Published on Saturday, March 12, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
The Walking Zombie of the WTO
by Deborah James
More than 240 activists from 23 countries gathered in Hong Kong last weekend to plan a strategy for mobilization against the 6th Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) this coming December. But didn't we already kill the WTO in Cancún in 2003? And come to think of it, wasn’t it already dead in Seattle in 1999?
Yes, it was dead, and we had killed it. The story of how the U.S. and European Union raised it from the dead – like a zombie, beholden to its master - reveals much about the inner workings of the WTO, and why it is more important than ever to stop it before the next Ministerial in Hong Kong.
When the WTO was founded in 1995, the sales pitch read that so-called free trade was the key to development. At the Seattle Ministerial, after almost 5 years of experience with the WTO, developing country governments felt embittered by the WTO, which had sacrificed their development on the altar of free trade. Word on the street had also gotten out about the WTO: a giant corporate power grab masquerading as “free trade,” threatening democracy, natural resources, and labor rights across the globe. Civil society mobilized over 50,000 people to Seattle to say “NO” to the WTO’s corporate agenda, successfully shutting down the meetings on the first day, November 30, 1999. Instead, we wanted to build a world where life values – like the right to good jobs, clean water, health care, education, democracy and sovereignty – trumped the money values of the WTO. Emboldened by massive civil society resistance, the African, Caribbean, and other least-developed country representatives literally walked out of the meetings, causing the negotiations to collapse. The WTO died its first death.
The next Ministerial took place in 2001 in Qatar, a country that effectively lacks the right to freedom of speech. Behind closed doors and out of the civil society and media spotlight, hard pressure could be applied. Several poor countries attempting to assert their interests had their paltry aid rescinded days before the meeting. Meanwhile, empty promises were made that this round of negotiations would focus on development and the needs of the poorest countries – an acknowledgment of the unfairness of the current system. The heat was on to validate the façade of the WTO as a mutually-beneficial endeavor. While few countries actually participated in the negotiations, all countries were forced to accept the rich countries’ agenda. The U.S. And E.U. succeeded in raising the dead with the launching of the so-called Doha Development Agenda, a misnomer of epic proportions.
Following the story now to Cancún, Mexico in 2003: the rich countries pressed for the expansion of the WTO by adding new issues including investment, and pressing for further privatization of services. These new efforts would enshrine new ‘rights’ for corporations at the expense of democracy, as well as hand over essential public services to corporations for profit. But they didn’t count on the rise of a remarkable middle-income country alliance: Brazil, India, South Africa, China, Indonesia, Venezuela, and 14 other countries created a negotiating block representing over half of the world's population. Known as the Group of 20, these developing nations argued that the unfair agricultural system that has put millions of family farmers out of business had to be cleaned up first, before new issues could be on the table. The tragic suicide of Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae brought the collective rage of the outside civil society mobilization to inside the closed gates of the negotiating halls. Most importantly, an alliance of the least developed countries stood their ground against the intransigence of the rich and refused to accept WTO expansion without a development agenda. The WTO died a second death.
Then, last summer, a funny thing happened. Major decisions in the WTO are supposed to be made at the Ministerial meetings, but since they keep falling apart, the U.S. And EU moved the venue to a General Council meeting in Geneva. Once again out of sight of teeming protests and secreted behind closed doors in invitation-only "Green Rooms," the WTO was raised from the dead. The U.S. And EU pulled in India and Brazil (as well as Australia) to a meeting of the so-called Five Interested Parties. They developed a minimal consensus to get the negotiations back on track by giving false assurances that agriculture would be fairly reformed. After knuckling-under Brazil and India, they bullied the rest of the 148 members of the WTO into going along with the new patched-up framework agreement – sight unseen. Thus the walking zombie of the WTO was risen from the dead again, and is lurching toward a Ministerial this December.
Fortunately, there is still anything but consensus. Negotiations on Services are turning into a big sticky pot, with the U.S. agenda of getting access to the entire world's financial and energy services at the top of the list. This would essentially give the green light for U.S. banks like Citicorp and JP Morgan Chase to control the world's capital and banking industries. And it would allow U.S. corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel to control the world's energy services – everything that has to do with getting oil out of the earth and into the market. It would amount to the “Iraq-ification” of 148 countries in the WTO without having to drop a bomb. Also on the chopping block are culture, education, water, and health – pretty much most of the activities we humans engage in on a daily basis to survive.
The Agricultural negotiations aren’t faring much better. Underpinning the WTO is the ideology that all food should be produced for international export rather than local consumption. Since the U.S. government abolished its supply management program, the agricultural oversupply has led to a price collapse. To bail out the system, the government instituted subsidies to farmers, which disproportionately benefit agribusiness over small farmers keep prices low while taxpayers foot the bill. This allows these giant corporations like Monsanto and ConAgra to dump artificially-cheap food on developing-country markets, undercutting local markets and sending millions of farmers off the land. Export subsidies are supposed to be illegal under the WTO and other free-trade regimes. But rich countries, hypocritically, have largely won exemptions for the types of subsidies they use, while prohibiting similar types of subsidies and regulations used by poor countries. So developing countries have been demanding that the EU and U.S. reform their agricultural programs and provide market access for products like Central American sugar and Brazilian orange juice. But with agribusiness in control of several key red states, it’s unlikely that the current U.S. administration will negotiate seriously on these issues in the near future.
One of the least-understood negotiating themes relates to lowering tariffs on industrial products and natural resources (Non-Agricultural Market Access, or NAMA, in WTO-speak). Protecting baby industries against competition from foreign products with tariffs is a cornerstone of industrial policy that every developed country has used. But now rich countries want to take away this tool, effectively kicking away the ladder of development they ascended. According to the Third World Network, this would de-industrialize many middle-income countries, and prevent the industrialization of most of Africa. NAMA negotiators also want to eliminate something the WTO calls “non-tariff barriers.” In plain English we call them health, environmental, and labor laws, like requirements that government agencies buy from companies that use sweatshop-free labor or purchase Fair Trade Certified coffee, or use energy from renewable sources. NAMA would also increase trade in forest products, fish products, and mining, an issue that has environmentalists spinning. Remember “WTO Kills Forests” from Seattle?
Time for A Final Act: Movement Kills Zombie
At the Hong Kong planning meeting last month, it was clear that many Asian peoples – farmers, workers, immigrants, and women – make the link between the suffering in their daily lives and the WTO’s policies on agriculture, labor, immigration, privatization, and natural resource conservation. Citizens have mobilized their affected communities into large diverse coalitions that regularly pressure their trade negotiators to stand up for their interests. This kind of social mobilization gives Southern negotiators much-needed backbone for help them stand up to U.S. And EU representatives at the WTO. Developing countries are getting smart to the failure of the WTO to live up to its rhetoric of development and democratic process, realizing that the failed promises of free trade will never come true in a system whose rules are really written by multinational corporations.
In the U.S., some groups like Public Citizen, the International Forum on Globalization, Global Exchange, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy have worked to raise the awareness about the WTO for years, starting with the massive mobilization in Seattle in 1999. Yet a large and diverse coalition – like so many poor countries have – does not exist in the U.S. We are not only failing to hold our negotiators accountable. We are standing by as they run roughshod over the economic future of the world.
Social movements and poor-country governments have killed the WTO twice. The entire credibility of this model of corporate globalization has disintegrated, as the WTO has failed to expand once in its ten-year history. We in the U.S. have a huge stake in the WTO. It’s time to put that stake in the zombie heart of the WTO, and kill it off for good.
Deborah James is the Global Economy Director of Global Exchange.