No Surprises: Repeat Offending, DeJa Vu & the WTO
By Aziz Choudry
With the World Trade Organization (WTO) Fifth Ministerial Meeting just days away, reflecting on the power politics, the ongoing wheeling, dealing, bullying and anti-democratic tactics which continues to characterize global trade negotiations, a question must be asked: Is anyone surprised?
Did anyone ever seriously believe that the WTO’s so-called Doha Development Agenda would deliver anything more than empty promises to the majority of its members in the South? That while Northern governments were making assurances that concerns from “developing”member delegations about the devastating impact of neoliberal policies and WTO commitments would be meaningfully addressed, that they had any intention to do so?
As Indian activist/scholar Radha d’Souza recently put it: “By naming it the 'development round' the officials can churn out endless platitudes on poverty and human misery and shed crocodile tears, even as the big powers do exactly as they please through bilateral trade agreements, military exploits and closed room deals on the destiny of humanity.”
Perhaps the real “development”has focussed on developing new ways to advance and lock in and spin economic and political injustice and inequality while sidestepping consistent concerns about existing agreements, and anti-democratic decision-making processes. Behind the crocodile tears is constant pressure to expand the WTO to include more areas of interest to global capital such as investment, competition policy and government procurement.
Since Doha we have seen more invitation-only mini-ministerials, negotiating drafts which ignore or misrepresent diverging positions on key issues, divide and rule tactics, repeated flouting of WTO procedures, the use of aid budgets to force concessions, and arm-twisting. The list of dirty tricks employed in the interests of the powerful seems endless. So much for democracy and consensus at the WTO. But why should we be surprised?
The ink has barely dried on the “deal”on TRIPS (the WTO agreement on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) and public health. It is being talked up by some of free trade’s cheerleaders as a “historic breakthrough”, and proof that the WTO “has a heart”. It is a morale booster for the institution, which has missed negotiating deadline after deadline in the run-up to Cancun. But it is clear that the victory is mainly a political one for the WTO, not for the millions of people denied access to lifesaving drugs through unjust patent regimes designed to ensure the profits, power and control of pharmaceutical corporations, locked in by commitments to TRIPS.
Playing hardball, pharmaceutical corporations, with the support of the US administration ensured that the accord contains so many conditionalities that many believe it will continue to stop drugs reaching those who need them
“The ability to import cheap generic drugs is being undermined by adding more conditions and restrictions so there will probably be only very limited use of this agreement,”says Bernhard Herold of the Berne Declaration, based in Geneva.
The deal is “designed to offer comfort to the US and the Western pharmaceutical industry," says Ellen 't Hoen, of Medecins Sans Frontieres. "Unfortunately it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines." Yet the perception that there has been a significant concession made on the part of the US and other Northern pharmaceutical-manufacturing nations will be used as leverage to force more commitments from Southern delegations.
Since the birth of the WTO, we have assembled countless examples of the ways in which trade negotiations are manipulated in favour of the already rich and powerful. We know about the influence of transnational corporations over negotiating positions and the shape of the agreements. We have seen how the political and economic worldview which underpins neoliberalism ratchets up the levels of injustice, inequality, and ecological destruction across the world. We have seen the “repeat offending”of the powerful countries which dominate the WTO, which insist that everyone else open up their economies, while protecting their own corporations. We have seen how countries like the US, the EU and Japan want to use enforceable trade rules to deny others recourse to policy options which they have used (and in some case continue to use) to develop their economies and societies.
Yet so often, the response of many Southern governments, NGOs and trade unions is to implore the WTO and the governments that dominate it to play fair. Since when has capitalism ever been about playing fair? Successive US administrations have shown that their working definition of “fair”extends only to protecting and expanding the power and reach of its corporations and the geopolitical goals of its elites. Playing fair is the last thing on the minds of the CEOs of transnational corporations. The US and the EU, in their different ways, despite their games of brinkmanship within the WTO and in other international arena, continue to pursue global strategies designed to shore up their respective political and economic strength.
The US, Japan and the EU had always dominated the WTO’s predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In 1990, University of Dayton political science professor and international affairs specialist, Margaret Karns wrote that “over the years the United States has consistently attempted to use GATT dispute settlement machinery to promote its short- and long-term trade interests”. What has changed? As a June 25 editorial in Nairobi’s Daily Nation on the US WTO complaint against the EU over its de facto moratorium on genetically modified organisms reminds us, Bush is the “smooth-tongued salesman for American biotech.”
There is more de ja vu. The original December 1990 deadline for the GATT Uruguay Round was not met as the US and the EU squared off against each other on the issue of agriculture. At one stage it seemed that the whole round would collapse because of this. Back then they stitched up a compromise agreement over their subsidised agricultural sectors between themselves, the Blair House Accord, in November 1993, following a review of the EU Common Agricultural Policy and presented it as a fait accompli to other GATT members. A decade on, just weeks ago, we saw a re-run of this, a gentleman’s agreement which again allows the EU and US to keep subsidising agriculture while they support trade positions which deny poor nations the policy option of supporting local farmers and food sovereignty. Why would anyone be surprised? US and EU corporate agribusiness is determined to have its cake,
At a time when many speak of US empire and unilateralism, let us never forget that these are not new phenomena. Bill Clinton’s US trade representatives, Mickey Kantor and Charlene Barshefsky, made it clear that the US would do whatever it took to stay on top. In April 1995, Kantor said: “We will use every tool at our disposal ‘ 301, Super 301, Title VII, GSP, The Telecommunications Trade Act, or WTO accession ‘ to open up markets around the world”. Two years later, Barshefsky concurred: “Americans must drive the rules of the new global landscape and the opening of markets”. Current US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick clearly agrees with them.
Whatever the meeting’s outcome we will see more promises, commitments, deals, double standards and dirty tricks at Cancun. Will we merely add them to a growing inventory of WTO outrages, and call for fair play once again, or will we take our criticism further?
In 2000, many organisations worldwide signed a statement calling to either “Shrink”or “Sink”the WTO. Similar statements before Seattle declared “No New Round ‘Turnaround”, and “Fix It” “ Or Nix It!”Now, facing the threat of further WTO expansion, with no sign of a “turnaround”or possibility of repair, isn’t it time we resolved to sink it?