It has become an annoying habit for American politicians to air their “concern” about human rights in Vietnam. The latest episode has many Congressmen grappling with a vexing question: Should Vietnam be part of the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] – touted as the “most progressive free trade agreement in our nation’s history” by President Barack Obama, given Vietnam’s human rights record?
Obama has been so desperate to push the TPP through Congress before he concludes his term that his administration has been trying to talk the full house into believing that the pact would play a crucial role in improving Vietnam’s record. Oh, the irony! The US has been striving to show the world that it is an ardent promoter of human rights. But with the TPP, it threatens to turn traitor to its own seemingly lofty cause. There has been growing concern that the TPP will benefit and protect the profits of medical and pharmaceutical corporations without considering the imminent harmful effects on human health.
According to documents released by WikiLeaks – and confirmed as authentic by several US politicians – America's TPP negotiators have spent years pushing for provisions that would, in effect, constrain affordable access to life-saving drugs. The US has asked signatory nations to honor US drug patents and marketing monopolies for even longer than many already do.
The most recent document revealed the Obama administration is backing off of drug-price protections for Big Pharma. But as The New York Times reported, “American negotiators are still pressing participating governments to open the process that sets reimbursement rates for drugs and medical devices,” health activists are adamant that these mechanisms would still inhibit the development of affordable drugs, particularly in developing countries like Vietnam, where the average income is less than US$5 a day.
The US claims to promote human rights and dignity, but the TPP unquestionably promotes profits over life.
It is even more baffling to see that on June 9 President Obama, aggressively defending his Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) before the Supreme Court issues a ruling within days that could gut it, chose to frame it in moral terms: "The rugged individualism that defines America has always been bound by a set of shared values; an enduring sense that we are in this together. That America is not a place where we simply turn away from the sick. Or turn our backs on the tired. The poor, the huddled masses. It's a place sustained by the idea that I am my brother's keeper and I am my sister's keeper."
If Obama really meant it, and does not think only Americans deserve benevolence, let us hope that his pet project, the TPP, will not “turn away from the sick” or “turn its backs on the tired, the poor, the huddled masses” in developing countries that are likely to be part of the pact.
It is also not certain how the TPP could become the “most progressive free trade agreement in history” as its critics say the deal is too corporate-friendly and shrouded in secrecy. One of the most glaring threats is the investor state dispute settlement (ISDS), an instrument which grants corporations the right to sue a foreign government.
What is more, the TPP is looked at as being the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on steroids. When the US pushed NAFTA two decades ago, it was sold as a deal that would bring wonderful benefits to Mexico. This has hardly been the case. There were promises that NAFTA would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US and bring Mexico to a first-world level of economic prosperity and stability, but 20 years later the grand projections remain unfulfilled and many outcomes are exactly the opposite of what was promised.
Due to the level of secrecy in the TPP negotiations, it is impossible to know exactly what is being negotiated. However, based on draft texts that have leaked, we know that the same sweeping NAFTA terms, which benefited multinational corporations at the expense of workers and consumers in the US and Mexico, are proposed for the TPP.
The US also has a strong conviction that the TPP will help workers in Vietnam pursue their rights. It is undeniable that Vietnam has much to do when it comes to safeguarding workers’ rights. The country is mulling over ways to shore up its ailing pension system after tens of thousands of workers in April protested new rules pertaining to the mandatory pension fund that prevents them from being eligible for lump-sum social insurance payments when they quit their jobs. The government also needs to beef up scrutiny of foreign companies, preventing them from violating workers’ human rights.
But on the bright side, Vietnam has successfully resisted corporate pressure and raised the minimum wage for the workers. The country has also rejected foreign investors’ demand to ease overtime restrictions.
Bafflingly, again, Obama opted to visit the Oregon headquarters of Nike, a multinational that is the bête noire of many activists for snubbing labor standards in its rush to capitalize on cheap foreign labor, to pitch the TPP in early May. There he told the audience: By joining the TPP, “it doesn’t mean that suddenly working conditions in Vietnam will be like here in Nike. And if Vietnam and any other country in this trade agreement don’t meet these requirements, they’ll face meaningful consequences.”
So in the spirit of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations, Vietnam should perhaps roll up its sleeves to shore up support for its workers and its people and protect them from the TPP so that American politicians do not have to condescend to a faraway country. By doing so, Vietnam might even allow them to instead channel a tiny portion of their attention and energy closer to home, like Guantanamo.
Dien Luong is a Vietnamese journalist. He has been granted a Fullbright scholarship to study at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism later this year