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Changing of the Guard At WTO No Solution

Changing of the Guard At WTO No Solution To Free Trade Woes
By Aziz Choudry

"Power is nothing without control" reads an advertising billboard for a multinational tyre company close to Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Walking past it on the final days of the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Qatar, Pirelli™s slogan rang true for the way in which the major powers manipulate the rules of world trade in their own economic and political interests.

Visiting the country of incoming WTO Director General, former Thai Deputy Prime Minister Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi I was struck by some parallels between New Zealand and Thailand.

On November 9, two days before I went to Thailand, I attended a march and rally against the WTO in Christchurch, Mike Moore™s hometown.

At the same time over 1500 Thai farmers, unionists, and HIV/AIDS activists marched on the US Embassy in Bangkok.

There, villagers burnt chili and salt “ a ritual which locals say brings bad luck to bad people.

The demonstration called for the WTO to get out of agriculture and an end to the patenting of life and drugs. Supachai takes over from Mike Moore next September.

In Bangkok I asked trade unionists, academics, journalists and others what they thought about the changing of the guard at the WTO.

One unionist told me that he could not see that having a Thai as the figurehead at the WTO would make any difference at all for Thailand or the rest of the Third World.

"He will just be a puppet for the powerful countries like the USA" which dominate the WTO. A researcher said that Supachai is a "smooth operator" “ a far more polished performer than Mike Moore, and a respected economist with a PhD in development economics from Rotterdam.

Moore has irritated many Third World governments by his consistent unwillingness to listen to their concerns about the impacts of trade and investment liberalization on their countries.

Thai farmers are outraged that germ of Thailand™s famous jasmine rice is in the hands of US researchers. Jasmine rice grows well in drought conditions and saline soils so it suits farming conditions of North East Thailand.

Most of it is produced by five million farmers whose meagre livelihoods depend on it. According to Deputy Commerce minister Suvarn Valaisathien, the Thai government is preparing for a legal action aimed at preventing a US ricebreeder from patenting a new rice variety being developed from genetic material from Thai jasmine rice.

But those I spoke with doubted whether the Thai government would really act.

Concerns about the WTO include the way in which TRIPS - its intellectual property agreement - strengthens the hand of private companies in claiming monopoly rights and getting huge benefits from biopiracy.

Private sector researchers, agribusiness and pharmaceutical corporations are appropriating indigenous communities™ heritage for private profit, while those who developed and nurtured them receive no benefits.

Many Maori also oppose such practices and the patenting of life.

No commitment to change this controversial agreement was made at Doha Also present at the Bangkok anti-WTO protest were unionists from Thai International protesting at the restructuring and further privatisation of the airline. Privatisation was a key condition of the IMF™s US $17.2 billion aid package to bail out Thailand after the 1997 crisis, caused largely by financial liberalization.

At a roundtable session with independent trade unionists and labour activists, State Railway Workers Union of Thailand officials asked me about the effects of privatizing New Zealand Rail on communities and workers.

An Australian company is poised to buy Thailand™s Railways. Rail privatizations in New Zealand, Britain and Australia have been held up as success stories to sell the idea.

Many Thais are already painfully aware of what comes with privatizing state-owned assets “ mass layoffs, higher prices, and less access to public services for the poor “ in a country where there are no social safety nets.

Whatever emerged from Doha had to be sold to the world as a success for the WTO or else it would be condemned as an irrelevant forum, incapable of achieving anything.

US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick boasted: "We have removed the stain of Seattle" The Financial Times was far less upbeat: "Reaching a deal required so many compromises and caveats that the final agenda is almost meaningless."

The key points of the Doha Declaration contradict the interests of developing countries.

It seems that the Quad countries, the USA, the EU, Canada, and Japan, bludgeoned their way into making gains for their interests on almost every issue on the agenda. At Seattle, Third World governments had resisted pressure to accept a trade agenda shaped primarily in the interests of the rich and powerful, scuttling a Millennium Round of trade talks. Internal divisions within the WTO were probably as marked going into the Doha meeting, if not more so.

But as one non-governmental observer put it, this meeting was characterized by "highhanded unethical negotiating practices of the developed countries “ linking aid budgets and trade preferences to the trade positions of developing countries and targeting individual developing country negotiators".

After all, what is power without control?

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