Let there be debate on Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with USA in parliament, public forums

Editorial, NewAge, January 27, 2009

RESUMPTION of talks between Dhaka and Washington regarding a trade and investment deal should necessarily hinge on the possibility of securing a fully preferential market access for Bangladesh in the United States. At least in the immediate term, Bangladesh’s key interest, as regards trade with the United States, remains tariff free market access for apparels without any quota restrictions. The last summit of the World Trade Organisation, the global trade forum with about 150 member countries, in its declaration promised as much. The rich countries agreed to provide undeterred market access to products from Least Developed Countries, of which Bangladesh is one. But it stipulates that countries facing difficulties may refrain and provide access 97 per cent of the goods produced by poor countries.

Although Bangladesh is entitled to preferential arrangements from developed countries, and many respect this entitlement, the United States has consistently refused to grant this preference. This market issue happens to be one of Bangladesh’s prime concerns at almost any multilateral trade talks particularly at the World Trade Organisation. That the new government is willing to enter into talks with Washington on a pending — there have been three rounds of negotiations previously — deal, the ‘Trade and Investment Framework Agreement’, according to a report in New Age on Monday, at this juncture raises certain concerns.

Finalising a bilateral agreement, before completion of the ongoing round of global trade talks, must not preclude the scope for Bangladesh to enhance its market access through the multilateral negotiations under the global forum. There are certainly cases of bilateral trade and investment treaties benefiting both parties and as such Bangladesh has all the more to gain from this deal. But as is often the case in bilateral trade agreements, the weaker side — in terms of economic, military and intellectual clout — loses out to the stronger. In this particular case, Bangladesh not only lacks resources and skills to conduct efficient negotiations but the state of the two economies affords the Americans to strike a harder bargain and demand full reciprocity. ‘Equal’ treatment for two unequal parties is inherently unjust and would certainly be unjust to Bangladesh as well.

Besides the point that this framework agreement’s provisions, at least as they were in the initial draft of this agreement, undermine political authority, there are a host of other concerns regarding the provisions of that text. While we agree that labour standards can generally be part of trade pacts with the United States, we have strong concerns regarding implementation of intellectual property rights. It is understandable that writers and artistes receive their rightful dues but it also poses strong obstacles for people of the poor countries in their access to knowledge, healthcare and technology.

The government should be careful in proceeding with its talks with the United States so that a bilateral agreement does not compromise the potential of privileges that Bangladesh has in other forums, particularly in the form of special and differential treatment under the World Trade Organisation. The negotiations on this framework agreement have been going on since 2003 but as of yet there has been no public disclosure of the draft agreement to encourage debates and consultations among the more conscious and aware sections of the citizenry. This time, we expect that the draft of the agreement will at least be debated in the parliament in line with the culture of transparency and accountability that the United States itself so often proclaims a commitment to.


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