On 23 January 2017, after five years of secret negotiations, meetings, ‘stakeholder days’, protests, leaks, and a bitterly fought presidential election centred on the issue of trade, the United States formally withdrew from negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Without US involvement, it is highly unlikely that the agreement will come to fruition.
A few months before this announcement, we started developing a new entry in our civil society experience bank, Advocacy Bytes, recording the challenges faced and lessons learned by digital rights groups engaging in the TPP process – with the aim of helping to guide and structure civil society engagement in future policy processes. We had expected to present the case study as a record of ‘work-in-progress’. It arrives instead as something of an autopsy.
Despite this (perhaps, in part, because of it) we think the experience of civil society engaging in TPP offers a valuable and practically relevant resource for human rights defenders.
The case study examines the challenges and obstacles faced by civil society in a notoriously closed and secretive process, with lessons and guidance applicable far beyond the domain of trade negotiations. It outlines a model for productive collaboration between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ groups, in which public-facing advocacy complements lobbying and relationship-building with decisionmakers. Above all, it shows how, with a bit of ingenuity, even the most closed, secretive, and seemingly impenetrable structures can be successfully navigated – and, in some respects, prised open.
TPP is dead, but new trade agreements will come along – and human rights defenders will need to engage in them. It’s likely that many of the states involved in TPP will be looking closely at what happened, and learning from it for next time. It’s crucial that, as human rights defenders, we do the same.