Saturday, October 17, 2009

The next crucial human rights test for Obama: APEC summit meeting in Singapore

On his first Presidential trip to Asia, President Obama will stop in Singapore next month to address the 20th anniversary meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which groups 21 countries on the Pacific rim.

APEC is a glaring example of an intergovernmental institution that by long tradition includes representatives of business but not of labor. (See "Only Businessmen Allowed Here: APEC.”) APEC thus symbolizes the Bush era paradigm that excludes workers, their rights, and their organizations from public policymaking.

Consistent with that paradigm, more than 800 of the world’s top business leaders will represent the “private sector” at the Nov. 13-15 APEC summit, and worker issues will not be on the agenda. Among the government leaders who will address the delegates, besides President Obama, will be the presidents of Russia, Indonesia, Australia, and Communist China.

“Engagement between the public and private sector is the highlight,” an APEC press release says. “Intreractive open dialogue and panel discussions will pave the way for the alignment of APEC policies and goals with global business.”

In other words, according to APEC, labor is not a part of the private sectior, and public sector policies should be aligned with global business.

Will Mr. Obama express any disagreement, or at least discomfort, with the monopoly that APEC, as an intergovernmental body, gives to one part of the private sector and to the views of that single part? Will he take the opportunity to distiniguish the Obama administration’s economic polices from those that the Bush administraion supported in APEC?

So far, there is no sign that he will.

“APEC is strategically important to the United States,” a State Department official told Congress on October 14, “because it is a primary venue for multilateral engagement with the Asia-Pacific on economic key interests.”

In that testimony, Kurt Tong, the acting senior official for APEC in the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian Affairs, made no significant distinction between current U.S. policies toward APEC and those the past. In his words on the “rubric of inclusive growth,” for example, Tong praises “flexible labor markets,” which is generally code for anti-worker policies such as opposing unions and minimum wages.

Business plays a direct, formal role in APEC through the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC), established in 1995. One of its foremost purposes, as its mission statement puts it, is to champion free and open trade and investment. “Our initiatives turn policy goals into concrete results,” ABAC adds.

Asian-Pacific unions and their parent labor international body, then named the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, founded the Asia Pacific Labor Network in l995, hoping to match the power of business and to raise the profile of labor issues in APEC. Despite repeated efforts, they have failed.

They seemed to come close last year, when, a month before the November 2008 APEC summit in Peru, Peruvian President Alan Garcia, told a union delegation that he would support a role for labor and labor issues in APEC. Nothing happened.

The struggle is not over, however. The cause is just, and will not die.

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