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Parliamentarians come together in Jakarta to discuss human rights implications of regional trade deal

Governments in the process of negotiating the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) must ensure that the trade deal’s provisions protect human rights. That was the message from parliamentarians and other participants who convened in Jakarta last week to discuss the RCEP and its implications for the region’s citizens during a two-day dialogue organized by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Indonesia for Global Justice (IGJ), and the ETO Consortium.

The meeting brought together members of parliament from countries involved in the RCEP, international experts, civil society representatives, and government officials to discuss the ongoing negotiations, the trade deal’s likely impact on human rights, as well as the participating States’ human rights obligations (domestic and extraterritorial) in this context. At the conclusion of the dialogue, parliamentarians called for more attention to the deal’s human rights implications.

“There are a number of serious concerns with the RCEP, which governments involved in the negotiations have thus far failed to address. Many provisions, if passed in their current form, will have drastic consequences on people’s rights, particularly in Southeast Asia,” said Indonesian MP Mercy Barends, who is a member of APHR.

“Allowing this deal to go forward without seriously considering its implications would be a grave mistake. We strongly recommend that RCEP negotiators demand the inclusion of a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) mechanism, to ensure that the deal does not end up doing more harm than good. Failure to do so would place people throughout the region at risk of abuse from corporate actors, who, on the whole, already have a poor track record when it comes to human rights and the environment.”

Parliamentarians called for more transparency in the negotiations, which remain closed to public and parliamentary scrutiny, and reiterated concerns about the content of leaked sections of the draft agreement related to intellectual property rights (IPR) and the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism.

“The current proposal for IPR protection seriously threatens access to medicine for millions of people by extending patents, which will ultimately cause prices to rise. Access to affordable healthcare, which includes medicines, is a fundamental human right, and limiting this would be a serious violation of that right,” said Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, who serves as APHR’s Chairperson, adding that under the ISDS proposal, decisions taken by national parliaments could be overturned by international tribunals that have no public oversight.

“Under pressure from some of the more developed members of the negotiating countries, the RCEP is increasingly seeking to incorporate the more rigid and pro-corporate sections of the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The proposed inclusion of an ISDS mechanism is particularly concerning to us, as it presents a unique threat to justice and the rule of law. ISDS mechanisms are notorious for favouring business interests and represent a threat to national sovereignty and laws at the expense of affected communities and peoples, and we strongly object to allowing this in the RCEP,” Santiago added.

Legislators gathered from across the region pledged to take immediate action to advocate, both at home and at the regional level, against the inclusion of these problematic provisions, as well as to pressure negotiators to ensure greater scrutiny of the entire deal from a human rights perspective.

“In its current form, the RCEP is no different from other free trade agreements that have seriously jeopardized human rights and environmental protections. We need governments, parliamentarians, and the public, including the business community, to step up and demand that public interest comes before global corporate interests. At minimum, we need to open up the negotiations to public scrutiny and parliamentary oversight, and we call on all our governments to commission a cost-benefit analysis of the final RCEP draft that will be made public before any agreement is signed,” said Rep. Tomasito Villarin, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines.

This text is based on a press release published on August 25 on the website of APHR

For further information on HRIAs and States' ETOs in the trade and investment context, see video presentation by Olivier de Schutter, member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights