Why APEC Must Change

By Warren Allmand

The recent controversy over last year's Vancouver meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) focused on the shameful misuse of power by Canada's leaders to keep Canadians from confronting Asian dictators. We have heard too little about the substance of the conference. Warren Allmand, President of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, spoke there - not to the APEC leaders, but rather to participants in the "People's Summit" where NGOs from around the world met to discuss policies. Allmand called attention to the need to change APEC in fundamental ways. Recently others have joined him in warning that this year's APEC meeting may also be a travesty against human rights and that Canada ought to stand up for its own values as a society.

The mandate of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development is to promote and defend the human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Rights, including economic and social rights. That is why we are supporting this People's Summit and why, with the Canadian Labour Congress, we organized this forum on Workers' Rights. This People's Summit is essential because the official APEC Summit refuses to discuss the impact of international trade on workers and social programs and refuses to allow worker representatives to participate in its discussions. APEC's claim that it is an organization of "economies" and that "economies" means only "business" is the ultimate in absurdity.

What's an Economy?

It does not take much intelligence to recognize that "economies" necessarily includes workers, resources, and consumers, as well as businesses. A serious discussion of economies must consider sustainable development, labor rights and standards and the rule of law. These are essential to long term trade and investment strategies. If they are ignored, these economies may be disrupted by strikes, civil strife, and conflict, which in the long run will cost more and even impair business's goals.

APEC's economic potential remains impressive. It now represents 50% of annual world trade. Its GDP surpasses $13 billion (U.S.) per year - 45% of global Gross Domestic Product. APEC is home to 2.2 billion people - 40% of the world's population.

But APEC, as it functions now, is not acceptable and deserves severe criticism. The recent economic growth has not been fairly distributed. Minimum international standards for workers are not being adhered to. As the United Nations Development Program has pointed out in a recent report, there is no automatic link between growth and human progress. On the contrary, what exists today is growth without prosperity. The disparity between rich and poor has increased dramatically. In 1960, the wealthiest one-fifth of the world received 30 times more than the poorest fifth. By 1991 (31 years later) this ratio had increased to 61 times more. Economic growth alone has never enhanced stability and human security, but must be combined with democratic development and good governance. With respect to labor standards, only five percent of APEC's 18 members have ratified ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association and none have ratified Convention 138 on a minimum age for workers.

APEC is a diverse and odd assemblage whose members agree upon no unifying philosophy except economic gain. Vagueness and deception are the order of the day. APEC is described as an association of economies, not of nations - a fiction designed to allow the participation of Taiwan and Hong Kong, but which is also used as a means of escaping U.N. and other international obligations. While nations and governments are accountable to people, economies are not. It is interesting to note that most of the benchmarks in Canada's "Individual Action Plan" (IAP) submitted to APEC in Manila last November were set at the behest of Canadian business through the APEC Business Advisory Council with little or no input from workers or the citizens directly affected. Not only has civil society been excluded in formulating Canada's IAP, but Parliament itself had little role in these important national decisions. The situation is worse in other APEC countries.

The consensus rule in APEC keeps controversial topics off the table. When we in the People's Summit Coalition approached the Canadian government, as the host country, to put human rights and democratic development on the summit's agenda, the response was that this was impossible because all matters were decided by consensus and that most APEC countries equated economies with trade/business. We pointed out that surely economies included not only trade, but also human rights, labor relations, human rights development, natural resources management, sustainable development and consumer policies, but our argument was met with no answer. APEC systematically refuses to refer to, or in any way advocate, respect for these matters in its deliberations, claiming that they are beyond their mandate. Increasingly, however, people in the Asia Pacific realize that, whether or not human rights are on APEC's agenda, the deliberations of such trade liberalization forums as APEC are having an impact on their rights.

Asian NGOs have repeatedly rejected their governments' arguments as self-interested justification for continued authoritarian rule. They hold that the growth of civil and political rights must proceed hand in hand with economic and social rights.

ACCORDING TO OUR NGO PARTNERS, APEC'S PRACTICES AND POLICIES ARE THREATS TO SECURITY AND STABILITY IN THE REGION. OTHER INTERNATIONAL AGENCIES ARE INCREASINGLY CONCERNED ABOUT THE SOCIAL DIMENSION OF GLOBAL TRADING ARRANGEMENTS. THE INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANIZATION (ILO) HAS A WORKING GROUP ON THIS ISSUE AND THE ORGANIZATION FOR ECONOMIC COOPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT (OECD) HAS UNDERTAKEN A STUDY ON TRADE, EMPLOYMENT, AND LABOR STANDARDS. THE EUROPEAN BANK FOR RECONSTRUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT EXPLICITLY TIES ITS LENDING AGREEMENTS TO HUMAN RIGHTS, PLURALISM, AND DEMOCRACY. NAFTA HAS SIDE ACCORDS ON LABOR AND THE ENVIRONMENT, AND MERCOSUR (ARGENTINA, BRAZIL, AND PARAGUAY) AND THE WORLD BANK HAVE ARRANGEMENTS FOR LABOR CONSULTATION.

What about Canada's role? In "Canada and the World," which is the foreign policy position adopted by the Canadian government in 1995, it is stated: Canada is not an island. If the rights of people abroad are not protected, Canadians will ultimately feel the effects at home. They understand that our economic and security interests are served by the widest possible respect for the environment, human rights, participatory government, free markets, and the rule of law. Where these are observed, there is a greater prospect of stability and prosperity - and where they are not, of uncertainty and poverty.

Canada must do more

When Mr. Axworthy was appointed Foreign Minister in 1997, he said that respect of human rights is a critical component of the Canadian identity and must play an important role in our foreign policy agenda. Considering that policy, we do not believe that the Canadian government, as the host and chair of this APEC Summit, has done enough in pressing for reform or in emphasizing the importance of human rights commitments noting the link between democratic development and economic growth. This summit is an outstanding opportunity for Canada to show her APEC partners how NGO participation and freedom of association and expression can result in a more productive economy, with greater stability and less conflict. Canada can show by example how civil society consultation and participation can be a success economically and politically.

We ask that Canada show leadership in APEC and other trade organizations, as she has done in the past with peacekeeping, development assistance, and support for the U.N. - to continue the legacy of Lester Pearson and John Humphrey. .

In the 1995 report of the Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighborhood, the authors state that for globalization to be a positive process, it needs an effective system of global governance. They said that "global decision making needs to build on institutions at many levels and the creation of adequate governance mechanisms ... must be more inclusive and participatory - that is, more democratic - than in the past. Global governance will foster global citizenship and will work to include the alienated and marginalized segments of national and international society. Finally, it will work to subject the rule of arbitrary power - economic, political, or military - to the rule of law within global society."

This forum must find a way to break the APEC logjam on human rights, including workers' rights. This will include new global partnerships. The battles that were fought in the 19th and 20th centuries by unions and social militants within state boundaries must now be fought over again in the global arena. If APEC wants respect and acceptance in the international community, it must accept the rules of the international community, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Warren Allmand heads the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Montreal.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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