Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP): Background, commentaries & media coverage on human rights concerns


The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim nations: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, United States, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore, and New Zealand, with the potential for other states, namely China and Thailand, to join.  The agreement is the largest of its kind to date, covering 40% global GDP.  The agreement has been finalised and the full text is now available. 

Proponents of the TPP say that it will boost the international economy by reducing trade barriers across a range of goods and services, which will in turn create new opportunities for businesses and consumers.  With the stated aim of encouraging overseas investment, the TPP includes investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions.  The agreement also makes specific reference to the environment and labour standards, which government bodies have said will promote respect for human rights and the environment. 

Key business & human rights concerns

There has been concern among civil society that the agreement does not do enough to protect and promote respect for human rights and the environment, and in some situations, may be harmful.  Critics warn that the human rights standards in the TPP are unenforceable and the agreement will open the door to abuses by multinational corporations. 

Investor-state dispute settlement

A primary concern is with the ISDS provision, which allows corporations to sue governments when a regulation or governmental action negatively impacts the investment.  Critics say that this provision puts too much power in the hands of corporations and undermines the state sovereignty to legislate, for example, to improve social or environmental protections.  In response to concerns that this mechanism will be used for frivolous claims or when the disputed regulation is for a public purpose, the ISDS provision in TPP has added safeguards including transparency, public participation, expedited review, barring of shell companies, appeals and independent experts, among others.  Additionally, following concerns that governments will be sued for regulations that were made to protect public health (see Phillip Morris v Australia), a state party can elect to deny access to ISDS to foreign investments that are affected by health regulation aimed at tackling tobacco.  However, civil society remains concerned that the threat of expensive lawsuit is enough to create a regulatory chill where governments will refrain from pursuing such social and environmental policies in the first place.

Labour standards

Another concern is that the rich economies in the agreement, such as the US, are opening up their markets to the benefit of countries with poor labour standards.  While the agreement provides that signatories have to meet international standards on labour rights as contained in International Labour Organisation conventions, it lacks specific mechanisms to enforce commitments that governments make on labour rights, and thus states are unlikely to implement these standards if it will have a detrimental impact on their competitiveness, for example by making labour more expensive.

Intellectual property affecting access to medicines, freedom of expression & privacy

Civil society is also concerned about the chapter on intellectual property.  Patent protections included in the treaty may reduce access to medicines in the poorer member states by granting pharmaceutical companies monopoly rights to keep cheap generic medicines off the market.  There are also concerns about digital freedoms and privacy.  Some believe there will be extensive negative impacts on digital users’ freedom of expression and right to privacy. 

Lack of environmental protections

Environmentalists have criticised the TPP for not including enforcement mechanisms for environmental provisions.  The agreement notably does not reference climate change. 

LGBT rights

LGBT groups are also critical of the inclusion of Brunei and Malaysia in the deal, for allowing these governments who have criminalised homosexuality to benefit from having access to a larger consumer market. 

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