North American Free Trade Agreement

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North American Free Trade Agreement

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was made between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and took effect January 1, 1994. Its purpose is to increase the efficiency and fairness of trade among the three nations.

At the heart of NAFTA is a simple goal: the elimination of tariffs—the taxes each nation imposes on the others' imports—and other bureaucratic and legal barriers to trade. In addition to its central terms, the massive, highly detailed agreement also includes so-called side agreements intended to ensure that each nation enforces its own labor and environmental laws. The bulk of its regulations are to be phased in over the course of 15 years.

The impetus for NAFTA developed in the 1980s. Its roots lie in the United States-Canada Free Trade Agreement of 1988—implemented by the United States-Canada Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (19 U.S.C.A. § 2112 note [Supp. 1993])—which, by the mid-1990s, had already eliminated most trade barriers between the United States and Canada. With the world gradually becoming divided into large regional trading blocs where goods and services move freely, as in the European Union, NAFTA's supporters saw the inclusion of Mexico as necessary for North America to compete internationally.

In the United States, debate over NAFTA threatened to derail it. Proponents saw economic benefits for all three nations in the agreement. But opponents concentrated their attack on the implications for the relationship between the United States and Mexico. They feared several potential outcomes if NAFTA were signed: the loss of U.S. jobs, damage to the environment as a result of economic growth in Mexico, and the likelihood that U.S. safety regulations would be challenged as barriers to free trade.

In 1993, a coalition of consumer and environmental groups brought suit in an attempt to block congressional consideration of the agreement. In Public Citizen v. United States Trade Representative, 5 F.3d 549 (D.C. Cir. 1993), the coalition argued that the administration of President bill clinton had failed to comply with the national environmental policy act (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 4321 et seq. [1977]), which requires all federal agencies to submit environmental impact statements for all legislation or actions that affect the environment. The suit failed when a federal appellate court ruled that it had no authority to review the president's actions.

In response to anti-NAFTA criticisms, the White House negotiated three side agreements that were signed on September 14, 1993. The side agreements attempted to ensure that the three countries comply with their own labor and environmental laws; established fines and limited trade sanctions for violations; and called for consultations by the members if increases in imports from one country appeared to be having a devastating effect on an industry in one of the other countries. Two months later NAFTA won congressional approval. The House of Representatives narrowly passed the implementing legislation (North American Free Trade Implementation Act [19 U.S.C.A. §§ 3314 et seq., Pub. L. No. 103-182, 107 Stat. 2057]), and the Senate also passed it.

NAFTA specifies a timetable for its changes. When the agreement went into effect on January 1, 1994, the United States eliminated all tariffs on 60 percent of imports from Mexico that previously were subject to tariffs. On January 1, 2003, more U.S. tariffs on Mexico's imports were removed, and 92 percent of previously taxed Mexican goods were able to enter the United States without tariffs. Finally, on January 1, 2008, all remaining tariffs on the three countries' goods will be eliminated. Other barriers were removed beginning January 1, 2000. For instance, U.S. banks, which had traditionally been shut out of Mexico, became free to take over as much as 15 percent of the Mexican financial market.

Investor Protection Provisions Under NAFTA

One of the more controversial provisions in NAFTA (Chapter 11) involves the "investor-to-state" dispute resolution process. This provision provides a vehicle and a forum for corporations and other companies to sue governments directly for what is called "regulatory expropriation", which is similar to Eminent Domain under domestic law. A company may allege regulatory Expropriation in such instances as the actual taking of property by a country through condemnation, or constructive taking by way of laws or regulations that negatively affect the commercial value of a property. In order for a company to bring suit under this provision, it need only show that it is an "investor party."

In Metalclad Corp. v. Mexico, a special NAFTA dispute resolutions panel awarded U.S. corporation Metalclad $16.7 million in damages under this provision. In response, Mexico filed an appeal. The decision was then reviewed by a neutral Canadian court, the Supreme Court of the Province of British Columbia, which upheld the decision, but slightly reduced the damages to $15 million. Both parties withdrew their appeals in 2001.

Metalclad, a U.S. waste-disposal company, requested the creation of the special NAFTA tribunal in 1997, after a local Mexican government condemned property that Metalclad owned. The property in question was a closed toxic-waste dumping site, which Metalclad had purchased, and which the company intended to clean up and reopen. After it purchased the site, Metalclad successfully secured permits for the $20 million project from Mexican federal authorities, including federal environmental agencies, but it had not coordinated with local authorities. Local and state authorities refused to issue permits to Metalclad, claiming that the site was part of a 600,000-acre protected environmental reserve.

Metalclad complained to NAFTA officials, charging that the Mexican government's actions constituted expropriation. Mexico countered that Metalclad had started construction without waiting for all levels of approval. In particular, what angered Mexican authorities was that Metalclad had bypassed local jurisdictional forums and gone directly to NAFTA, claiming $90 million in damages and lost profits. The Canadian court that reviewed the appeal found that the original NAFTA panel, meeting behind closed doors in Washington, had interpreted the NAFTA Chapter 11 investor protection clause too broadly. It disagreed with the panel's decision that federal, state, and local governments in Mexico had issued a series of contradictory declarations to Metalclad, which violated NAFTA's guarantee of clear and transparent rules to protect investors.

By 2001, at least nine companies had invoked NAFTA's investor protection clause to file multimillion-dollar damage claims against the three member countries of NAFTA. Many of them alleged trade-restrictive practices involving environmental regulations. Canada's Methanex Corporation filed a claim against the state of California, charging that the state's ban on the gasoline additive MTBE resulted in company losses of more than $1 billion. Conversely, the U.S.-based Ethyl Corporation was reimbursed $13 million in damages for Canada's restrictions on the importation of the gasoline additive MMT. Another U.S. company, S. D. Myers, sought $20 million in damages against Canada for its ban on importing PCB chemicals.

Further readings

Hufbauer, Gary Clyde, et al. 2000. NAFTA and the Environment: Seven Years Later. Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics.

NAFTA Handbook. 2002. Buffalo, N.Y.: W. S. Hein.


Canada and the United States; Mexico and the United States.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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