It is reported that Stalin said, "The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million people is a statistic." Today, a latter-day Stalin might say, "The death of four Yemeni civilians in a U.S. drone strike is a tragedy; the death of a million people because we let brand-name drug companies own U.S. 'trade policy' would be a statistic."
Right now, in Leesburg, Va., the office of the U.S. Trade Representative is negotiating a so-called "trade agreement" -- the "Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement" -- that could put the lives of millions of innocent civilians at risk. The process is secret: USTR refuses to publish a draft negotiating text, so any American who isn't cleared by USTR to see the text can't say for sure exactly what USTR is doing right now.
I put the phrase "trade agreement" in quotation marks because calling these deals "trade agreements" is fundamentally misleading for many people. The phrase "trade agreement" suggests to some that governments are only talking about "lowering barriers to trade." If you call it a "trade agreement," some people might think, "That doesn't concern me very much. I'll go check to see if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are still married instead." If you called it "an agreement to raise drug prices so people you care about can't get life-saving medicines," more people might think, "I'd better pay attention to this. I can catch up with Brangelina later."
Bloomberg reports (emphasis mine):
Transparency has become an issue of the Pacific-region talks, with consumer, labor and environmental groups siding with some U.S. lawmakers who want participants to make their positions public. U.S. officials have said they will hold a public comment period and congressional review after talks are complete, in line with their policy for recent trade deals including those with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
That's cold comfort, because "after talks are complete," as a practical matter it's almost impossible to change such agreements. If you don't have input before "talks are complete," then as a practical matter you have no effective input.
But because there was a previous leak of the chapter of the draft negotiating text that dealt with intellectual property claims, people who have followed these issues closely have some idea of what USTR has been doing on our dime. What we can say with confidence is this: In an agreement that USTR hopes will eventually cover 40 percent of the world's population, the negotiating position of USTR has reneged on previous commitments the U.S. government has made to promote the ability of governments to pursue public health goals in "trade agreements" rather than undermining the ability of governments to pursue public health goals.
And regardless of anything else, that fact alone should be a national scandal. When, at long last, you nail acknowledgement of a fundamental human right to the wall, it should stay nailed there. We shouldn't have to fight USTR on access to essential medicines every time they negotiate a new "trade deal." USTR should cry uncle on this for all time, no matter how much money brand-name drug companies spend on lobbying and political campaigns.
In August 2012, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders noted that the 19th International AIDS Conference "illuminated the profound contradiction" between the U.S. government's goal of "an AIDS-free generation" and "some of the U.S. government's trade policies." MSF noted the need to make antiretroviral therapy available to "more than 7 million people still in need of urgent treatment." To achieve this, MSF said, "antiretroviral drugs need to be available at affordable prices." But, MSF said, USTR is "promoting restrictive trade policies that would make it much harder for patients, governments and treatment providers like MSF to access price-lowering generic drugs."
Leaked drafts of the TPP agreement, MSF said, "outline U.S. aggressive intellectual property demands that that could severely restrict access to affordable, life-saving medicines for millions of people... [T]he U.S. is asking countries to create new, enhanced and longer patent and data monopoly protections for multinational pharmaceutical companies so they can keep competitors out of the market and charge higher prices for longer."
Affordable generic medicines have played a crucial role in expanding access to treatment, MSF noted. But:
demand for newer HIV treatments is growing fast... Access to these ARV drugs will largely be contingent on the same price-busting generic competition responsible for the first wave of AIDS treatment scale up. The TPP's provisions, aimed at creating stronger and longer monopolies and making it more difficult to use legal tools to promote access to generics, could cut off access to these lifesaving medicines for millions.
Do you think that "public comment" and "congressional review" of an agreement that "could cut off access to these lifesaving medicines for millions" should wait until after the agreement is signed, when, in practical terms, the prospects for changing the agreement would be near zero? Do you think it's intrinsically offensive that USTR (public employees whose salaries you pay through your taxes, and who are using as their negotiating leverage access to U.S. markets, including your consumer dollars) would press other countries to agree to such policies, regardless of whether the other countries resist or cave? Do you think that USTR should cry uncle on the issue of access to essential medicines for all time?
If you think you might have an opinion on this at some point, the time to make some noise is now. Later may be too late. One place you can make some noise is here.