Obama trade officials promise thorough review of transparency policies

The following report was prepared by KEI, and reviewed by Daniel Sepulveda of USTR:

Obama Administration To Undertake Review of Transparency of Trade Negotiations

On Thursday, President Obama’s trade officials met with several civil society groups and promised a thorough review of the USTR policies regarding transparency. The review is expected to be completed within a few months. The process will include a meeting within a month to discuss initial specific proposals for openness and transparency. Citizens and NGOs are encouraged to think about the specific areas where openness and transparency can be enhanced and how. Among the specific proposals that will be evaluated are the following at the request of KEI:

1. Disclosure of all negotiating texts and policy papers
2. Disclosure of all meeting agenda (as soon as they are available), and participant lists, extending to plurilateral, regional and bilateral negotiations policies that are common at multilateral institutions.
3. Accreditation of civil society NGOs to attend meetings, including in plurilateral, regional and bilateral negotiations, as is common at multilateral institutions.
4. Public consultations and comment periods, including those that accept comments to web based forums.

In addition, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is welcoming groups to make other proposals. For example, we suggested making private sector meetings, contacts and written submissions to top trade officials more transparent.

This review will be focused on making the recent statements by President Obama on transparency concrete and effective in the area of trade negotiations. The USTR encourages persons making proposals to address the practical concerns and needs of government trade negotiators to conduct internal debates on policy and to conduct diplomacy, as well as the public’s interest in access to information. For example, thoughtful discussions of the point at which communications with foreign governments should be disclosed and the extent of the disclosure required are more useful than broad high level statements on transparency.

The meeting was chaired by Daniel Sepulveda, a former Obama Senate aide who is now Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Congressional Affairs. Also attending from USTR were Timothy Reif, the recently appointed General Counsel of USTR, Catherine Field, USTR Chief Counsel for Legal Affairs, and Stanford McCoy, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Intellectual Property and Innovation.

Civil society participants included James Love, Judit Rius and Malini Aisola, of Knowledge Ecology International, Chris Murray of Consumers Union, Marcia Carroll of Essential Action and Eddan Katz of EFF (by phone).

KEI is very impressed with the USTR decision to undertake a review of USTR transparency efforts. They are taking this much further than simply reviewing policies on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), or recent controversies over the secrecy surrounding the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations. The review offers the possibility of more transformative changes, including pro-active measures to enhance transparency, covering all aspects of USTR operations, including multilateral, plurilateral, regional, bilateral and unilateral trade policies and negotiations. We are also grateful that USTR is offering to have a continuing dialogue on this issues. KEI will offer additional suggestions on transparency to USTR, and we encourage others to do so also.

The USTR welcomes submissions of those suggestions to Daniel_Sepulveda@ustr.eop.gov