At a time when civil
society groups are forcing their way on to the international stage through
massive demonstrations such as Seattle and Quebec City or through parallel,
unofficial “people’s summits”, how can the legitimate interests of democratically
elected representatives, coming together in inter-parliamentary organizations,
be accommodated and appropriately expressed to summits of heads of government
or international meetings of ministers? This article looks at the work of the
Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas and its role in helping
parliamentarians and civil society build greater public understanding and
consensus around international trade agreements.
One of the objectives of the
Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas (FIPA), is to play a useful role in
the negotiations of heads of government and ministers that are supposed to lead
to the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in 2005. FIPA has
only been in existence for three years. Its inaugural meeting was in
Ottawa, its first Chair was Bill Graham, now Canada’s Minister of Foreign
Affairs, and his successor is another Canadian, Senator Céline
Hervieux-Payette. Its small and under-resourced secretariat is based in
Ottawa. At the Summit of the Americas, held in Quebec City in April 2001,
heads of government officially recognized FIPA’s role in representing
parliamentarians from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean.
As with any new, underfunded
organization, FIPA is struggling to define its role and to overcome the
barriers of distance, language, and cultural difference to find its proper
place and purpose in inter-American politics. In its inaugural meeting in
Ottawa in 2001 and subsequent annual meetings in Mexico and Panama, FIPA has not
lacked for vitally important topics of discussion and debate: the
collective security of the Americas after 11 September 2001; the desperate
struggle of Colombian legislators to fight terrorism; the financial and
economic crises in Argentina and elsewhere; and the challenges to democracy in
Haiti and Venezuela, to name but a few.
One subject, however, has
dominated the first three annual meetings of FIPA: the state of the
negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. In the working
groups that constitute the main work of FIPA’s annual meeting, the FTAA has
been the only constant theme.
As Chair of the Canadian
section of FIPA and a member of the Executive Committee, I was asked for the
2003 meeting in Panama to preside over the most recent Working Group on FTAA
negotiations. In reviewing the deliberations of that meeting as well as
those of previous working groups in Ottawa and Mexico City, I was struck by the
consistency and repetition of concerns expressed year over year by parliamentarians:
agricultural export subsidies; the need for a rules-based tracking system;
issues of intellectual property relating to access to genetic resources,
indigenous knowledge, and medicines for all; and the differences in the level
of development and size of the economies of the hemisphere. In Canadian
terms, we were spinning our tires!
How were we to break the pattern of annually
complaining to ourselves, then sending generalized recommendations out to no
one in particular? It seemed to me that FIPA’s continuing interest in the
FTAA offered our organization the opportunity to establish a core line of
business for ourselves, a unique brand that would distinguish us from other
inter-parliamentary organizations of the Americas. Because of our special
recognition by the Summit of the Americas leaders, FIPA could claim the right
to be consulted regularly on FTAA negotiations and, indeed, future Summit
meetings as the voice of democratically elected representatives from all parts
of the Americas.
I was inspired by the model of
the relationship between the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), and the World
Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva.
parliamentarians, we have an obligation to be engaged in important policy
issues and as much right to be consulted as civil society organizations.
Furthermore, we have unique
resources to apply to the task of being informed and well connected about the
state of FTAA negotiations. Alone (to my knowledge) among
inter-parliamentary organizations, FIPA had created a Virtual Parliament of the
Americas web site (www.e-fipa.org) as one of the first projects drawing on the
Connectivity Fund created by the leaders at the Quebec City Summit.
The first recommendation of
the FTAA Working Group in Panama was to ask the FIPA executive committee to
“Establish a section in the Virtual Parliament of the Americas web site to
facilitate the exchange of information regarding the negotiation and
implications of trade agreements. This web site should provide
parliamentarians with information, documents and links to Internet sites on the
FTAA negotiations and to conduct discussions or informative sessions on issues
relevant to the negotiations.” A new, more comprehensive web site
containing such resources and discussion forums will be launched in September.
Since work on the Virtual
Parliament has been chiefly undertaken in Ottawa by people housed at the
Parliamentary Centre and the International Development Research Centre, a small
working group in Canada has been following through on this ambitious project.
The challenges of insufficient human and financial resources, four
official languages, and widely varying levels of connectivity across the
Americas are daunting, but we are off to a promising start.
Our second recommendation to
the Executive Committee was to “Prepare and distribute in advance of the next
Plenary meeting of the FIPA a document to follow up on each of the previous
recommendations on the FTAA and keep track of the results or any progress
achieved on the issues agreed by Parliamentarians.” This was intended to
deal with the “tire spinning” problem, or the lack of institutional memory that
seems to plague each annual meeting of the FTAA Working Groups, particularly as
there are frequently new participants every year.
Our third recommendation urged
the Executive Committee to explore mechanisms to take advantage of the fact
that there are many current or former parliamentarians with experience in
negotiating previous trade agreements like NAFTA, parliamentarians in Canada,
Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico who might be able to advise and share their
expertise with parliamentarians in other countries in the Americas.
Fourth, we noted that the
Brazilian Parliament had established a mechanism for monitoring and actively
participating in FTAA negotiations. Were there similar mechanisms in
other countries? How could we use the Virtual Parliament web site to
track and share lessons learnt from such activities?
Fifth, we asked the Executive
Committee to study the IPU/WTO model in order to “Establish a mechanism for
FIPA to interact formally with the Trade Ministers in the context of the FTAA
process and keep track of the negotiations.” To this end, the Chair of
FIPA, Senator Hervieux-Payette, has sent letters to the Brazilian and American co-chairs
of the next FTAA meeting of trade ministers in Miami in November, requesting a
formalized presence and role for FIPA. As of mid-August, no answer to the
request has been received from either co-chair, but we shall keep prodding.
Sixth, we are also preparing a
formal communication on behalf of FIPA directed to the FTAA co-chairs detailing
the more specific concerns raised (and repeated) by parliamentarians of the
Americas at the three annual meetings of successful FTAA Working Groups.
Finally, we want representatives
from FIPA to discuss with the FTAA co-chairs how we may be appropriately
involved in the “negotiations on the implementation and further development of
the Hemispheric Cooperation Program (HCP) under the FTAA, in particular with
respect to social adjustment funds for the agricultural and manufacturing
FIPA’s hopes and aspirations
for more formal involvement in the FTAA process are clearly ambitious, a real
“stretch target”. It has been a challenge even to communicate and consult
among ourselves, let alone to find the resources, particularly for the Virtual
Parliament web site, to do the job properly. Nor has it been easy to
receive official acknowledgment, let alone agreement, from the FTAA co-chairs
on our role in future negotiations.
But our goals, though
ambitious, are clear. Our aspirations, though thus far unacknowledged by
governments, are every bit as legitimate as those of civil society groups,
whether they are businesses or NGOs. Our resources, both human and technical,
though inadequate, are sufficient at least to begin the task of implementing
our seven recommendations.
Our challenge is to be
determined, dogged, steadfast, and consistent in working together to achieve
our aims. Sheer hard work and persistence when linked to the genuine
heartfelt concerns, hopes, and fears of parliamentarians of the Americas and
the people they represent about the FTAA process should prove a powerful force
in democratizing and making more transparent and accountable these crucial