Our Voice In Washington,D.C.
A Letter On the WTO
You may have heard about the massive protests in Seattle late last year during the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings and wondered what all the fuss was about. I had the opportunity to attend both official meetings as well as some of the protests and marches and would like to share my observations about what happened and why.
From 1947 through 1994, the main body for settling international trade disputes was operated under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). But GATT came under criticism from nations and exporters who said it was too cumbersome and its settlement process was too open-ended. This criticism ultimately led to the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to oversee international agreements covering topics like agriculture, intellectual property rights, textiles, subsidies, and tariff and non-tariff barriers. Legislation implementing the WTO was forced through a lame duck session of Congress. I voted no.
Unlike its predecessor the GATT, WTO rules and decisions are binding on member countries. If a WTO panel, which is not subject to conflict of interest statues or public disclosure requirements, rules against your country, you either have to change your laws or face huge monetary penalties. The body covers 90 percent of world trade. So how does the WTO impact labor, human rights, or environmental standards?
First of all , WTO rules prohibit making distinctions between a product and the process in which it is made. In other words, a pair of shoes is a pair of shoes as far as the WTO is concerned regardless of whether it is made by forced child labor in Asia, prison labor in China, or unionized labor in the United States. A can of tuna is a can of tuna regardless of whether the tuna is caught in a way that preserves dolphin populations or whether it is recklessly caught in a way that depletes dolphin populations. These must be treated as "like" products. Clearly this inability to make a distinction between process and product works against efforts to establish sustainable production practices. This means that corporate profits take absolute precedent over community values such as clean air, clean water, the right to unionize and work in a safe, humane environment.
Secondly, WTO member countries must extend Normal Trading Relations (formerly
Most Favored Nation status) to all other member countries. This means the U.S. must
provide the exact same trading benefits to long-time ally England that we provide
to Burma, a notoriously brutal military regime.
Thirdly, the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement prohibits non-commercial considerations when governments buy products. Therefore,governments at all levels in the U.S. are prohibited from banning the purchasing of goods made in violation of international labor standards or U.N. human rights conventions. For example, Massachusetts passed a law that prohibits the awarding of state contracts to companies doing business in Burma. This law is being challenged at the WTO by the European Union and Japan. You might recognize that this "selective purchasing" tactic is
exactly what was used to help topple the apartheid regime in South Africa. If the WTO had been in existence at the time, such economic pressure may never have been allowed and this disgraceful system might still be in
Fourthly, WTO rules prohibit member countries from limiting the import or export of resources or products. This means that the U.S. ban on raw log exports or a prohibition in the trade of endangered species could fall victim to this WTO rule.
The WTO impacts member countries in more subtle ways as well. Because the WTO requires environmental, labor, and public health rules to be the "least trade restrictive", a hazy definition subject to arbitrary interpretation by faceless tribunals, member countries often don't bother passing such consumer protection laws in the first place for fear of them
being overturned by the WTO. The preemptive "chilling effect" felt by legislative bodies is well founded. To date, in every single case brought before the WTO, the WTO has ruled against a nation's environmental protection laws when challenged by another WTO member. In fact, the U.S. has been forced to weaken the Clean Air Act and is currently seeking ways to change the Endangered Species Act to comply with WTO rules.
Of course, occasionally the U.S. does win a case before the WTO. For example, the WTO recently decided the European Union must accept hormone-laced beef from the United States and may make a similar ruling in the future regarding genetically modified foods. A "win" for corporate agribusiness to be sure, but a loss for our right to protect the public's health from incomplete science.
Essentially what this means is the American people and their elected officials do not have final say on the laws we make. I know, it sounds incredible, even unbelievable. Surely our laws are not subject to the whim of some sort of science -fiction "Big Brother" that prioritizes profits over people and corporate values over community values. Unfortunately, it's true and Big Brother's name is the WTO.
It is critical to speak out against those who claim that the current trend toward corporate controlled globalization is inevitable. Our current trade policies allow multinational corporations to receive all the benefits of expanded trade with no corresponding obligations. We must not accept the claim of corporate apologists that the choice is between unfettered "free" trade or no trade at all. Rather than allowing these policies to continue unchallenged, it is important to offer an alternative vision of sustainable trade.
I am pleased to be a cosponsor of just such an alternative proposal, the Global Sustainable Development resolution. This bill was put together through an international dialogue among elected officials, advocacy organizations, and academics. There are many important ideas incorporated in this legislation. For example, the bill calls for incorporating labor, social, economic, and human rights as fundamental principles in trade agreements and international financial institution charters. The bill also contains provisions to channel global investment funds into sustainable development that strengthens the economies of local communities.
I believe this alternative vision will allow the global economy to work for all of us who are forced to deal with the fallout from globalization but did not have a seat at the table when the rules were established. We can do better in leading the world to a just and sustainable trade policy.
Member of Congress
I recommend this link. Editor, MG Hudson WTO Watch http://wtowatch.org