What can civil society do?
Civil society can get involved in the implementation of social clauses in various ways:
- attending sessions of ministerial council meetings
- filing complaints in case of alleged breach of obligations
- participating in cooperation activities
Civil society organizations tend to underutilize the mechanisms at their disposal to ensure the respect of workers’ rights embodied in trade agreements. In the Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement (Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement [CETA]), a civil society forum was created to encourage civil society organizations to participate in the implementation of the agreement.
The European model
Since the adoption in 2015 of the strategy «trade for all», a new approach to transparency was adopted during negotiations of trade agreements in Europe. For each ongoing negotiation, the European Commission now makes available to all, via its website, a large number of documents which include the objectives, proposals and positions intended to put forward during the negotiations, as well as the preparatory studies leading to the adoption of such position. Through this comprehensive documentation, civil society organizations can engage in an informed dialogue with the negotiating leaders during consultative meetings organized by the Commission. Therefore, the European Commission recognizes that transparency and dialogue must be applied at all stages of the negotiation process, from the definition of the objectives to the negotiations themselves, as well as the phases following the negotiations. This is a major change because civil society organizations often felt that consultations only aimed to inform about the negotiating positions already agreed and the texts of agreements already drafted behind closed doors.
In this regard, civil society organizations often criticize the lack of transparency in Canada’s trade agreement negotiations. However, Canada recently implemented a consultation process to allow civil society organizations to express their positions during the negotiations.
Ways to facilitate the participation of civil society
- Facilitate the filing of complaints. This is often seen as a cumbersome and complex procedure requiring a high degree of legal expertise.
- Establish a national process to ensure consultation on a regular basis.
- Establish a civil society forum associated with the agreement or similar agreements. This would strengthen the links between organizations, across borders, and become a privileged forum for information-sharing.
- Involve and inform civil society during the negotiations of the agreements. Civil society could take part in the definition of objectives, receive information on the negotiating agenda and have access to government preparatory documents.