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In Secret

The negotiations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), involving 16 Asia-Pacific countries, are failing international standards of transparency and public participation, according to a study titled “RCEP: A secret deal” conducted by several international organizations.

“It is quite shocking how representatives of the governments are able to hide behind secrecy, saying that it is necessary for effective negotiations” said researcher Susana Barria, Trade Justice Campaigner at Public Services International (PSI), in an interview with Real World Radio.

“Actually what it does is threaten the political legitimacy of the process and it leads people to really ask the question of whose are the interests that are represented, because clearly if the public is not informed then it is not the interest of the public that is represented”, added Barria, who participated in the new study.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement led by China that gathers the ten countries that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made up by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia), plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. A new round of negotiations of this bloc was held in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 27th.

If this agreement is signed, something that could happen this year, it would be one of the largest regional free trade agreements of the world. The countries participating in the negotiation accounted in 2016 for over half of the global production, 32 per cent of the world´s GDP and 29 per cent of international trade, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy of South Korea, cited by news agency Yonhap.

The study “RCEP: a secret deal [1]” was published in July by Friends of the Earth International, the Transnational Institute, Indonesia for Global Justice, Focus on the Global South and Paung Ku.

“This report is very important because it shows in great details how the process of the negotiations is problematic from the perspective of transparency and public participation” said Barria to Real World Radio. “So it really shows that it’s not only about the content, on which there are main issues, but that the process itself is deeply flawed”, added the campaigner.

PSI is a global trade-union federation representing 20 million workers who provide essential public services in 163 countries. Their website [2] states that the network defends human rights, promotes social justice and universal access to quality public services.

Barria mentioned several of the international standards that are not being met in the negotiation of the RCEP: drafts of the negotiation texts are not published, which is important for the public to have an understanding on what governments negotiate in their name; there haven´t been studies about the impacts of the potential treaty on human rights, the environment or employment; different public interest groups representing several social sectors have practically no participation, while corporations have preferential access to the terms of the agreement.

A trade agreement such as RCEP will have repercussions on employment, working conditions, wages, and the possibilities to regulate the private sectors that provide fundamental public services for workers, such as water, electricity and health, said Barria. However, the agreement is not being discussed by unions, regretted the activist. All these aspects should be taken into account for the sake of transparency and public legitimacy of the process, she stated.

The PSI researcher stated that in some countries that are participating in the RCEP negotiations, Parliaments are not discussing the agreement, but just ratify it or not at the end of the process. In some States, such as India, it is not even Parliament the body in charge of ratifying the agreement, because it is a decision made by the Executive Branch.

Barria also believes that the RCEP should include a termination clause that can be used in the future to end the treaty in case it does not bring the expected results. Nevertheless, PSI goes deeper: “as longs as such democratic decision making is not done for RCEP there should be a moratorium on the negotiations”, concluded Barria.