WTO: What's at Stake

More than 5,000 trade officials, dozens of heads of state from more than 130 nations, and 1,500 reporters will converge on Seattle in November for the biggest international trade confab on American soil in 50 years. The Third Ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO) could launch a sweeping new "millennial" round of international trade negotiations.

Don’t be fooled by the dry agenda or the organization’s name. The WTO affects much more than trade. Thanks to new rules designed to constrain "non-tariff trade barriers" (i.e., any local, state, or national policy that could affect trade), the WTO has become a global arbiter of human, environmental, public health, and labor rights. For instance:

The Clinton Administration weakened portions of the US Clean Air Act and protections for endangered sea turtles after WTO dispute panels ruled that parts of both laws were illegal trade barriers;

The WTO has authorized trade sanctions to force Europe to lift its ban on beef treated with growth hormones. The Clinton Administration had argued that the ban lacked a basis in "science" and was a barrier to US beef exports. The Europeans defend the "precautionary principle" that allows protective action when science offers incomplete information. The WTO ordered Europe to open its market to US hormone-treated beef even after the European Parliament voted unanimously to uphold the ban. In an ironic twist, the WTO ruling sparked new research, which shows that hormone residues can indeed cause cancer, offering justification for Europe’s "better safe than sorry" policy; and

A federal court recently struck down a Massachusetts law designed to promote human rights in Burma, in part on grounds that the law conflicted with WTO rules that require states to treat all firms the same, regardless of whether they do business with egregious violators of human rights.

With a track record like this, it is no surprise that citizen groups worldwide are closely watch-dogging the Seattle Summit’s proposed agenda. Here’s a brief rundown on likely issues:

Food security and the family farmer. Talks to promote agricultural trade could help to eliminate subsidies that have supported many family farmers and local food production in Japan, Europe, and throughout the developing world. The main beneficiaries would likely be giant, US agribusiness companies, whose production methods emphasize animal factory farms, the widespread use of antibiotics, growth hormones, heavy inputs of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the use of fossil fuels.

Deforestation. Trade agreements that could be signed in Seattle may accelerate wood consumption and deforestation around the world. Negotiators are now rushing to complete agreement on "accelerated tariff elimination" in eight industrial sectors, including forest products, fish, and energy. A leaked timber industry study predicts a worldwide hike in wood consumption if the forest products agreement is signed. The Administration has so far refused environmentalists’ request for an objective environmental assessment of the proposed agreements.

Local sovereignty. Talks on a new investors’ agreement could be launched that would hamstring local sovereignty and environmental protection around the world. Modeled on the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the new agreement could give corporations the right to sue governments over laws and regulations that hurt their profits. As Californians recently learned, such investor rights can compromise state sovereignty. In July, Methanex corporation of Canada announced plans to sue under NAFTA’s investor protections for nearly $1 billion after California banned MTBE, a cancer-causing gasoline additive that is now leaking into the state’s ground-water. Methanex complains that the ban hurt its stock prices, so California could be forced to pay for the privilege of protecting public health.

Biotech. The Clinton Administration wants to negotiate a new agreement on biotechnology that could compel Europe to accept American bioengineered food and seeds. But European consumers worry about potential, long-term health effects of eating grains, fruits, or vegetables that pack a potent pesticide bio-engineered into the plant’s genetic make up. Any biotech agreement would probably reflect the WTO principle that importers must prove a risk before they ban an import. For new products, such proof might not be available until widespread harm has already been done.

Led by India, a growing number of southern countries are resisting the North’s call to negotiate sweeping new trade agreements in Seattle. They have now been joined by citizens’ groups from around the world in a call for an "assessment round" to "review and repair" the WTO, rather than enhance its powers. Labor, environmental, consumer, and family farm organizations will add political momentum to calls for "review and repair" by organizing major demonstrations in Seattle. Predictions for citizen turnout range into the tens of thousands.

In a recent letter to the Clinton Administration, US environmental groups outlined their "review and repair" agenda, including:

a thorough, balanced, and objective environmental impact assessment of all WTO agreements, past and present;

changes to WTO rules to safeguard legitimate health and environmental laws from attack as trade barriers; and,

elimination of the most controversial issues, such as investment and forestry, from the WTO agenda.

So far, the administration shows few signs of responding to citizens’ concerns. But, then again, the administration never responded to citizens concerns over the MAI ø and that agreement has not yet seen the light of day.


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