All Hail the Multinationals!

Article excerpt

If corporations are persons under the law, what do they dream about? Turns out it's just what we always thought: world domination. They're getting there via an international treaty you probably never heard of called the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. The MAI purports to "liberalize" the rules for international investing. It's sort of like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but global; like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), but more powerful; like the Constitution, but for corporations, not people. You don't believe it? Listen to Renato Ruggiero, director general of the enforcement arm of international trade, the World Trade Organization: "We are writing the constitution or a single global economy." And he's not asking for your opinion.

Since 1995, representatives of the world's richest nations and mightiest corporations have been working on the agreement in a Paris hotel. The negotiators are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, sometimes known as the "rich nations club." (Originally the agreement was to have been negotiated by the larger World Trade Organization, but the United States insisted on the exclusive OECD so as not to "water down" the agreement.) The rest of us might still be in the dark about the MAI had someone not leaked a draft copy of it a year ago January.

The ostensible purpose of the MAI is to protect the rights of international investors. It would do so by giving foreign corporations equal standing with domestic ones. For example, if your town is privatizing its water supply, a bidder can't be excluded just because it's from Latvia or Malaysia.

In effect, the proposed MAI would give corporations equal standing with nations, guaranteeing them the right to directly sue national governments. This might happen with some regularity, because among the MAI's many corporate bonbons are "takings" provisions even more extreme than those already rejected by the Senate: even a "lost opportunity to profit from a planned investment" would be grounds for mandatory compensation. For example, a foreign timber company owning land in the Pacific Northwest could sue the United States for damages if efforts to save the salmon prevented it from logging to the waterline. To resolve such disputes, countries would give their unconditional consent to go before an industry-friendly tribunal of the complainer's choice--the International Chamber of Commerce, for instance. Guess who would have the edge before that body? …