WTO: The Monster in the Closet

This looming monster called the World Trade Organization … Is it really malevolent?

by Mary Boardman

Monster: "… an imaginary entity compounded of incongruous elements; an inhumanly wicked person …"

When I was a child, my bedroom had a walk-in closet opposite my bed. On the back of the closet door was a hook on which clothes were often hung. At night, the play of street lights and the motion of trees outside my window would create moving, sometimes frightening, shadows that incorporated the items hanging on the closet door. Many times I saw a monster lurking there. Many times mom or dad would come in to reassure me it was only clothes and shut the closet door.

Barely convinced, I would go to sleep. But I don't think I was ever truly persuaded there wasn't a monster I had to be on the lookout for. Trying to remember to close the closet door before I went to bed wasn't enough; I knew that sooner or later the monster would sneak out of the closet and devour my whole family.

Such is the uneasy feeling I've had for the past few years about the globalization of trade or, in the euphemistic language of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), "international economic integration and growth." These are the people who say "free" trade in the hope of engendering positive feelings. But what the WTO means by "free" trade doesn't necessarily translate as freedom for you and me.

These are the people who use "growth" and "sustainable development" in the same sentence, repeating them like a mantra in the hope we will be convinced these concepts can be simultaneously applied to earth's finite systems. They don't get it that it's a closed-loop system and the concepts of carrying capacity and limits to growth ought to concern them more.

It's a case of clever word-smithing to ensure buy-in; if you oppose them, you must be some kind of radical commie pinko. This should be a clue that they are pushing something monstrous, if not malevolent. Those with vested interests in this absurdity would like to reassure me that all is well and I can go back to sleep.

Yawn … that's what a lot of people do when others start talking about tariffs and trade agreements such as GATT, NAFTA, MAI. And what the heck are TRIPS, GATS, and SPS?

I recently mentioned TRIPS to a bright young First Nations woman who is working hard for a good future for herself and her people and drew a blank. I mentioned WTO to an American relative who is otherwise up to speed on issues and got a terse response about being "over-reactive."

Who can fault these people? Anyone who cares is blasted by a barrage of assaults on national and cultural autonomy, not to mention democracy. It requires extreme focus to deal with what's within your purview; extending your scope is tantamount to losing your focus. So it's no wonder people turn away from high-flying concepts like world trade and international finances with comments like, "Oh, let the big boys play their games; it doesn't have anything to do with me." And that's just fine with the big boys.

A WTO Hit List
Canadians stand to lose in the following areas:

Food Security: Many countries insist that government support and regulation of agriculture is essential for maintaining food security. World leaders in agricultural export want to complete the task of opening up world markets for agricultural trade through the WTO. The Canadian Wheat Board and government regulatory mechanisms may become targets.

Food Safety: In recent months, the US has spearheaded a series of moves to put genetically engineered food products on the WTO agenda. Both the US and Canada want to ensure guaranteed market access for the bio-tech food industry, not only in Europe, but also in Japan and the Third World.

Water: Included in the GATS talks is a heading called "environmental services," which includes the delivery of water and waste water services, still largely held in the public realm in Canada.

Forestry Conservation: The ability of governments to ensure forest conservation could be severely curtailed by the forthcoming WTO negotiations. The US, pressured by its big timber corporations, wants a woods products agreement that would compel countries to get rid of tariff and even non-tariff barriers such as purchasing policies.

* Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council of Canadians; Tony Clarke, Director of the Polaris Institute; Canadian Perspectives, Fall 1999.

What is the WTO?

Let's take a second look at this looming monster called WTO. Is it really malevolent? Possibly. Some might call it the embodiment of Moloch. Is it just some obscure economic activity? Definitely not! In the first place, "economics" is not an arcane concept, but an explanation of how a given society obtains and trades in what it needs to survive, and very often reflects what is regionally important to a culture. Recognising this basic fact makes it easier to understand how "things economic" relate to ideas like freedom, social justice, and human rights.

According to a position paper by the Council of Canadians (November 1999), The WTO was established in 1995 at the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO enforces several sets of trade rules:

  • the GATT, whose mandate is to eliminate all remaining tariff and non-tariff barriers [like environmental regulations] to the movement of capital and goods across nation-state borders;
  • the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services), mandated to do the same in the area of services;
  • TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Measures), which sets enforceable global rules on patents, copyrights, and trademark;
  • TRIMS (Trade-Related Investment Measures), which dictates what governments can and cannot do in regulating foreign investment;
  • SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards) Agreement, which sets constraints on government policies relating to food safety and animal and plant health;
  • FSA (Financial Services Agreement), established to remove obstacles to the free movement of financial services corporations, including banks and insurance companies;
  • the Agreement on Agriculture, which sets rules on the international food trade and restricts domestic agriculture policy; and
  • several others dealing with information technology and telecommunications.

Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, Issue #673 (highly recommended, www.rachel.org) says, "In the four years since its creation, the WTO has emerged as the policy voice, the muscle, and ultimately the fist of transnational corporations–the WTO has written 700 pages of rules that add up to an enforceable commercial code governing markets and trade world-wide–a code enforceable not by nation-states, but by the WTO itself … the WTO is a powerful new system of global governance" (from Wallach, L., and M. Sforza, Whose Trade Organization: Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy. 1999).

The International Forum on Globalization (IFG) first convened in 1994, in the wake of NAFTA's passage, to address the "complete reorganization of the world's economic and political activity, and with it the effective takeover of global governance by transnational corporations and the international trade bureaucracies they established." (See IFG website: www.ifg.org)

The IFG further says, "The WTO is among the most powerful, and one of the most secretive international bodies on earth … 134 nation-states have ceded to its vast authority and powers. The WTO represents the rules-based regime of the policy of economic globalization. The central operating principle of the WTO is that commercial interests should supersede all others. Any obstacles in the path of … expansion of global business enterprise must be subordinated … these 'obstacles' are usually policies or democratic processes that act on behalf of working people, labor rights, environmental protection, human rights, consumer rights, social justice, local culture, and national sovereignty."

Call for a Green Screen of WTO

Dr. Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) in New Delhi, is calling on environmental movements to endorse the Green Screen campaign. The Green Screen would not merely tack a green clause onto the treaty, as was done with NAFTA. The Green Screen would re-evaluate all WTO agreements and allow each country to develop its own environmental criteria.

All conflicts between trade and environment brought to the WTO dispute settlement panels have ruled in favour of commercial interests and against the protection of the environment.

After the evaluation and assessment, the Green Screen campaign will recommend changes throughout WTO agreements to ensure that the environment and natural resources in the Third World are protected.

Keeping the environmentally destructive rules of WTO intact and merely adding an environmental clause will not protect the environment. It will merely protect trading interests.

* Contact: Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), A-60 Hauz Khas, New Delhi – 110 016, India; ph: 91 11 696 8077; fax: 91 11 685 6795; email: vshiva@giasdl01.vsnl.net.in

Why should we care about the WTO?

If you care about national or provincial sovereignty, read on. If you care about the widening gap between rich and poor; the ethics of the marketplace; the environment and your ability to have effective input into environmental regulation; your food, how it is produced and processed, and whether or not it contains additives or has been genetically modified; your water, not simply its quality, but whether or not you actually have a say in who has priority to it, then read on.

If you think your indigenous culture has proprietary ownership of botanicals for cultural purposes, read on.

And if you believe there are certain basic human rights to decent water, air, and food, then read on.

It seems to me that the agenda of the WTO is to commodify absolutely everything and, in the process, subjugate essential claims to clean water, air, and food, and self-governance. That an outside entity could take precedence over democratically elected national governments should be enough to elicit concern.

What may turn out to be the protest of the century will take place in Seattle in late November-early December, where the WTO is holding its Third Ministerial Meeting. Thousands of people representing hundreds of international environmental, social justice, and labour organisations will also be there. WTO Director-General, Mike Moore, recently said: "Ordinary people greeted the launch of the Uruguay Round with apathy, the possibility of launching a new round in Seattle will be met with far greater emotions, some positive, some not so positive … This time we will not be able to complain about apathy …"

According to the Council of Canadians, "The WTO, which contains no minimum standards to protect the environment, labour rights, social programs, or cultural diversity, has already been used to strike down a number of key nation-state environmental, food safety, and human rights laws. It has … become the most powerful tool of transnational corporations who have worked hand-in-hand with the trade bureaucrats in Geneva and Washington (and Ottawa) to establish what is essentially a system of global corporate governance."

I believe a basic tenet of the WTO is what Jeremy Rifkin calls "the gospel of mass consumption." Everywhere in North America, whether you are in Chicago or Chemainus, people look suspiciously uniform and you see the same trade names. Regional differences are becoming obsolete.

Just as the loss of species diversity in nature points to the ultimate loss of viability of the earth's systems, so does the loss of economic, political, and cultural diversity point to the loss of freedom of expression, of ways of living, of choice. Ask yourself: Will the WTO, in effect, enforce an economic regime on the world's people?

It seems to me that, ultimately, the ascendance of the WTO represents the descendance of human rights. We need to be society's moms and dads, and remove the clothes from that hook, close and lock that damn closet door for good!

What can we do about the WTO?

  • Get Steven Shrybman's book, The World Trade Organization: A Citizen's Guide. Available through WCEL, $15. (admin@wcel.org, www.wcel.org or (800)330-WCEL).
  • Join the Council of Canadians. COC has a series of reports on the WTO. Contact them at #502, 151 Slater St, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5H3; ph: (613)233-2773, (800)387-7177; fax: (613)233-6776; www.canadians.org
  • email: inquiries@canadians.org
  • Check out the International Forum on Globalization, 1555 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94109; ph: (415)771-3394, ifg@ifg.org; IFG has numerous reports. One of these is specific to forests: Free Trade, Free Logging: How the World Trade Organization Undermines Global Forest Conservation. Included are analyses of the giant timber corporations' role in the creation of the WTO rules and how they will benefit; considerable discussion on the new proposed Free Trade in Wood Products provisions.
  • Contact the WTO at 154 rue de Lausanne, 1211 Geneva 21, Switzerland; ph: (41 22) 739 51 11, or at their website: www.wto.org; or their Seattle website: www.seattlewto.org, or call toll-free: (877)STOP-WTO.
  • Write letters to politicians. Tell them you did not give them a mandate to sell Canada down the river!
  • Write letters to your local newspapers; get on local radio and TV. Expose WTO to the light of day.


[From WS December 1999/January 2000]

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