Current Projects

1. Is Poverty a By-Product or a Building Block of Prosperity? Trends in Economic Development from Brazil and the United Kingdom (2017)

For details, please see the invitation to early career researchers and late-stage PhDs.

2. Between Piracy and Public Domains: The Suspension of IP Rights at the WTO (2017)

IP treaties define the public domain relatively: works with non or no longer protectable subject matter fall in the domain. It is little more than a negative residual contingent on national schemes and their protection criteria. With many schemes operating concurrently, there are in fact many public domains, all of which are jurisdictionally bound. Territoriality, however, is increasingly at odds with post-modernity. Digitization and electronic file transfers are the new standard with IP goods regularly streamed online from distant servers. Legal protection may remain territorially bound but the existence of goods is dis-embedded from nation-states. What are the implications for the public domain? Does the blurring of territoriality lend itself to the emergence of a transnational public domain? These questions will be explored through an examination of a WTO-based trade dispute between Antigua and the United States. In a digitally connected world, authorising the suspension of American IP rights in the Caribbean island has consequences far beyond the disputing nations. Having received a research fellowship from the University of the West Indies for 2017, I will travel to the Shridath Ramphal Centre in April to research the topic.

3. Smoke or Fire? Public Opposition To International Trade Agreements (2018-2021)

International trade has emerged as the key instrument behind economic development, technological advance, and poverty alleviation in many parts of the world. Less evident however is the impact trade has  on democracy. In the EU, the European Commission, the institution responsible for trade negotiations, has experienced a notable increase in influence. So troubling has the ascendancy of the Commission proven to some that an alliance of organisations, including trade unions, NGOs, and even political parties, is mobilising against the Commission’s participation in current and future multilateral trade negotiations (such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). Their opposition is born of the alleged democratic illegitimacy of contemporary trade agreements. Informed by this objection, the aim of this project is to investigate the validity of the opposition campaign’s opprobrium by testing their key claims against observable trade data.

Three claims are central to the opposition campaign’s stance:

  • Trade law is now ubiquitous in the regulation of agricultural products, intellectual property, environmental protection, procurement contracts, investment and fiscal arrangements, indeed reaching every public policy area imaginable, yet is deprived of any meaningful public participation;
  • The continuous expansion of trade in the regulation of everyday living is triggering a re-imagining of the EU’s constitutional matrix as the European Commission exploits its prerogative over trade to enact sweeping policies absent parliamentary oversight;
  • Aspects of popular sovereignty are surrendered to private diktat as investor-state dispute resolution provisions allow corporations to challenge regulations that conflict with trade agreements before unaccountable extra-judicial dispute resolution bodies.

These micro contentions unite in a macro critique about the democratic erosion precipitated by executive supremacy in trade governance. They also converge into an appeal for greater parliamentary and public involvement in the elaboration of trade policy to counter the disenfranchising trend. So salient has this campaign proven that a shadow European Citizens’ Initiative in support of a temporary moratorium on trade negotiations amassed over one million signatures.

Further research on popular mobilisation against the Commission’s authority over trade is vital in understanding the future of European institutions and European democracy. Just four years ago the European Parliament vetoed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), an agreement that had previously been signed by the European Commission and nine other countries. Never before had Parliament exercised its Lisbon Treaty power to reject a trade agreement. Parliamentarians were inspired by a trade mobilisation campaign identical to the one underway today, declaring that secrecy in negotiations compounded by attempts to neutralise parliamentary oversight were undermining democracy. Seeming discord between the European bodies cannot be ignored, particularly since ACTA provisions were recycled in the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA).

For the past three years I have investigated the relationship between civil society and trade policy, much of it informed by an Insight Development Grant I was awarded in 2013 by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to examine the effectiveness of public accountability measures in trade law-making. I set out to explore aspects of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement recently signed between the EU and Canada, with emphasis on the existing regime of public consultations that ran alongside the negotiations (al Attar and Boone Barrera, 2017). I also examined consultative practices that have proven successful in eliciting meaningful public participation in other disciplines and measured these against the current trade consultation model (al Attar and Clouthier, 2015). This research built upon past work in which I evaluated the validity of direct popular participation in law-making processes (al Attar, 2013) as well as the value of regional trade treaties in furthering democracy (al Attar and Miller, 2012). In keeping with this agenda, I propose to use my knowledge of trade law to conduct a thorough study of the opposition campaign’s claims. What this project will assess is the substance of their claims with a view to determining whether their interventions are enhancing or undermining European democracy

4. Distressed Law and the Corrosion of Democracy (2019-20)

Law and mental distress go hand-in-hand. From the moment individuals enter a law school until the time they reach the bench and at every level in between, their mental health is on a downward trajectory. Disaffection, isolation, and depression are now pervasive enough to be regarded as ordinary. More worrisome still are the societal implications of a distressed legal profession. Legal actors author, execute, and interpret the rules that mediate our lives. How does their distress impact upon the performance of vital democratic roles? This project is the first leg in a wider investigation of mental health in the legal profession and will start at the source: by examining mental distress among law students. This, however, is only the beginning. The data obtained will be used to build a sequential study of the profession and to establish a collaborative network of legal professionals committed to seeing it through. What ultimately drives this project is both apprehension and ambition: fear that distressed lawyers can only produce distressed law, damaging democracy in the process, and belief that an empirically driven programme of analysis and intervention can set right both the health of legal professionals and the health of our democracy.