Putting democ­racy above the bot­tom line

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

This month, we will have a chance to chart a course to­ward a stronger, safer global so­ci­ety, where power be­longs to the many, not to the few, and where those who have run roughshod over our en­vi­ron­ment, hu­man rights, and pub­lic health will be held ac­count­able. I am not talk­ing about the United States’ pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

To be sure, the US elec­tion will be im­mensely con­se­quen­tial; but end­less pun­ditry and horser­ace pol­i­tics have ob­scured two ground­break­ing events that be­gin on Novem­ber 7: meet­ings of the par­ties to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion Frame­work Con­ven­tion on To­bacco Con­trol (FCTC) and the United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change (UNFCCC).

Su­per­fi­cially, in­ter­na­tional law lacks the drama of a pres­i­den­tial race, and can un­doubt­edly seem stuffy at best, and ir­rel­e­vant at worst. But if one digs a lit­tle deeper, one finds an al­most Shake­spearean strug­gle be­tween democ­racy and un­bri­dled greed. At each con­fer­ence this month, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will make de­ci­sions that will af­fect the out­come of this strug­gle, and which could be­gin to solve some of to­day’s most vex­ing global is­sues.

Both the FCTC and the UNFCCC al­low for gov­ern­ments to rein in global cor­po­ra­tions’ unchecked power, which is a root cause of many other prob­lems, from eco­nomic in­equal­ity to so­cial in­jus­tice and bro­ken demo­cratic sys­tems. Global cor­po­ra­tions are enor­mous, and their in­flu­ence af­fects al­most ev­ery as­pect of our lives. To un­der­stand the reach of their power, one must look no fur­ther than the bil­lions of dol­lars they spend on elec­tions; their lob­by­ing to gut worker and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions in trade agree­ments such as the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship and the Transat­lantic Trade and In­vest­ment Part­ner­ship; and fos­sil-fuel cor­po­ra­tions’ re­lent­less drive to de­rail cli­mate-change pol­icy.

Global cor­po­ra­tions have dis­pro­por­tion­ate power be­cause they can op­er­ate across na­tional bor­ders, which means that no sin­gle lo­cal or na­tional govern­ment can ef­fec­tively reg­u­late them. The cru­cial func­tion of in­ter­na­tional frame­works such as the FCTC and UNFCCC is to pro­vide con­crete tools for gov­ern­ments to set na­tional poli­cies on is­sues rang­ing from pub­lic health to cli­mate change and global in­equal­ity.

For ex­am­ple, Colom­bia was a strong­hold for the to­bacco cor­po­ra­tion Philip Mor­ris In­ter­na­tional two decades ago, and com­pre­hen­sive to­bacco-con­trol leg­is­la­tion in that coun­try was long un­think­able. But in 2009 – just six years af­ter the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion adopted the FCTC and 15 months af­ter Colom­bia rat­i­fied it – the Colom­bian govern­ment en­acted one of the strong­est to­bacco-con­trol laws in the world.

Like­wise, gov­ern­ments world­wide are adopt­ing mea­sures that are proven to re­duce smok­ing rates and save lives, in­clud­ing graphic health warn­ings, mar­ket­ing re­stric­tions, and laws re­quir­ing to­bacco prod­ucts to be sold in un­branded pack­ag­ing.

But the FCTC’s work is not done, and gov­ern­ments are now push­ing for le­gal li­a­bil­ity to be a part of na­tional-level cor­po­rate-ac­count­abil­ity frame­works. If they are suc­cess­ful in ne­go­ti­a­tions at the FCTC con­fer­ence this month, gov­ern­ments will have the tools they need to make Big To­bacco pay for the dam­age it has done. Such an out­come would mean that gov­ern­ments could re­coup hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars in to­bacco-re­lated health-care costs and force the re­lease of in­ter­nal in­dus­try doc­u­ments.

The FCTC is ef­fec­tive be­cause it in­cludes a hard-won pro­vi­sion that ex­plic­itly pro­hibits cor­po­ra­tions from in­flu­enc­ing pol­i­cy­mak­ing. At the UNFCCC con­fer­ence next week, some gov­ern­ments will hold up the FCTC as a strong prece­dent to ar­gue that the fos­sil-fuel in­dus­try must be ex­cluded from on­go­ing cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions, owing to its con­flicts of in­ter­est with sound cli­mate pol­icy.

In­dus­tries re­spon­si­ble for cli­mate change must not be en­trusted to solve it. Only by re­mov­ing them from the equa­tion can we im­ple­ment truly ground­break­ing mea­sures – such as re­new­able-en­ergy sys­tems owned and op­er­ated by com­mu­ni­ties – that put peo­ple and our planet’s sur­vival above the in­dus­try’s bot­tom line.

For as long as we’ve had pub­lic reg­u­la­tory in­sti­tu­tions, cor­po­rate in­ter­ests have sought to co-opt them. Big To­bacco, Big Oil, Big Food, and Big Pharma have tried to bully, buy, and bribe their way into our pub­lic in­ter­na­tional spa­ces, all with the same goal in mind: to fend off reg­u­la­tion that would dis­rupt busi­ness as usual. Costs to hu­man life or the planet rarely en­ter into their cal­cu­lus.

Democ­racy ad­vo­cates in civil so­ci­ety and govern­ment have man­aged to push back against global cor­po­ra­tions, but much of their progress hangs in the bal­ance this month. Will at­ten­dees at the FCTC and UNFCCC con­fer­ences de­fend demo­cratic prin­ci­ples, or will they de­fer to big busi­ness?

The United King­dom’s “Brexit” ref­er­en­dum notwith­stand­ing, there is no deny­ing that we live in a truly global world. When the causes of our big­gest prob­lems are global, our so­lu­tions must be as well, which re­quires that we first ad­dress the fun­da­men­tal is­sue of cor­po­rate in­ter­fer­ence. The pos­si­bil­i­ties of what can be achieved by bring­ing in­ter­na­tional law to bear are too promis­ing to ig­nore.

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