WASHINGTON (November 22, 2005) – The chairman of the bishops' International Policy Committee Monday offered a Catholic perspective on a pending free trade agreement, suggesting that the United States and several Andean nations could simultaneously promote human dignity and fair and sustainable development.
The latest round of negotiations on a free trade agreement between the United States, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru ended last week without consensus on such issues as agriculture, intellectual property rights, and labor protections.
In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman released today, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando highlighted the Catholic Church's teaching on the economy, human rights, human dignity, and the dignity of work.
"We believe that changes responding to these concerns flow from a moral concern to defend the rights and dignity of the many people, especially in the Andean region, who live in poverty; but they will also greatly enhance the prospect that the Free Trade Agreement will promote fair and sustainable development in their countries and our own, which is in the long-term economic and security interest of the United States," Bishop Wenski said.
The full text of Bishop Wenski's letter follows:
Dear Ambassador Portman,
As the United States engages in the final stage of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement with the Andean nations of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wishes to share our perspective on several issues that are under negotiation.
These concerns are rooted in the Church's teaching on the role of the economy, as well as in the perspectives of church leaders and other partners in the countries involved. Pope John Paul II cautioned in a 1999 statement when addressing the role of the Church in the one America, "If globalization is ruled merely by the laws of the market applied to suit the powerful, the consequences cannot but be negative." The Pope went on cite "unfair competition which puts the poor nations in a situation of ever increasing inferiority." (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 1999, no. 20)
We also call to your attention a series of statements on Free Trade Agreements made by Catholic bishops from the United States and across the Hemisphere, including joint statements that have been the fruit of extensive exchanges between and among episcopal conferences. (See excerpts from various statements attached). Following a meeting on the moral dimension of trade integration, bishops from 19 countries in the hemisphere issued a joint communiqué in which they stated: "We believe trade policies must be fashioned in ways that stimulate economic growth while at the same time giving priority to integral human development that builds solidarity, improves the common good of all, and in an essential way reduces poverty, exclusion and hunger. From our experience as pastors among our people, we have both hopes and concerns regarding trade agreements." (Joint Communiqué of Catholic Bishops participating in the "Ecumenical Meeting on Integration in the Americas", September 8, 2005).
Agriculture. A major concern focuses on the agricultural sector and those who live in rural areas. Our fellow bishops and other partners with whom we work have expressed grave fears about the vulnerability of small agricultural producers when confronted with competition by US agricultural products that enjoy a notable advantage due to US governmental policies.
As a consequence of this vulnerability, it is important for Andean countries to be able to protect themselves by, for example, exempting sensitive products from tariff elimination and large quota increases. Certain crops are critical to local and national food security and are produced by small-scale farmers. Also, it would be important for the poorer countries with large amounts of rural poor to avail themselves of safeguards that will protect to some degree their vulnerable populations in situations of import surges, whether these result from large volumes or extremely low prices.
Taking steps to mitigate the considerable risks to and to stabilize the livelihood of small agricultural producers throughout the region is consistent with the US goal of reducing the illegal production of coca and drug trafficking in the Andean region, as well as US goals to reduce incentives for undocumented migration to the United States. The US has a strong security interest in a stable, prosperous rural sector in the Andean region.
Furthermore, because the trade agreement holds risks as well as opportunities for small agricultural producers, principally in the Andean region, we would welcome US initiatives that dedicate more foreign assistance to this sector to help them make the transition to a more open, global market environment, and to benefit directly from trade.
Intellectual Property Rights. We are also concerned about intellectual property rights provisions with regard to pharmaceuticals. The Church locates intellectual property rights within the broader framework of the common good and believes these rights should be balanced with the needs of the poor. We are concerned about the US proposal to extend new patent rights to already patented chemical products if new uses are discovered for them. We are also concerned about the request for periods of "data exclusivity" in which generic drug manufacturers would be prevented from marketing their products. Both proposals may well increase the price of, and therefore access to, essential medicines.
In addition, the bishops of the Andean region minister extensively among indigenous groups. Out of respect for their cultural heritage and in view of their economic development, we hope that the US will give careful attention and deference to the proposal made by the Andean governments that requires commercial agreements to honor the patrimony of these indigenous communities, and to share the benefits of any commerce with groups in which traditional knowledge originated.
Labor Protections. The Church's teaching on the dignity of work is clear. We support the protection of basic worker rights and of ensuring that trade agreements offer opportunities to strengthen compliance with internationally-agreed worker standards.
In closing, we believe that changes responding to these concerns flow from a moral concern to defend the rights and dignity of the many people, especially in the Andean region, who live in poverty; but they will also greatly enhance the prospect that the Free Trade Agreement will promote fair and sustainable development in their countries and our own, which is in the long-term economic and security interest of the United States. The US Bishops' Conference stands ready to work with you to make increased trade work for all, especially the poor and disadvantaged.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Bishop Thomas G. Wenski
Bishop of Orlando
Chairman, Committee on International Policy