WTO 102

Last week I began a two-part look at why critics are protesting the policies and at times the very existence of the World Trade Organization. Last week’s column (“WTO 101,” 11/11) examined the organization’s structure; this week, I’m left with the nearly impossible task of summarizing the various issues facing the WTO. Virtually no review of the impact of the agreements implemented so far by the four-year-old WTO has occurred. The Seattle agenda will include old business and new proposals. Both existing and proposed free trade agreements have extensive opposition.

Existing WTO trade agreements

The TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Property) Agreement covers patents, copyrights, and trademarks. TRIPS has been enormously controversial in the Third World, particularly in the drug industry’s attempts—often successful—to patent indigenous plants and remedies that people in a particular country may have used for generations or even centuries. Most heavily affected by these new monopolies are the countries with the greatest biodiversity— often poor countries like India and Brazil.

The SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards) Agreement is the WTO’s food safety agreement. Its prohibitions on cautious science and labeling have led directly to the European Union hormone-fed beef standoff. Under SPS, countries cannot even internally—let alone in international trade—adopt standards that require new technology be proven harmless. (If King County, for example, wanted to adopt standards for produce grown within the county, it could not.) Instead, the emphasis is on trade at all costs—including human. The Clinton Administration has also argued that SPS bars labeling with information that might dissuade consumers—for example, whether a product is or is not organic. SPS also has enormous implications for biotechnology and genetically modified foods.

GATS (the General Agreement on Trades and Services) covers almost all economic activity that does not include manufactured goods, raw materials, or farm products. GATS is one of 15 Uruguay Round (WTO’s immediate predecessor) agreements enforced by the WTO. GATS has overseen the globalization of the banking, insurance, and data management industries. Further GATS agreements are expected to push hard for the privatization of education, public health, and other services normally associated with the public sector. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) is also being proposed as a GATS reform.

The Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture set rules on domestic and international agricultural business that have accelerated the dominance of corporate agribusiness in supplying the world’s food. A tiny handful of companies now have a stranglehold on basic food (corn, wheat, soybean) production and distribution, with particularly disastrous consequences for developing countries that must purchase food from earnings on commodity crops. During the WTO’s first four years, food prices have remained steady or increased while wholesale prices for commodities have plummeted to record lows.

New possible Seattle agenda items

Global Free Logging Agreement: The Clinton Administration is pushing hard for a free trade logging agreement that would abolish developing and developed countries’ attempts to protect remaining old growth forests. Such an agreement, viewed as a catastrophe by environmentalists, is estimated to increase wood products consumption by up to 5 percent and hasten the destruction of the world’s rain forests, contributing to global warming as well. Needless to say, Washington state’s politicians have clamored for this allegedly job-creating document.

The Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) covers the free flow of investment capital around the world. Ignoring the lessons of the speculation that led to successive crashes in Asia, Russia, and Brazil in 1997-98, the MAI is designed to make fast fortunes at the expense of developing countries attempting to retain capital within their borders. The MAI also contains an extraordinarily dangerous provision which allows corporations themselves, rather than countries, to challenge laws as WTO-illegal before the pro-corporate Geneva tribunal. This would remove the last vestiges of democratic representation from a WTO mechanism that abolishes public policies not made with the goal of profits first. Seattle and King County are both on record opposing the MAI due to its threat to local control.

The European Union is promoting a new Competition Policy that would bar any restrictions on transnational corporations trying to enter local markets.

The US also wants new agreements on biotechnology, enabling corporations to patent life forms, and agreements on e-commerce regulation.

The net effect of the WTO’s agreements, both those already in place and those proposed for the future, is to give transnational corporations tremendous power at the expense of both local businesses and democratic institutions.

Environmentalists see WTO agreements as contributing to air pollution, global warming, deforestation, and a host of other ills. The freedom of companies to move resources and production from country to country alarms labor, particularly with the lack of any concomitant agreements on worker safety, abolition of child or slave labor, or the right to collective bargaining.

WTO proponents essentially rely on trickle-down economic arguments: the idea that enriching transnational corporations creates jobs and eventually benefits all of us. But the harm to public policies and the rapidly growing gap in income disparity between the very wealthy and everyone else are problems for which free markets offer no solutions. As it now stands, the WTO is making the rules, interpreting the rules, and enforcing the rules, all with a secretive pro-corporate structure unaccountable to any public. The WTO’s agenda, quite simply, is to abolish any and all regulation of corporations. The Seattle or Millennial Round is the WTO’s latest move to inexorably increase its own power. The WTO must be reined in, starting in Seattle, before corporations rule the world—and we all lose.