World Social Forum Day: 3
Saturday 28th march 2015
JAMES O’NIONS reports from Tunis where unjust free trade agreements are under debate
THERE are many workshops and panels at this year’s World Social Forum (WSF) which have a specifically north African focus.
Like every WSF it brings together those travelling from other continents with bigger numbers drawn from the country it is being held in and the surrounding area. So questions of human rights in Tunisia rub alongside discussions about what climate justice means in north Africa.
Other issues, however, can really only be discussed in their international dimension and find a perfect forum in the WSF.
Free trade agreements are one such issue, with various sessions taking place here to analyse these agreements and to share information and strategies about mobilising against them.
Global Justice Now has been one of the organisations leading the campaign against the EU-US trade deal (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP) in Britain.
A year ago virtually no-one had heard of it. That is not the case any more. Nearly 250,000 British people have signed the pan-European petition against TTIP, with 1.5 million Europeans in total having signed it.
It’s hardly a surprise that TTIP garners such public concern, given the threat it represents to environmental legislation, food safety standards and the ability of governments to legislate in the public interest — not to mention the potential to lock in privatisation of our public services.
But it’s not the only international power grab being attempted by big business at the moment. I attended a session yesterday on the Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa). It has a number of similarities with TTIP, but also some differences. The first of these is that in addition to the EU and US, a much wider number of countries is involved — some 22 other countries including ones in Latin America and Asia.
Just as with TTIP, the actual negotiations are secret. Fourteen rounds of negotiations have already taken place.
No-one but the negotiators has access to the draft text of the agreement, so what we know about it is based on some leaks and certain countries’ negotiating mandates, plus previous attempts at global agreements on services.
Services proposed for inclusion in the agreement include postal services, telecommunications, education, healthcare, public transport, sanitation and banking. In other words, a huge section of our economies and many things people rely on for a decent life.
One of the main thrusts of the agreement is to prevent governments which have signed the deal from regulating companies in the public interest.
For instance, one of the proposals is to prevent any restrictions on the size of banks. If one of the problems in the financial crisis was that certain banks were “too big to fail” and had to be bailed out to the tune of billions, then Tisa could stop us ever doing anything about it.
The second thrust is towards privatisation. We’ve just heard the great news that campaigners in Jakarta, Indonesia, have won a fantastic victory in the struggle to bring water back into public hands after a disastrous experiment in privatisation led to a fourfold increase in water bills with little improvement in coverage or leakage rates.
This reversal of privatisation is actually an increasing trend in the water sector, but it would be ruled out for water provision and any other sector under Tisa.
Another major area is the buying of services by governments. Tisa would prevent both local and national governments from treating any company favourably when procuring services, whether that’s in order to provide local employment or economic development more generally.
For years, Western governments and corporate lobbyists have been trying to extend the services agreement which is part of the World Trade Organisation to include these kinds of provisions. They haven’t succeeded because of the resistance of some governments in the global south who realise they will lose out, and the opposition from civil society.
Hence Tisa is being proposed by a kind of “coalition of the willing.” The aim is to make Tisa the new baseline which other countries will then be cajoled or blackmailed into signing up to.
But the good news is that Tisa doesn’t exist yet, and we still have time to stop it. There is a global day of action against Tisa, TTIP and free trade deals generally on April 18. The European Commission, along with enthusiastic governments like Britain’s, are on the back foot over TTIP.
If we can stop TTIP — and there is a real possibility that we can — then it could create the kind of momentum we need to push back on Tisa and other free trade deals too.
The message from the WSF in Tunis is that it’s time to stand up and say, “our world is not for sale!”
James O’Nions works for British campaigning organisation Global Justice Now.