We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Protect human – not corporate – rights

Flags of agreement

Free trade agreements allow powerful interests to assert their rights ahead of fundamental human rights. privacyinternational.org under a Creative Commons Licence

Today, 10 December, has been recognized as Human Rights day since 1950. The day marks the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The UDHR reportedly gave strength to Mandela during his many years of imprisonment. The text is impressive – it affirms the fundamental rights of people everywhere, without discrimination; it recognizes that individuals and governments have a duty to defend the rights of others in global solidarity with humanity.

Certainly, the UDHR was a step forward in the struggle to protect human rights. It led to the creation of many other legally binding instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. It also inspired the movement that has recently emerged in Latin America to recognize and protect the rights of nature, as an alternative to market-based climate deals pushed by so many governments and businesses.

Most people are familiar with the provisions of Universal Declaration as they relate to civil and political rights  – like the right to family life or to be treated equally and fairly in court. Fewer are aware that the Universal Declaration also contains economic, social and cultural rights – like the right to work and to be paid a decent wage, the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing, including adequate food, healthcare and housing; and the right to social security.

Right now the US and the European Commission are – behind closed doors and on behalf of all their citizens – negotiating a profoundly undemocratic free trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP. A lobby group called TheCityUK is pushing hard for an agreement that will be most favourable to business interests in the City of London. Transnational companies are demanding deeper ‘rights’ to make profit without ‘barriers’. All of this is done in the name of ‘free trade.

What are these barriers that investors are concerned about? To answer that, let’s examine how similar trade agreements work in practice:

Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, is suing Germany for US$5.1 billion in lost profits following Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power. This will result in the closure of two Vattenfall plants. Vattenfall is asserting its rights under the Energy Chater Treaty.  

The tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing Australia and Uruguay in lost profits, in the case of Uruguay it is demanding US$2000 million, following the decision by these nations to discourage smoking and to impose plain packaging of cigarettes. Philip Morris is claiming rights under bilateral investment treaties.

Lone Pine Resources, a US mining company, is suing Canada for US$250 million compensation and lost profits following the decision by the province of Quebec to impose a moratorium on fracking. Lone Pine is relying on rights it claims under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  

These are just a few shocking examples. What these agreements do is subject human rights to corporate rights. Powerful interests asserting their rights to ‘property’ above fundamental human rights is nothing new but the US-EU free trade agreement is striking in its breadth and depth. It will entrench corporate rights at the international level much deeper than ever before. It is the most audacious attack by capital on human rights and society. It will have a chilling effect on legislators and it will cost the public purse when transnational corporations challenge national laws designed to protect human rights and the environment.

In Britain, people may first notice this in relation to the National Health Service (NHS).The US-EU free trade agreement will turn the NHS into a transnational investment opportunity, making its privatization effectively permanent. Given that $164 billion is spent on the NHS each year, it represents quite a prize for investors. Our right to healthcare guaranteed by the Universal Declaration will take second place to the right of companies to secure contracts and make profits for themselves and their shareholders.  

Rights-based organizing is valuable and necessary but we need to demonstrate that we reject the notion of human rights as a marginal concern, subservient to the interests of capital. We need to make real the vision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We need a movement which includes direct action to stop the US-EU free trade agreement. A Stop TTIP Occupy working group has just been set up – join forces with us.

Melanie Strickland is a solicitor and member of Occupy Law UK.

Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop