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Corporate Power and Labor Rights: Why We Have to Watch out for the TPP

CGS blogger Jaira Burke at McDonald's protest in Chicago

On May 21, 2015, the urban streets of Chicago were engulfed in the cries of thousands, as workers, community supporters, and other stakeholders stood in solidarity at the headquarters of McDonald’s.  Tears filled my eyes as I heard the overwhelming accounts of hundreds of workers, oppressed by income inequality, struggling for survival.

A young African American McDonald’s worker shared her emotionally driven story of struggling to make ends meet to support her Autistic son and pay for his medical expenses after the death of her husband. Another man, a Spanish immigrant who came to America with the idea of the “American Dream” and being able to support his family, shared his account of working for the mega corporation for over 20 years and never receiving a raise—not even once.

This was a follow up to #FightFor15 protests, which demanded an increase in wages and union representation, and took place in over 200 cities nationwide and 40 countries globally on April 15. 

This scene is not an isolated occurrence, but represents an ongoing international effort to improve conditions for workers globally. Although #FightFor15 protests have moved the worker rights’ battle onto the front of the radar on American soil, the battle has a deep-rooted history in decades of labor violations at the profit-driven hands of multinational corporations.

In 2010, after continued pressure, multinational giant Nike paid approximately $2.5 million in legally owed severance to 1,800 Honduran workers. The brand also came under fire in the 1990s for alleged sweatshop conditions in Vietnam.

A Seventy-Year Solution: More Energy, Less Climate Change

This is the first of three planned blogs to focus on three crucial levers to a sustainable and ample life for our children and grandchildren.  

Over their lifespans—the next 70 years—they are going to need to negotiate three major transitions in human civilization:

  • The transition to large-scale sustainable energy flows
  • Managing the massive impact of human civilization on the environment which created and sustains us
  • Maintaining global governance systems that enable humans to meet these challenges.

Regarding energy, there can be little doubt that only solar energy is large enough to sustain a growing and more widely prosperous human civilization, though solar can be supplemented by wind, nuclear, some biomass, and possibly geothermal energy sources. But the transition to this sustainable regime will leverage off the fossil fuel foundation and will take a few decades.

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NPT: New Opportunities and Obsolete Perceptions

Three Mile Island

In my last blog, I outlined the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the role of the Review Conferences. Here I will deal first with the evolution of the NPT Reviews and then with possible avenues for future action.

Every five years, the NPT Review Conferences provide an opportunity for governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to evaluate progress in disarmament among the nuclear-weapon States and to sound a warning about tension areas, such as the Middle East, the two Koreas, and India-Pakistan relations. The hope of governments participating in the Review is to seek consensus on a “Final Document” embodying agreed statements of policy and recommendations for action. It has also become practice to measure the success of each Review Conference according to whether or not it was able to reach agreement on such a final statement.

The First Review in 1975 had great difficulty in drafting a consensus statement. The drafting committee had failed to reach agreement, and the Review was “saved” by the last-day dynamic efforts of the President of the Conference, Inga Thorsson of Sweden, who largely wrote and then presented a “President's Statement” accepted by the reluctant participants.

In 1980, the Second Review Conference was unable to agree to a Final Document, despite three extra days and all-night meetings. From 1975 to 1980, negotiations on nuclear arms control between the US and the USSR had seen a lack of progress or results. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the last days of December 1979 made any arms control agreement even less likely, especially on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was the focus of efforts at the time.

A Time of Mitzrayim

We live in narrow times—a  time of Mitzrayim.*

On one side, violence spreads like cancer. ISIL, Ukraine, Sudan, DRC, and too much more. Some of the violence is old. Some is new. But it eats at the slow-growing embryo of our oneness.

On the other side, the climate that sustains humanity is in slow-motion collapse. Melting Arctic ice packs slow the Gulf Stream; destabilization of Antarctic glaciers adds to rising sea levels, record high temperatures, ocean acidification, mass extinctions, and too much more.

We live between these threats.

Some of us wear blinders, look towards neither side and focus on what we can control—our families, our work, our daily lives. Some of look to one side or the other and shout warnings like prophets of old.

Others work to find a way—step by step—to carefully thread this narrow maze in which we find ourselves.

Our technology is both cause and solution. We live in cultures ranging from the Stone Age to the Information Age. 

We create the means to travel fast and far, which binds us together into a growing global organism, yet fouls the air and transmits global pandemics.

We design powerful weapons to protect us from the “other:” Smart bombs used in dumb wars and mass killers that leave us less secure and questioning our morality.

We build a digital nervous system that allows us truly to live in a world as each other’s eyes and ears with cloud memories and massive knowledge at our finger tips—but leaves our inner selves, our identities, open to theft.

We learn how to feed and heal our billions of bodies. So our population continues to grow. We have become a fetus consuming and fouling the egg which still shelters us.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Global Order

Civil society march during 2010 NPT Review Conference (Courtesy of Abolition2000.org)

The Review Conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) started at the United Nations in New York on 27 April and is scheduled to run until 22 May.  

I had chaired the representatives of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the 1975 and 1980 Reviews and participated in the 1985 and 1990 Reviews, after which the Review conferences moved from the UN in Geneva to New York. I will structure my analysis of the NPT into two separate pieces—“The Framework” and “Evolution and Challenges”— and will write a final summary at the end of the Review.

                                      The Framework

The concept of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons has always been highly controversial because it appears to legitimate the status quo of the division of States into the nuclear “haves” and “have nots.” The need to halt the spread of nuclear weapons—and to abolish them if possible—became very evident after their use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago. The very first UN General Assembly resolution in January 1946 envisaged the elimination of atomic weapons from national arsenals.

Also in 1946, the US Government proposed the Baruch Plan—the establishment of an international authority to control all atomic energy activities “potentially dangerous to world security.”  However, the Cold War was starting, and the USSR reversed the sequence of steps proposed by the Baruch Plan. The Soviet Union wanted the destruction of existing atomic weapons first and an institution for control later. As a result, none of the steps were taken.

The Mediterranean Migrant Crisis Isn’t Merely Europe’s Problem to Solve

Migrants being rescued by the Italian navy. ‘22% of all people entering Italy by boat in 2014 were from Eritrea. After Syrians, they are the second most common nationality to undertake these journeys.’ Photograph: AP

As many as one million desperate refugees and migrants will brave the Mediterranean Sea to flee conflict, oppression, and instability in Africa and the Middle East this year in hopes of reaching the relative safety of Europe. Desperation leads these migrants to human traffickers and onto rickety, unseaworthy boats ill-suited for the trip. Around 900 passengers died in one tragic incident last month; an estimated 1,800 have died so far in 2015.

These families are fleeing for a reason. They’re seeking refuge from conflict and crisis in Libya, Syria, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, among others.

Cluster Bombs: Saudi Use, US Sales, and the Review Conference on Their Prohibition

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Technical Field Manager inspects a Cluster Bomb Unit in the southern village of Ouazaiyeh, Lebanon that was dropped by Israeli warplanes during the 34-day long Hezbollah-Israeli war

The Saudi-led aggression on Yemen has on at least two separate occasions used cluster bombs to attack villages in Yemen's northern Saada Province, according to Human Rights Watch.  Cluster munitions are imprecise weapons which often fail to detonate on impact, leaving the unexploded bomb on the ground, ready to kill or maim when disturbed or handled.

The failure rate of cluster munitions is high, ranging from 30 to 80 percent.  But “failure” may be the wrong word. They may, in fact, be designed to kill later. Reports from humanitarian organizations and mine-clearing groups have shown that civilians make up the vast majority of the victims of cluster bombs, especially children attracted by their small size and often bright colors.

Cluster weapons had been largely used by US forces during the Vietnam War, especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  The impact is still being felt, and much land is unfit for cultivation.

The revulsion at the consequences and long-lasting impact led to the start of negotiations in Geneva leading to the Convention on Prohibition on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects − called by its friends “the 1980 Inhumane Weapons Convention.”

My NGO text presented during the negotiations in August 1979 for the Citizens of the World on “Anti-Personnel Fragmentation Weapons” called for a ban based on the 1868 St Petersburg Declaration—at the time the only law of war standard which seemed to apply. 

The TPP: What It Could Mean for Trade, Human Rights, and The Environment

Every year the second Saturday in May is recognized as World Fair Trade Day. This day highlights the importance of Fair Trade as we as a global community work together to address issues such as poverty, workers' rights, human rights, and economic and environmental issues in the midst of international trade. Such issues have the most impact on those who have no seat at the table, no voice in international negotiations—our most vulnerable communities.

As many around the world celebrate today, twelve countries (Australia, Brunai, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam) are in the process of trying to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is an international trade deal that will potentially impact 40 percent of the world’s GDP. That’s 26 percent of the world’s trade. It is aimed at broadening opportunity for trade throughout the Asia Pacific region. For Americans, this means enabling US businesses to expand abroad and international companies to bring their business to the US.

This deal has been in negotiations since 2005, having stalled multiple times throughout the years. There is now a push in Congress to pass legislation on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)—what has come to be known as Fast-Track. Passing the Fast-Track legislation would give President Obama the legal authority to push the TPP through Congress, allowing members only a yes or no vote without the opportunity to add amendments to the deal.

The Tragedy of Xenophobia in South Africa

After the official end of apartheid in the early 1990s, South Africa has been suffering from xenophobia. The root cause is a lack of economic opportunities and stifling poverty.

There have been quite a few xenophobic attacks against foreigners over the past few years in South Africa, including several cases in the last few months. South Africa currently has an official 25% unemployment rate (the same as in the United States at the height of the Great Depression), although the actual rate may be higher.

Many foreigners happen to be refugees fleeing conflict from other African countries and seeking to improve their livelihoods in South Africa.

Most of the perpetrators behind the xenophobic attacks reportedly live in shantytowns where unemployment rates soar around 40 percent. Residents often feel that the government is ignoring their needs.

Some of the worst of the worst violence occurred in the year 2008, particularly toward foreign nationals from the countries of Mozambique, Malawi, Somalia, and Zimbabwe, where nearly 60 people lost their lives and several more were injured.

Questions from Nepal: Debating the Merits of Voluntourism

On April 25th, a devastating earthquake hit Kathmandu, Nepal, killing over 4,000 people. As many around the world respond to the immediate aftermath, others look toward the future: how will Nepal rebuild? Financial aid is obviously needed; India is leading a massive aid effort along with other countries, while the US has already pledged $10 million. But the country will also need physical support. Who should provide it?

In the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, the country was flooded with untrained volunteers working with various NGOs. But while their hearts were in the right place, many of these good Samaritans did more harm than good. As Claire Bennett notes:

Ragtag brigades of well-intentioned do-gooders flooded the country…all clambering over one another looking for a way to make their mark and do good, but lacking either the skills or coordination to have an impact…. There were even reports of teams of doctors who arrived to help but were unable to feed themselves. This wave of unsolicited and poorly planned shipments of untrained people and donated goods was dubbed by some humanitarians “the second disaster."