The curious lack of transparency exhibited by the U.S. Trade Representative regarding its World Trade Organisation settlement with the European Union was in the news headlines again this week with the announcement that the Public Citizen rights group intends to back demands for full disclosure.
The dispute originates in a lengthy and unsuccessful attempt by the USTR to justify inequitable online gambling bans that were challenged by the government of Antigua and Barbuda . Having exhausted its options in the WTO disputes system, the USTR then took the unprecedented step of withdrawing its WTO gambling obligations, opening the US to compensatory claims from fellow WTO members such as the 27 nation European Union.
This led to a settlement deal that did not directly benefit international gambling companies impacted by the withdrawl of US obligations, and a decision by the US authorities not to release details of the settlement, citing national security considerations.
The USTR claims that the settlement is classified and cannot be released prompted US journalist Ed Brayton to demand the release of the information under the Freedom of Information Act, but his request was rebuffed.
This week the Public Citizen organisation announced its active legal support for Brayton's case.
In its announcement, the Public Citizen claims that the Bush administration is illegally withholding the details of its offer accepted by the European Union to bind more sectors of the U.S. economy to World Trade Organization (WTO) jurisdiction as part of a settlement relating to a WTO ruling against the U.S. ban on Internet gambling. Consequently, Public Citizen has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“Americans have a right to know what kinds of trade concessions the U.S. government is granting other countries, especially when those deals have a significant impact on domestic policy and may be worth billions of dollars,” said Bonnie I. Robin-Vergeer, a Public Citizen attorney.
“The Bush administration’s decision to withhold [details of] the agreement under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has more to do with its desire to prevent public and congressional scrutiny of the settlement before it is enshrined in a new WTO schedule than it does with national security. FOIA requires the agreement’s release.”
Submitting new U.S. service sectors to the WTO’s authority would constrain U.S. federal, state and local government’s ability to regulate in these sectors and expose existing and future domestic policies in these sectors to challenge before WTO tribunals, as occurred with the U.S Internet gambling ban, a statement from the organisation points out.
Compensation talks behind closed doors yielded the U.S. settlement with the European Union, along with other WTO members, Public Citizen comments, noting that Congress was not involved in the process.
"The U.S. offer to commit new sectors of the U.S. economy to WTO jurisdiction – and thus to guarantee access under favorable terms by foreign firms – is rumored to be worth billions of dollars and may have serious implications for U.S. domestic policy.
"However, neither Congress nor the public can know the details of the agreement and whether it is in the public interest unless it is released," Public Citizen emphasises.
Brayton, who writes for the Michigan Messenger, is a fellow with the Center for Independent Media. He has written extensively about U.S. online gambling restrictions and their effect on international trade.
The Brayton/Public Citizen suit asks the court to find that the USTR is illegally withholding the settlement agreement and to order the agency to provide Brayton a copy of the agreement
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