By Patrick T. Hiller, published in PeaceVoice, February 26, 2015

Let’s get one thing straight to begin with. Trade is good. We do it all the time. Trade has been pretty much part of recorded human history and evidence reveals prehistorical trade routes in many parts of the world. It becomes a little bit trickier when we look at large-scale international trade agreements. The question as to whether foreign trade promotes peace and development or destructive conflict has been debated for a long time. One of the most current controversies on free trade agreements evolves around the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The history of free trade agreements, the secrecy around TPP, and the leaked information of the actual agreement suggest tremendous potential for social conflict if implemented.

Described by its promoters as a “next-generation model for addressing both new and traditional trade and investment issues, supporting the creation and retention of jobs and promoting economic development in our countries,” TPP is already facing broad resistance. There is sizeable opposition informing and educating about the negative consequences of what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls “global corporate agreements.” The opposition to TPP transcends political party lines and goes beyond the traditional left. There is a social movement against TPP. Labor groups, public health groups, digital rights groups, the environmental movement, immigrant groups, and peace and justice groups, are only a few vocal opponents. Stated concerns are: offshoring of American jobs, income inequality, higher costs of medicine, free range of corporations but not people, unsafe food, and less local control to name a few. As a peace and conflict scientist, I can add another concern: destructive conflict.

When we look at conflicts, we look at why they happen to begin with – the root causes. A simple way is to look what our basic human needs are. We know air, water, food, clothing and shelter are needed for survival. Beyond those we can look at security, identity, well-being and self-determination. If those are not met, it is argued, then people engage in conflict. As currently practiced and implemented, free trade agreements contribute to structural violence – the violence where social structures and institutions prevent people from meeting their basic needs. The agreements protect the interests of elites over the vast majority of people and the planet; consequently, the potential for conflict is increased. Now it becomes a little clearer that the debated provisions of TPP can be linked directly to social conflict, unrest and instability: resource exploitation, labor rights and income inequality, agriculture, environmental issues and national, regional and local community democratic decision-making powers.

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