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North American leaders seek common trade and security agenda ahead of fractious G20 and Summit of the Americas meetings

As far as North American leaders summits go, this week’s meeting in Washington, D.C. was low-profile, low on energy and even lower on inspiration. It seemed directed elsewhere, outside of continental concerns, as a preparation for the upcoming Summit of the Americas and G20 at the end of the month in Mexico, or as an opportunity for Prime Minister Harper and President Calderon to gang up on President Obama regarding entry of their countries into Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that the United States has all but seized complete control over.

If we were tempted to shrug our shoulders and say “what’s the point” of this show of camaraderie, a joint resolution from Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners on the Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border Action plan woke us up to the dangers of “improving” the border on Obama’s security terms. The consequences for global trade and economic development talks could also be affected by this week’s events in Washington as a neoliberal bloc of mostly rich countries seeks ways to undermine Global South efforts to rebalance the global economic order.

Obama, Harper and Calderon had not met like they did Monday since 2009, when Security and Prosperity Partnership talks were put into cold storage by the new U.S. president. An economic crisis which the world continues to struggle out of put the neoliberal idea at the heart of greater North American economic integration on life support. The languid joint declaration from yesterday’s summit stays faithful to that particular North American project in the name of job creation. A 2012 NAFTA Commission meeting alongside the leaders summit also issued its joint declaration on regulatory harmonization, changes to Rules of Origin, and other tweaks designed to improve supply chain flows across borders.

But the reality is that despite continental trade surpassing $1 trillion last year, economic and social inequality is on the rise in all three countries. Trade doesn’t trickle down — we’ve known this for years. Neither harmonizing chemicals and nanotechnology regulations nor opening up more land to oil and gas exploration will create enough jobs to matter for North America. Ditto for high tech security fixes at the border or beyond. We’re talking marginal economic gains at the margins that will be entirely soaked up by a corporate bureaucracy known globally now as the 1 per cent while the overall crisis continues.


On the Harper-Obama border plan, which was barely mentioned in Monday’s press conference, Canada’s privacy commissioners have issued joint resolution calling on the government to (among other things):

– Ensure that improvements to Canada-US security and commerce do not jeopardize Canadians’ privacy rights, including those of Canadians who work, live and enjoy leisure activities near the border;

– Ensure that legal standards, values and rights established in Canadian privacy law for treatment of personal information are not eroded;

– Strengthen the system of oversight for all federal national security and law enforcement organizations involved in the new perimeter security model,

– Provide notice to travellers in all instances where their personal information is being collected, including notice as to how it will be used;

– Actively involve Parliament, provincial Privacy Commissioners, academics and civil society in discussions and options for new security initiatives, engage and inform all citizens in the policy debate;

During a press conference to announce the joint resolution, Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart highlighted the occasional use of drones at the Canada-U.S. border as a particular concern of her office.

“It’s another technology that has the potential to be very privacy invasive. These drones could be going back and forth across the border and no one would notice,” she said (quoted in the Globe and Mail). “I think this is really one of the big new implications in enhanced border security – the constant surveillance of our borders by drones or other unmanned vehicles.”

Stoddart also commented on another component of the Border Action Plan — normalizing the incursion of U.S. security officials into Canada for policing purposes. RCMP and Homeland Security agents are already crossing over the Canada-U.S. border under a Shiprider program but the perimeter deal would extend those powers to land-based investigations with almost no caveats on where a border-related operation ends.

“The clock is ticking,” Ms. Stoddart said during her press conference, referring to an end-of-May deadline for Canada and the U.S. to develop a shared understanding on privacy protection in any new information sharing arrangements. “This is why we are coming out with a statement now because we are concerned about maintaining Canadian privacy standards, about not unnecessarily sending data to the United States.”


As in the past with the SPP, the Canada-U.S. border negotiations appear to be moving more slowly than predicted last fall. The Harper government quietly dismantled its Border Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan website and has subsumed the project under its general Canada’s Economic Action Plan hub. The bigger rush for Harper now seems to be collecting crumbs from the paltry Trans-Pacific Partnership table.

According to a National Post article yesterday, “The Prime Minister said he was pleased that Mr. Obama has once again ‘welcomed’ Canada’s ‘interest’ in joining talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a proposed free-trade zone that promises to be one of the world’s most important trade agreements… But Canada’s entry into the TPP is being blocked by some countries, and it’s believed the U.S. and New Zealand have had the most serious concerns.”

The concerns are, of course, Canada’s supply managed sectors, notably dairy, where the countries listed have the strongest export interests but where high Canadian tariffs protect Canada’s non-export based milk producers.

“Each of our countries has their own idiosyncrasies, certain industries that have in the past been protected,” said Obama in response to a question about supply management (as reported by Embassy Magazine).  “Are there areas where we’d like to see some changes in terms of Canadian practices? Of course.”

Another would be in the protection of intellectual property rights. Canada is frequently blacklisted by the U.S. as a haven for file sharing and piracy of copyrighted materials. There is little basis for the U.S. threats, as Michael Geist frequently explains in his popular blog. But of course Obama holds all the cards in this negotiation. So entry to the TPP talks might come down to Canada’s copyright and drug patent regimes as much as or more so than changes to supply management. The North American leaders’ declaration paid lip service to this behind-the-scenes dialogue:

As leading sources of innovation and creativity, our three countries are committed to the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR). We commit to promote sound enforcement practices and an effective legal framework for IPR enforcement in the areas of criminal enforcement, enforcement at the border, civil and administrative actions, and distribution of IPR infringing material on the Internet consistent with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which the United States and Canada have recently signed. Mexico will continue to work on a comprehensive reform to its legal system to achieve the high standards pursued under ACTA.


As I’ve written before here, Harper may not find out about Canada’s entry to the TPP talks until September. So a more immediate goal of this week’s N.A. leaders summit may have been how Obama, Harper and Calderon can work together at the upcoming Summit of the Americas and G20 meetings.

According to an article by Sapa-IPS, BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) hope to ensure that the G20 summit in Mexico at the end of April is not used by rich countries to frame a new trade agenda outside the WTO Doha Development Agenda.

“This is a most dangerous move by the industrialised countries which are determined to undermine the independence and multilateral character of the WTO, where a large majority of countries are asking for developmental flexibilities for implementing liberal trade commitments,” a trade envoy told the news agency, referring to the agenda for the G20 meeting.

BRICS countries recently met in New Delhi for a fourth summit that was, as one analyst points out, ignored by almost all western media except for one dismissive article in the New York Times. Vijay Prashad writes in Eurasia Review that while most of the BRICS declaration is the usual yarns about increased cooperation, there are interesting proposals “at the margins.”

For example, the group of powerful developing countries feels that UNCTAD — the UN Conference on Trade and Development — is and should be “the focal point in the UN system for the treatment of trade and development issues.” Prasha writes:

Sustained attack on UNCTAD by the Atlantic powers since the 1980s pushed it into a corner, and made it largely irrelevant as the Atlantic world took its business into forums, such as the World Trade Organization, where it was able to rule the day. Slowly, the South has tried to revive UNCTAD, whose policy framers have become a bit more aggressive in their defense of an alternative to neo-liberalism.

UNCTAD statements have criticized finance capital and insisted on links between speculation in commodities markets and rising prices for those commodities, contrary to Northern countries who “have fought to remove all reference to the financial crisis from the [upcoming UNCTAD conference] document, and to insist that UNCTAD deal only with its core mandate,” writes Prashad.

It’s the trade equivalent of the push at the UN last month to remove any reference to well-established rights to water, energy, food and development in the upcoming Rio+20 earth summit, as described by Council of Canadians’ Blue Planet Project coordinator Anil Naidoo in his blogs from New York. In both cases, as well as at the G20 later this month, the goal of the Global North is to remove barriers to capital accumulation as a way out of the crisis. For Rio+20, that means privatizing nature and public services. For the G20, OECD and WTO leadership it means stripping countries of their remaining powers to regulate economic activity and develop nascent industries.

Sapa-IPS writes that, “Significantly, the draft [G20] agenda is silent on the Doha trade talks. It aims to take decisions on core trade issues without first discussing them at the WTO, which is now grappling with new approaches to accelerate the DDA talks.” These approaches, supported by Canada, include moving trade in services discussions to a plurilateral fora much like the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement, which was never part of the “single undertaking.” This would allow some countries to press ahead in services liberalization while blocking market access to those mostly developing countries who were hoping for a fair, overall development-focused deal at the WTO.

Instead, the draft G20 text going to the first G20 Trade Ministerial meeting on April 19, calls for a “New Trade Narrative.” IPS saw a copy of the text and reports that the document “squarely addresses the trade interests of the rich countries, under subheadings such as ‘better understanding global value chains to better regulate trade’ and ‘services, trade finance and trade facilitation are essential to oil global value chains.'”

In addition, writes IPS, “themes for discussion include ‘trade as a source of growth,’ ‘trade as a source of jobs,’ and ‘the imperative to keep markets open and to keep opening markets.'”

These phrases were used almost word-for-word in the North American leaders summit declaration. The stage is set for an important battle this month, at UNCTAD, the Summit of the Americas, and the G20, between a status-quo neoliberalism that will perpetuate the environmental, social and economic crises or perhaps the beginnings of a new model with development, equity and improving global living standards at its heart.


Before the G20, Canada will take place in the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia. According to reports, Harper will announce a renewed “Americas Strategy,” which he first touted in 2007 on a trip to Latin America. DFAIT initiated a consultation process into what that strategy would look like in the fall of 2011 and many Canadian civil society groups contributed under the banner of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation’s Americas Policy Group.

As APG Coordinator Brittany Lambert wrote on March 28, her group’s submission to DFAIT focused on the areas of free trade, corporate accountability, democratic governance and security. On trade, the APG recommended:

…that Canada refrain from concluding free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries that have poor democratic governance and human rights records. FTAs tend to increase the kinds of investment that are most associated with militarization, violence and forced displacement, such as gold, oil, and plantations for biofuel. This is problematic in countries such as Colombia, where paramilitary groups are widespread and often use violence to displace people from their lands for lucrative projects. Colombia is a world leader in internal displacement, with millions of people living in desperate conditions after being forced to flee their resource-rich lands. It is also the most dangerous place in the world for union leaders. FTAs between northern and southern countries generally capitalize on the southern country’s comparative advantage: cheap labour. This is problematic in contexts where the right to unionize is severely constricted and where workers are unable to organize to maintain or improve their working conditions.

On security cooperation in the Americas, a hot topic at the North American leaders summit, APG “raised concerns that militaristic approaches to drug and criminality problems in Latin America may actually be detrimental to public security. Lambert writes that the group “pointed to the many innocent citizens who are caught in the crossfire and to the fact that drug wars are often used as an excuse for impunity and increasing violence against other groups, such as women,” and that the APG submission to DFAIT’s consultation “urged the Canadian government to address security problems in a more sustainable way by focusing on the socio-economic issues that underlie criminality and illegal economies in Latin America.”

This was expressed in a joint statement on the North American leaders summit put out by the Institute for Policy Studies. The press statement says:

many Mexican and U.S. organizations have denounced the increased U.S. military aid to Mexico, insisting that the security crisis in Mexico is not a problem that has a military solution. Rampant violence has taken more than 50,000 lives in Mexico, and the poor human rights record of the Mexican military (complaints received by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission of human rights violations by Mexican soldiers have increased almost six fold since 2007). The Commission has determined that Mexican soldiers have been responsible for over 30 unlawful killings, more than 200 cases of torture and multiple cases of rape, among other crimes. Despite these violations, the Department of Defense has gradually increased its assistance to Mexico. (For the fiscal year 2012 DOD direct and indirect support to the Mexican military may be more than $75.5 million.)

So it was disturbing to read that during a trinational military meeting ahead of this week’s Washington summit that Canada’s military may contribute in a more active way to the bloody Mexican drug war. According to the Canadian Press, neither Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay, U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta nor Mexican Gen. Guillermo Galvan Galvan “questioned the prohibitionist policies that a growing chorus of international voices, including former national leaders and police investigators, say has proved an abject failure.”

“The so called ‘drug war’ has become a nightmare for all three countries, especially Mexico,” said Carleen Pickard, executive director of Global Exchange, the San Francisco based human rights organization, in the IPS statement. “A growing movement that includes former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil think ending drug prohibition is central to any genuine solution to soaring violence. Obama, Harper and Calderón need to get real about it too.”

The strong trilateral civil society cooperation on North American integration has been less active since it helped defeat the SPP in 2009 but this week’s meeting in Washington gives us many reasons to pick up the dialogue.

Raul Burbano of Common Frontiers, to which the Council of Canadians is a member, will be in Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas this month. Lambert will be posting regular updates on the summit and the counter-summit, or Cumbre de los Pueblos, for the Americas Policy Group on the CCIC website. We’ll have more on developments from that summit, the G20 and the upcoming UNCTAD conference over the coming weeks.