Health activists protest against the EU-India investment treaty under negotiation now
As India and the 27-nation European Union today begin what is billed as the final lap of their negotiations on the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA)—it is popularly referred to as a free trade agreement or FTA—that will cover a wide range of government policy, activists took to novel forms of protest.
On Thursday, a phalanx of black coffins landed up at the office of the Delegation of the EU at the swish Golf Links Enclave where a bemused official was asked to sign the receipt for their delivery. Watched by a handful of global health activists, primarily those campaigning for access to affordable medicines for HIV/AIDS patients as their bright yellow Tshirts declared them to be, the specially marked coffins were unloaded outside the EU Delegation office in the biting February evening.
In all 20 black coffins, each emblazoned with names of the region where HIV/AIDS patients are in need of affordable medicines, were brought to diplomatic office of the EU. The contentious BTIA, which has sparked protests each time talks are held in Delhi and Brussels, includes stiff provisions for the protection of intellectual property rights (IPRs) that will bar Indian generic companies from manufacturing and exporting cheaper generic versions of the steeply priced HIV/AIDS drugs made by European pharmaceutical companies.
The BTIA covers a wide range of issues—from trade in goods and services to government procurement and opening up of the financial sector to cross-border investments and competition policy. The negotiations though have been stuck for several years and are behind schedule although the world’s largest trading bloc is pressing for its finalisation during the India-EU summit that opened on Friday (February 10).
AT Thursday’s unusual protest, health activists read out their charter of demands which calls on the European Commission to do the following:
Remove all provisions from the BTIA that threaten access to medicines, and, for good measure, from all other FTA negotiations
Remove all IPR provisions including enforcement measures, patent term extension and data exclusivity
Remove all investor protection provisions
Make the negotiating text public
Pull out of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that also threatens access to medicines
Put the human rights of people in developing and least developed countries over its “disastrous trade policies”
By asking India to adopt intellectual property standards above WTO requirements, “the European Commission (EC) is placing profits before people. It is asking the Indian government to trade away the lives of its own citizens and those of millions around the world,” it said.
Pointing out that everyone from the UN, the World Health Organisation, UNITAID to the global fund for AIDS, TB and malaria and European Parliament has asked the EC to stop this disastrous trade game, the activists noted that the EC has refused to listen although thousands have taken to the streets to voice their anger.
Therefore, “these coffins are delivered to you from across the developing world to convey to you the very real and very serious consequences of your trade policies.We will not go back to the situation when we got no treatment. Generic medicines from India saved our lives. We will not allow you to shut down the pharmacy of the developing world.”
For the new ambassador to the EU Delegation Joao Cravinho who presented his credentials just last month it clearly was an eye-opener. He politely invited the protestors inside to learn why he had been presented with a load of unwanted coffins. However, activists while acknowledging his courtesy were disappointed with Cravinho. “He gave us a lecture on free trade and its importance in the global system,” a disgruntled lawyer-activist told Down To Earth. “That’s not what we wanted to hear from the ambassador.”
Today, the protests were more widespread with farmers and retail traders also taking to the streets to protest against the BTIA which they say will affect millions of Indians who depend on agriculture and small businesses for their livelihood. For Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner who called on Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma on Thursday, the Friday protest would be a barometer of how strong public opinion is against the BTIA.
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