This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
There’s an international awakening afoot about a radical expansion of corporate power—one that sits at the center of two historic global trade deals nearing completion.
One focuses the United States toward Europe—that’s the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—and the other toward Asia, in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both would establish broad new rights for foreign corporations to sue governments for vast sums whenever nations change their public policies in ways that could potentially impact corporate profits.
These cases would not be handled by domestic courts, with their relative transparency, but in special, secretive international tribunals.
It’s a stupendously powerful tool and a double win for the corporations: It’s a money machine that loots public treasuries and a potent tool to stifle unwelcome regulations, all wrapped in one. As Senator Elizabeth Warren recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Giving foreign corporations special rights to challenge our laws outside of our legal system would be a bad deal.” But it’s a deal US lawmakers are rapidly preparing to make as they debate extending “fast-track” trade promotion authority to President Barack Obama.
The system of closed-door trade tribunals has been around for decades now, nestled like a ticking time bomb into hundreds of smaller bilateral trade agreements between nations. But not so long ago, the trade tribunal system wasn’t the stuff of high-profile op-eds by US senators. It was virtually unknown except among a small cadre of international lawyers and trade specialists.
The case that brought the system into broad public view was born 15 years ago this month on the streets of a city high in the Andes. How that case was won holds powerful lessons today for the battles over the TTIP, the TPP, and the effort to hand global corporations enormous new legal powers.
The Water Revolt
It started here in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April 2000, when citizens rebelled against the takeover of their public water system by a foreign corporation.