WTO's top ten
Reasons the organization is flawed and how it should be fixed.
By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
ADD A NEW constituency to the long list of World Trade Organization (WTO) critics that already includes consumers, labor, environmentalists, fair trade groups, human rights activists, AIDS activists, animal protection organizations, those concerned with third world development, religious communities, and women's organizations. The latest set of critics includes WTO backers and even the WTO itself.
As the WTO faces crystallized global opposition to be manifested in massive street demonstrations and colorful protests in Seattle, Wash., where the WTO will hold its Third Ministerial meeting Nov. 30 to Dec. 3 the global trade agency and its strongest proponents veer between a shrill defensiveness and the much more effective strategy of admitting shortcomings and actively acknowledging the need for reform.
WTO critics now face a perilous moment. They must not be distracted by illusory or cosmetic reform proposals, nor by proposals for changing the WTO submitted by the richer countries in its membership. Instead, they should unite around an uncompromising demand to dismantle the WTO and its corporate-created rules.
Here are 10 reasons why:
1. The WTO prioritizes trade and commercial considerations over all other values. WTO rules generally require domestic laws and regulations that protect worker, consumer, and environmental concerns, as well as those promoting human rights, animal protection, and other noncommercial interests, to be undertaken in the "least trade restrictive" fashion possible. Almost never is trade subordinated to these noncommercial concerns.
2. The WTO undermines democracy. Its rules drastically shrink the choices available to democratically controlled governments, with the potential for harsh penalties for violators. The WTO actually touts this overriding of domestic decisions about how economies should be organized and corporations controlled. "Under WTO rules, once a commitment has been made to liberalize a sector of trade, it is difficult to reverse," the WTO says in a paper on the benefits of the organization that is published on its Web site. "Quite often, governments use the WTO as a welcome external constraint on their policies: 'we can't do this because it would violate the WTO agreements.'"
3. The WTO does not just regulate global trade, it actively promotes it. Its rules are biased to facilitate global commerce at the expense of efforts to promote local economic development and policies that move communities, countries, and regions in the direction of greater self-reliance.
4. The WTO hurts the third world. WTO rules force third world countries to open their markets to rich multinationals and to abandon efforts to protect infant domestic industries. In agriculture, the opening to foreign imports, soon to be imposed on developing countries, will catalyze a massive social dislocation of many millions of rural people.
5. The WTO eviscerates the precautionary principle. WTO rules generally block countries from acting in response to potential risk to human health or the environment requiring a probability before governments can move to resolve them.
6. The WTO squashes diversity. WTO rules establish international health, environmental, and other standards as a global ceiling through a process of "harmonization." Countries or even states and cities can only exceed them by overcoming high hurdles.
7. The WTO operates in secrecy. Its tribunals rule on the "legality" of nations' laws from behind closed doors.
8. The WTO limits governments' ability to use their purchasing dollar for human rights, environmental causes, worker rights, and other non-commercial purposes. In general, WTO rules state that governments can make purchases based only on quality and cost considerations.
9. The WTO disallows bans on imports of goods made by child workers. In general, WTO rules do not allow countries to treat products differently based on how they are produced irrespective of whether those products are made by brutalized child workers, workers exposed to toxics, or in a manner that endangers the environment.
10. The WTO legitimizes life patents. WTO rules permit and in some cases require patents or similar exclusive ownership of genetically engineered life.
Some of these problems, such as the WTO's penchant for secrecy, could potentially be fixed, but the core problems prioritization of commercial over other values, the constraints on democratic decision making and the bias against local economies cannot, for they are inherent in the WTO itself.
Because of these problems that can't be fixed, the World Trade Organization should be shut down, sooner rather than later.
That doesn't mean interim steps shouldn't be taken. It does mean that beneficial reforms will focus not on adding new areas of competence to the WTO or enhancing its authority, even if the new areas appear desirable (such as labor rights or competition). Instead, the reforms to pursue are those that reduce or limit the WTO's power for example, by denying it the authority to invalidate laws passed pursuant to international environmental agreements, limiting application of WTO agricultural rules in the third world, or eliminating certain subject matters (such as essential medicines or life forms) from coverage under the WTO's intellectual property agreement.
These measures are necessary and desirable in their own right, and they would help generate momentum to close down the WTO.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are coauthors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1999).