don’t have access to the texts.
The secrecy of the negotiations, the inability of the public to give feedback, and the lack
of legitimacy of the process, is one of the major criticisms against these two trade deals.
Nevertheless, there is enough information, from leaked chapters, and
from provisions in existing US free trade agreements, for the public to
have a good idea what the trade deals entail. Obama’s advice that there
is no point worrying until the final texts are revealed is likely to
earn scorn rather than an assurance.
Second, the critics have good reasons to be worried or outraged.
These agreements would make it very difficult or even impossible for
patients and government health authorities to have access to the much
cheaper generic versions of the medicines, because of the tighter patent
regime the US is proposing in the TPPA.
As a result, millions of patients could be deprived of life-saving
drugs since they, and their governments, cannot afford to buy the
According to MSF, the first generation of HIV drugs have come down
in price by 99% over the last decade, from US$10,000 (RM33,000) per
person per year in 2000 to roughly US$60 (RM196) today.
This is due to generic production in
India, Brazil and Thailand, where these drugs were not patented.
This dramatic price drop enabled HIV/AIDS treatment to be scaled up for over six million people in developing countries.
According to MSF, the US proposals in the TPPA would cause many problems.
These would include extending the term of the patents beyond the
already lengthy 20 years, the provision of “data exclusivity” (which
will require generic companies to undertake their own costly clinical
and widening the scope of what medicines
In Malaysia, several patient and medical groups in 2012 issued a joint statement
opposing the US proposals, which they say will reduce access to medicines.
“We categorically oppose US demands for longer and stronger patents
on medicines and medical technologies that are essential to save
Malaysian lives,” said leaders of six groups.
The groups involved include the National Cancer Society Malaysia,
Breast Cancer Wel-fare Association, Malaysian AIDS Council, Malaysian
Treatment Access and Advocacy, Malaysian Thoracic Society and Malaysian
Mental Health Association.
They said that cancers require affordable chemotherapy medicines.
HIV second line medicines like Kaletra are required to save lives, and are often out of reach to persons living with HIV.
Many other conditions depend on generic medicines, such as cancer,
tuberculosis, malaria and diabetes. They asked that the US proposals be
But it is not only medicines that are affected. Consumers of
information, media and books too will be affected by tighter copyright
laws that are likely to result in more expensive use of information
materials and the Internet.
Health groups such as the Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control
point out that measures
to control cigarette sales, such as requiring plain packaging, will be
threatened as the tobacco companies can sue the governments for
affecting their revenues.
Under an investor-state dispute system (ISDS) in the TPPA, foreign
investors can sue governments in an international tribunal, on grounds
that their future revenues are affected by new policies.
Many cases against governments for their health and environmental
policies have been already brought by companies under free trade
agreements that contain this ISDS, and other bilateral investment
A tobacco firm has sued Australia and Uruguay for their plain-packaging policy.
A Swedish company made a US$2bil (RM6.5bil) claim against the German
government for its policy to phase out nuclear power after the
Fukushima nuclear accident.
Germany has told the European Commission to exclude the ISDS
mechanism in the TTIP, and the Commission has suspended negotiations
with the US on ISDS.
In the TPPA, however, the ISDS is still the lynchpin of the whole
agreement, as it is a strong enforcement mechanism that hangs over the
heads of governments that naturally do not like being sued by companies
in an international tribunal for millions or billions
Thus, Obama’s assurances that there should be no worries about
companies taking action on governments for their consumer and
environmental policies ring hollow when many such actions have already
been taken under existing US FTAs and other treaties.
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.