NGO Letter to USTR on transparency

On July 22, 2009, eight public interest, consumer and public health organizations wrote to the United States Trade Representative (USTR), recommending the USTR and other federal agencies reduce secrecy and increase transparency in negotiations that involve global norms for knowledge governance. The eight organizations were:

  • Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
  • Essential Action
  • Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)
  • Public Knowledge
  • Salud y Fãrmacos
  • Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD)
  • Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM)
  • U.S. PIRG

The groups submission to the USTR involves an eight page discussion of 21 specific recommendations, plus three attachments that describe transparency norms in a variety of multilateral and plurilateral norm setting fora.

The recomendations to USTR are a product of a consultation with USTR on transparency that began on March 19, and included more recently, a meeting between USTR and more than a dozen NGOs on July 13, 2009.

One major area of concern are the negotiations on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which are now being conducted in secret.

The recommendations go beyond ACTA, to address the transparency of all USTR negotiations that concern the setting of global norms for knowledge governance. The recommendations cover the following topics:

Disclosure of documents in negotiations (Recommendations 1-8, 15)

Public participation and NGO accreditation at meetings (Recommendation 9)

Public consultations (Recommendations 10-12)

Agency obligations to to disclose Negotiation Objectives and undertake and report assessments of the impacts of the proposed norms. (Recommendations 13-14)

Proactive disclosures of information about USTR operations (Recommendations 16-18)

Advisory bodies (Recommendations 19-21)

Links to the July 22 2009 NGO letter and attachments:

Transparency in Negotiations Involving Norms for Knowledge Good: What Should USTR Do? 21 Specific Recommendations

ATTACHMENT 1.  ACTA is secret.  How transparent are other other global norm setting exercises?

ATTACHMENT 2.  Transparency of negotiating documents in selected fora

ATTACHMENT 3.  Participation by the public in selected negotiations

Comments on the NGO letter:

Robert Weissman, director, Essential Action

The Obama administration promised a new era of transparency, but we haven't seen meaningful changes at the Obama USTR. When the agency denies Freedom of Information Act requests for trade proposals that it has shared with other country negotiators -- and has made available to hundreds of corporate lobbyists serving on official advisory committees -- this is business as usual, not change we can believe in. The civil society proposals for transparency aim to close the information gap between citizens and public interest groups on the one hand, and corpoate insider lobbyists on the other.

Gwen Hinze, EFF

Transparency is the foundation stone for balanced policy making.  Leaked documents show that ACTA could lead to new invasive monitoring of Internet communications by ISPs and raise serious potential due process concerns for Internet users. Because ACTA is to be adopted in the US as an Executive Agreement, it will bypass normal processes of Congressional oversight. Therefore, it is crucial that citizens have access to information about its contents in a timely manner.

Ed Mierzwinski, U.S. Public Interest Research Group

Open government processes lead to better government decisions on behalf of the many. Closed rooms and secret documents benefit only the few and powerful corporations whose battalions of lobbyists prefer to influence-peddle in the dark.

Ethan Guillen, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM)

For too long we have allowed important international policy affecting access to medicines and many other related knowledge goods to be decided in secret.  Transparency is key to governance in the United States at all levels and it is time for the USTR to live up to the lofty promises of openness made by the Obama administration.  We hope that under the leadership of Ambassador Kirk, USTR will bring the basic principles of participatory democracy - transparency chief among them - to international trade negotiations."

Malini Aisola, Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)

The policy on transparency under the USTR needs revision in alignment with not just the directions of but more importantly the spirit, of President Obama's call for transparency and open government.  It is a disservice to the citizens of the United States and those of our trading partners, to be kept in the dark about negotiations that will heavily impact their lives and determine their access to essential knowledge goods.

Meredith Filak, Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue

People who are expected to obey and live under rules, and whose lives can be changed by rules, should have every opportunity to watch and influence the making of those rules.  There should be an open public debate.  There should be transparency, and openness.  We don't have that now.  We are asking the Obama Administration to change the old policy, and make things better.

James Love, Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)

USTR has encouraged the public to make a case for openness, and to offer concrete suggestions about how the USTR should respond to demands for greater transparency.  We are encouraged at the new sensitivities of the USTR, and we look forward to the realization of the early promisses by President Obama on transparency and openess.

Nuria Homedes, Salud y Fãrmacos

Trade and intellectual property decisions affect the lives of all people.  In a democracy, citizens should be informed of the decisions that government officials intend to make on their behalf, understand how those decisions may impact their lives and those of other fellow citizens, and must have means to express their views.  Greater transparency on the process and substance of USTR negotiations will renew domestic and international trust in the USA government.