Saturday, April 26, 2008

“A disservice to the Caribbean, indeed”

In The Diaspora
Stabroek News. April 21, 2008
“A disservice to the Caribbean, indeed” By Alissa Trotz

The title of this week’s column borrows from an editorial in the Jamaica Observer (April 18), which targeted those involved in what it described as “an orchestrated campaign against the recent Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).” The commentary expressed outrage that this ‘Caribbean’ issue had been aired on the international stage via an article and websites, in a move “calculated to embarrass the political leadership of the region.” It reserved its harshest comments for those ‘wise men’ who attended an EPA forum in South Africa, wondering whether resources from cash-strapped universities had been wasted to finance such disloyalty, even suggesting that the move was purely self-serving, intended to “catapult forgotten or obscure intellectuals into the glare of media coverage”.
The offending paper, titled ‘Renegotiate the Cariforum EPA’ and authored by Havelock Brewster, Norman Girvan and Vaughan Lewis, was requested by and published in the most recent issue of Trade Negotiations Insights (available online), which not only referenced but directed readers to the full text of the rebuttal by the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) that is carried at Incidentally this offending website, where the EPA petition campaign was launched, is the only place where readers can currently go to find commentaries that are both critical and supportive of the agreement, including the recent Observer editorial. Two of the authors were invited (and funded) by the Commonwealth Secretariat to attend a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa in early April, whose objective was “to undertake a comprehensive stock taking of EPAs concluded in order to provide countries with an objective and accurate assessment of the content, character and implications of the various agreements that will help guide and inform their policy choices”. Attendees included representatives of NGOs, independent consultants (the CRNM was also represented), Ministers of Trade and Industry or their Deputies from Botswana, Namibia, Samoa, South Africa, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the Secretary General of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP).
In her remarks to the convened group, Lady Glenys Kinnock, Co-President of the ACP-European Union Joint Parliamentary Assembly, suggested that deepening South-South co-operation is a major casualty of the EPA process and the pressure of the December 31 2007 deadline, which resulted in 35 out of 77 ACP states initialing interim and full EPAs: “In fact the Commission policy of concluding separate deals with individual states or groups of countries has possibly irreversibly splintered ACP regions.” The statement issued at the end of the Cape Town deliberations similarly observed that the “multiplicity of different trade regimes between the ACP and EU” that now exist are “detrimental to the integration processes of the regions concerned, and contrary to the Cotonou objective that EPAs should prioritise regional integration”. Faced with this potential undermining, it called for ACP countries to share information and forge “common positions within and across regions”, and stated that there remained problematic issues that needed to be revisited in order for ACP regions to arrive at pro-development EPA’s. Most significantly for the Caribbean, in light of the looming deadline that faces the Cariforum-EPA, the meeting acknowledged that it had received advice that “whether States had initialed a full or interim EPA there is still legal space to negotiate resolution of the contentious issues…[and]…that such an opening must be followed through, and that this should not prejudice the existing preferences granted by the EU”.
Unfortunately, it is only the most narrow and blinkered vision that would lead to the conclusion that the Cariforum-EPA is a strictly Caribbean issue, with no implications for other developing regions facing similar pressures, or for our relations with them. Or do we think we are somehow superior to our partners in the ACP, having signed a full EPA that is seemingly beyond reproach or scrutiny? If so, we are regrettably already succumbing to divide and conquer tactics.
The Jamaica editorial is not just about airing our dirty laundry across the world. Despite its apparent commitment to free speech, the attack was intended to narrow the space for public discussion by restricting who could legitimately speak, as was made clear in a telling comment that “governments and the private sector which have to make the agreement work are generally satisfied…no private sector organization has complained publicly.” Quite apart from this being inaccurate – as evidenced in the EPA petition that includes private sector signatories – there are more fundamental issues at stake here.
Do Caribbean people from all walks of life not have the right to make an informed choice based on hearing the case for and the concerns with the EPA? Does silence necessarily mean acquiescence, or does it index the absence of people’s awareness of and participation in how decisions get made? If trade negotiations need to be conducted in highly specialized language, should we not find ways to translate them into terms that make sense to people’s lives? In this process, what is to be the role of the university and where is the place for critical engagement? Are these ‘cash-strapped’ institutions to prioritise research and public interventions only when those of us who work in them can show ourselves to be yes-women and yes-men? When decisions will have such a far-reaching effect on everyday economic reality, not only should we insist on our right to debate, but that ‘we’ – apparently imagined by the Jamaica Observer editorial to be governments, skilled negotiators and the private sector – needs to be as inclusive as possible. It is all of us who have to live with this agreement, and who have to make it work. As Glenys Kinnock pointed out in her remarks, “There is disquiet and concern that has clearly been most forcibly expressed by ACP Ministers and Governments, by parliamentarians, the private sector, farmers, trade unions and civil society. These are the authoritative and authentic voices of the ACP which have been raised across all regions.”
The vitriolic attack contained in last week’s Jamaica Observer ends up muzzling dissent, dismissing disagreement as traitorous, singling out individuals, personalizing criticism as a way of displacing engagement with substantive issues (a tactic perhaps intended to discourage others from raising concerns), narrowing the scope of who can participate. It wants monologue not conversation. Caribbean people are cynical about politics and no wonder why. Does the level to which this editorial descends not exemplify conduct that is a disservice to the region?

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