August 25, 2016

Victory in Uruguay

“Felicidad total”—complete joy—wrote Jaime Arcila, our Latin America organizer, in an email to all Corporate Accountability International staff. “Uruguay has just declared victory in the litigation against PMI.” Despite the odds, the country had won its six-year legal battle against tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI).

This victory has important implications not only for protecting people around the world from the deadly effects of tobacco, which remains the number one cause of preventable deaths globally, but also for the corporate accountability movement as a whole.

Six years ago, this victory seemed nearly impossible.

Making an example

It was November 2010, and I was at the fourth meeting of the global tobacco treaty in Punta del Este, Uruguay. PMI had launched its lawsuit against the country earlier that year.

PMI’s motivations for bringing the lawsuit were clear. Its executives wanted to make an example of Uruguay just before it took the spotlight as host of the biennial global tobacco treaty meeting. And the corporation wanted to send a message: Countries following Uruguay’s lead to pass strong tobacco control policies would feel the wrath of the industry.

PMI’s strategy was to sue Uruguay through a bilateral investment treaty between Uruguay and Switzerland. An obscure World Bank court would rule on the proceedings. The corporation’s executives knew that by using international trade law, PMI would have an advantage.

As countries around the world implement the global tobacco treaty’s life-saving measures, which are projected to save 200 million lives by 2050 when fully implemented, Big Tobacco is increasingly relying on trade agreements to launch lawsuits to stop the progress of tobacco control.

This practice has received global attention because of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a dangerous, corporate-driven trade deal that allows corporations to sue countries for policies not to their liking, including those that protect workers, human rights, our health, and the environment. The public health movement was successful in ensuring that tobacco was largely carved out of the chapter that enables corporate-driven trade disputes, but it didn’t go far enough. Today, many countries would still be left vulnerable to Big Tobacco lawsuits if the TPP is adopted.

We stand with Uruguay

What’s inspiring about the Uruguay case is how people across the world rallied around the country in when it was under threat. Members like you helped us publish a full-page message of support in one of the largest Uruguayan newspapers as the treaty meeting began. We partnered with our allies at the Framework Convention Alliance, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease to amplify the message. We also supported government delegates to adopt a resolution in support of Uruguay. Bloomberg Philanthropies provided financial and legal resources. This support from around the world was critical for Uruguay’s standing firm behind its policies despite the lawsuit.

Corporate Accountability International, our members, and our allies also continued to expose PMI’s bullying worldwide, building public commitment to challenge corporate power. Uruguay was a key case that ensured tobacco received special attention in the TPP, setting a precedent for other trade agreements.

“Do not bow to pressure”

In the years since the lawsuit’s launch, PMI’s aggressive tactics backfired — serving to strengthen the resolve of public health and corporate accountability activists to stand up to Big Tobacco.

For example, in 2011 World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan spoke out, urging all countries to “stand firm together, do not bow to pressure… we must never allow the tobacco industry to get the upper hand.”

Namibia, Australia, Norway, Ireland, and the U.K. have all faced legal threats from the industry. They are now working together and sharing best practices for fending off industry intimidation.

The corporate strategy to manipulate trade agreements to protect profits at people’s expense is being met with powerful resistance. But our work is far from over. There are thousands of bilateral investment treaties and free trade agreements that corporations can use to sue governments in the name of maximizing their profits. And the TPP and its sister agreement, TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which together cover much of the Pacific Rim, North America, and the EU, could unleash a host of corporate lawsuits challenging legislation that protects people and the environment — unless we take action soon.

Some of the most important things we can do right now are stopping the TPP in its tracks and ensuring that TTIP doesn’t allow for similar lawsuits. With your help, we have already made the TPP politically toxic in the U.S., and in the months ahead we’ll need to stand together to ensure that it doesn’t pass. As we embark on that organizing, let’s hold on to Uruguay’s example, which shows that together we can stand up to even the largest and most powerful corporations.

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