It is nearly the end of 2018, and so many “reform” efforts are underway throughout all realms of international economic law that one is inclined to think all our good intentions must lead somewhere, eventually. There is an UNCITRAL Working Group for Reforming Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) that involves Member States, and to a different degree, academic inputs through the Academic Forum (see the blog’s series of posts on these authored by Anthea Roberts, found here, here, here, here, and here). New trade agreements have been announced, such as the NAFTA renamed 2.0 version United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, recently discussed here by the Max Planck Institute’s Pedro Villareal and Franz Ebert), a renegotiated Korea-US trade agreement (details here), or the forthcoming entry into force of the US-less 11-nation bloc of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) on 30 December 2018 (see details here). With the United States having changed its defense and leadership of the WTO and the multilateral trading system towards a policy of not shirking from initiating open bilateral trade wars to force renegotiations – such as the temporary trade truce with China (contents here) and tariffs slapped on the EU, Canada, and other allies (see Joseph Weiler’s ever prescient portents about the precarious US position here, and further discussions here, here, and here), it is not at all surprising that other States this year have been strategically realigning their economic partnerships, whether it be through deepening EU-Africa trade partnerships; Japan recently concluding a new trade pact with the EU; or more countries moving out of the Western orbit of economic influence towards China’s own expansive march with debt-financed investment projects in the Belt and Road Initiative; or China and/or India leading the state of negotiations at the pending 16-member mega-regional agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), allegedly set to be finalized by early 2019. All these, apart from the uncertainties of securing any prospective UK-EU treaty, which, as of this writing is still up in the air after British PM Theresa May pulled back from forcing a catastrophic vote at the House of Commons (noting, of course, that the European Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling on 10 December 2018 declaring that the UK can voluntarily revoke Brexit).
Political expediencies and treaty negotiation pragmatisms aside, we have to wonder whether the “efficiency” of these developments will indeed result in “efficacy” or “effectiveness”, and for which constituencies of the international economic system. Despite the multitude of public policy-driven reform efforts (such as expanding amicus participation, transparency guarantees, as well as public consultations in ISDS, setting out more detailed environmental and labor chapters in trade agreements, or announcing more infrastructure financing avenues for developing countries in new institutions and initiatives), what I have not seen in a year of attempted reforms is any deliberate shift towards broadening global economic governance beyond the usual voices at the negotiating table. The same political, economic, intellectual, or social elites are crafting the new rules and institutions in the international economic system, with the contours of any local community consultations actually left to be operationalized according to the political auspices and national mechanisms of individual States. To a great extent, this is understandable, since a relentless cacophony of voices might be anathema to achieving any final treaty text or clear institutional decision (e.g. the Aristotelian version of the tyranny of an extreme democracy). But to a large extent, this “business as usual” approach remains just as discomfiting as the many paeans regularly being made these days (see here, here, here, for example), towards building in some kind of consultations process for local communities that are somehow intended to depict a “more inclusive” international economic system. Is it enough that local communities are “being heard” by their respective States, or should the new rules and reforming institutions of the international economic system also start making sure that States are indeed listening?
Once communities have been “consulted”, one way or another, where is the (hopefully objective and largely depoliticized) “feedback loop” that enables local communities to actually see what the State’s ultimate decision-making process has been with respect to reforming international economic treaties, decisions, and institutions? That process remains shrouded in mystery – owing to the usual fictions of States claiming to need opacity during hard treaty bargaining. I make the (rather obvious, but surprisingly still ignored) argument, in this post, that States’ human rights obligations to their populations make it imperative to build in a genuine “feedback loop” for any consultations or transparency procedure that may be contemplated in the continuing reform of international economic law. A feedback loop is a necessary control mechanism in the communication process that enables communicants to verify whether their respective inputs or views have been used, recycled, revised, or discarded by the decision-maker. To the best of my knowledge, this still doesn’t exist in the architecture of international economic law and its limited spaces for public participation. There is “consultation” but no meaningful opportunities for communities’ real-time verification of what their States have promised, traded, conceded, or otherwise bargained at the negotiating table.
It is not enough that local communities just be “heard”, but we should all be properly informed of how community views translate (or not) into the State’s international economic decision, so as to ensure that communities can strategically and effectively participate as fellow constituents of the international economic system. This is all the more urgent as States persist in these reforms through to the new year, when communities are, in the first place, at the frontlines of the international economic system’s felt impacts on environment, health, economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. If there is any constituency that deserves the information on how States have been making all of these reform decisions, it is our communities who have to live through the consequences of these decisions, years after all the politicians and negotiators have come and gone. With better information as to States’ actual international economic decisions coming from an actual “feedback loop”, communities are better empowered to choose (or reject) leaders who make these lasting decisions. The “feedback loop” is thus central to a genuine right to self-determination, in its economic and political dimensions.