Community groups say revise giant RCEP trade deal to ensure rules do not restrict government action during pandemics

Media release June 18, 2020:  “The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network of 60 community groups has written to Trade Minister Birmingham ahead of a virtual meeting next week about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP) calling for a pause in the negotiations and review of the text to ensure that its rules do not restrict government action to save lives during the current and future pandemics,” AFTINET Convener Dr Patricia Ranald said today.

The RCEP includes Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea and the 10 ASEAN countries.

“India left the RCEP in November 2019. Following attempts to invite India to re-join, the remaining 14 ministers may announce that they will finalise the existing text and sign it in November 2020 whether or not India re-joins. The text will not be released until after it is signed,” explained Dr Ranald.

“We are concerned that the text was negotiated and announced in November 2019 beforethe COVID-19 pandemic and does not address the flaws in current trade rules exposed by the pandemic. These include over-dependence on global production chains and lack of local manufacturing capacity to produce medicines and medical equipment, deregulation and opening up of essential services to private foreign investment and entrenchment of the 20-year patent monopoly on new medicines, which can delay access to cheaper versions of those medicines,” said Dr Ranald.

“The realities of the pandemic have forced governments to act in the public interest, at times outside the limitations of current trade rules. The Australian government has directed private hospitals to treat pandemic patients, assisted local firms to produce facemasks and ventilators and ramped up screening of foreign investment to prevent predatory takeovers as prices fall. Trade rules should not restrict governments from acting to save lives,” said Dr Ranald.

“There is a current parliamentary inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade into the implications of the pandemic for trade and other policy. The results of this inquiry should inform the RCEP negotiations,” said Dr Ranald.

The letter, attached and  below, is calling for:

  • release of the existing text. Ninety-four community organisations from RCEP countries have asked for the release of the text for public and parliamentary debate before it is signed
  • suspension of negotiations and revision of the text to ensure that there are no rules which prevent governments from taking action to save lives during this and future pandemics, especially ensuring timely and affordable access to medicines and other medical equipment. The revised text should be published before it is signed. Two hundred and ninety-three community organisations from around the world have called on governments to suspend WTO and regional trade negotiations to enable them to focus on saving lives during the pandemic, and to review existing trade rules to maximise timely access to affordable medicines and medical equipment now and in the future.

See also an international media release from community organisations in other RCEP countries here.

 

Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham                                                                            June 17, 2020
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Parliament House
Canberra

Dear Minister,

As you know, AFTINET is a network of 60 community organisations that advocates for fair trade consistent with human rights, labour rights and environmental sustainability.

We understand that you will meet remotely with the other 14 ministers remaining in the RCEP soon. Following attempts to invite India to re-join, we understand that ministers may announce that they will finalise the existing text and sign it in November 2020 whether or not India re-joins. The text will not be released until after it is signed.

I am writing to you ahead of the meeting to express the concerns of community organisations that the text was negotiated and announced in November 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic and does not address the flaws in current trade rules exposed by the pandemic, including:

  • Over-dependency on global production chains and lack of local manufacturing capacity to produce medicines and medical equipment;
  • deregulation and opening up of essential services to private foreign investment and
  • entrenchment of the 20-year patent monopoly on new medicines, which can delay access to cheaper versions of those medicines.

We note there is a current parliamentary inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade into the implications of the pandemic for trade and other policy. The results of this inquiry should inform the RCEP negotiations.

The realities of the pandemic have forced the Australian government and other governments to act in the public interest, at times outside the limitations of current trade rules. The Australian government has directed private hospitals to treat pandemic patients, assisted local firms to produce facemasks and ventilators and ramped up screening of foreign investment to prevent predatory takeovers as prices fall.

The current RCEP text was negotiated before the pandemic We know from the DFAT summary of the text published in November 2019 that it contains rules that could restrict governments from reacting flexibly in the public interest to the current pandemic and future pandemics.

We are calling for

  • release of the existing text. Ninety-four community organisations from RCEP countries have asked for the release of the text for public and parliamentary debate before it is signed
  • suspension of negotiations and revision of the text to ensure that there are no rules which prevent governments from taking action to save lives during this and future pandemics, especially ensuring timely and affordable access to medicines and other medical equipment. The revised text should be published before it is signed. Two hundred and ninety-three community organisations from around the world have called on governments to suspend WTO and regional trade negotiations to enable them to focus on saving lives during the pandemic, and to review existing trade rules to maximise timely access to affordable medicines and medical equipment now and in the future.

We hope you will take these views into consideration and look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely

Dr Patricia Ranald
Convenor, Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network
7/321 Pitt St
Sydney 2000.