Update from the 16th round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Singapore

33 Jeremy Malcolm speaking, with Jane Kelsey, at TPP press conferenceThe 16th round of the Trans-Pacific partnership negotiations is underway this week and next in Singapore, and Consumers International is participating actively – or at least, as actively as we can, given the closed nature of the negotiations. Only one day of the negotiations is officially open to the public, and all other events are independently stakeholder-organised.

The first event in which we participated was on 5 March 2013; Consumers International was able to secure a room at the same hotel being used by negotiators on that day, and we made it available to other NGOs to share for a joint press conference. We were joined by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), the Malaysian AIDS Council Professor Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland, at a conference to air our concerns about the TPP, which was covered by television network Channel NewsAsia amongst other regional media.

Jeremy Malcolm, Senior Policy Officer for Consumers International (pictured), opened the event with an overview of the TPP and its overall approach, which is towards deregulation in most areas such as food and financial services – but conversely, aims to increase regulation in the area of intellectual property protection and enforcement.

“The TPP began as a treaty between Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, which entered into force in 2008. It was only the following year that the United States declared its intention to enter the agreement and to change its terms. And they have changed, significantly to the benefit of the United States and to the detriment of Singapore and its partners in the region. The overall thrust of the TPP is towards deregulation in areas that each country has previously had the freedom to regulate in, based on local conditions.” Dr. Malcolm said.

Dr. Mary Assunta, Senior policy advisor of SEATCA spoke on tobacco control, saying “Tobacco is not like any other product. It kills half of its users, prematurely. Tobacco is the only consumer product for which there is a global treaty which sets international standard for regulation. The treaty warns us to protect our public health policies from the tobacco industry.”

Dr. Assunta showed the plain packaging of cigarettes with pictorial warnings – a practice that the TPP could threaten – and explained how tobacco companies are targetting smokers in the Asia-Pacific region, which remains a growth market for them. She added, “tobacco product should be strictly regulated according to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco control (WHO FCCT) and the TPP should not give the tobacco industry opportunities to increase its business or the ability to sue governments at the expense of people’s lives. The TPP should not apply to tobacco products.”

University of Auckland Professor Jane Kelsey, who has been monitoring the negotiations for several years, spoke about legal challenges to Australia’s legislation on plain packaging of tobacco, that show how useful Free Trade Agreements have become for the tobacco industry. The right to bring such lawsuits is an intrinsic part of the TPP as it stands.

Fifa Rahman, Senior Policy Executive, Malaysian AIDS Council spoke about the TPP's impact on Access to Medicines. “We extremely concerned about patents on intellectual property, data exclusivity and TRIPs plus measures that have affected access to essential medicines. Our last word is, Malaysia is not for sale.”

The following day 6 March, was the only day on which the Trans-Pacific Partnership is officially open to non-governmental stakeholders. Even so, we do not get to see the text that is being negotiated – merely to make presentations, to distribute publications from a table, and to attend and ask questions at a briefing by the chief negotiators from each country.

During the day our CI table was visited by a number of the most influential delegations, including Australia and the United States, who took interest in Jeremy Malcolm's presentation on how the TPP could be improved by the addition back of balancing measures from a predecessor agreement called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPSEP).

Our question to the negotiators concerned a potentially troubling provision that was introduced by Malaysia, and supported by the United States, which prohibits countries from requiring producers to submit proprietary product formulas to national regulators. Although the Malaysian negotiators denied this, from media reports it appears that this provision may be broad enough to conflict with labelling requirements for infant formula. This is a concern for parents who would like to know the exact composition of the formula milk that they feed to their babies.

CI will be raising concerns such as this again during the week in a meetings that we have organised with national delegations and CI member consumer groups present in Singapore. We have also been actively tweeting, have developed an irreverant parody website for the Singapore round, and will be writing an update on the TPP for Digital News Asia later this month.

The next round of the TPP will be held in Peru in May. We are expecting to receive further funding to continue our work in representing the interests of consumers, and to facilitate the participation of CI member groups from Peru (and perhaps from Chile and Mexico) at that meeting.

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