Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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Who elected the WTO?

By Faiza Rady

Parallel to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial summit scheduled to take place in Seattle from 30 November to 3 December, a militant "Counter Summit" will bring tens of thousands to the city in what promises to be one of the largest people's demonstrations in the US since the historic 1968 rally against the Chicago Democratic Convention.

Stealing a march on the official summit, the anti-WTO movement has already sent shock waves across the globe shaking major Western European capitals. On Saturday 28 November, thousands of farmers, left-wing activists and ecologists rallied in front of the WTO building in Geneva, demanding that the organisation put an end to its blatant disregard for internationally-binding environmental treaties, with disastrous consequences for the global environment.

Also on Saturday, France witnessed some 30 anti-WTO demonstrations nationwide. And in Paris, an estimated 10,000 people marched through the downtown area to the rhythmic beat of chants such as "economic justice or chaos", to protest the WTO's aim of further dismantling trade regulations worldwide. "This is a mass movement which has long-term goals," said Robert Hue, secretary-general of the French Communist Party. "We are saying to those in power that laws will not be made on this planet solely based on money," Hue explained, alluding to the accelerating privatisation of French industry which has fuelled soaring nationwide unemployment.

In Seattle, Counter-Summit participants include protesters from international and US-based labour unions, peasant organisations, left-wing political parties, community churches, environmental groups and NGOs. Although representing different political interests and a wide variety of often conflicting ideologies, these organisations have nevertheless found a collective base for struggle: they refuse to be subjected to the rule of transnational capital.

The Counter Summit activists have planned a week-long series of events in the Washington state capital, sponsoring anti-WTO conferences, teach-ins, sit-ins and demonstrations. Under the banner, "Just say 'No' to the WTO", organisers have been preparing since last summer through outreach work and popular education to alert people to the very immediate threat that top-down economic globalisation poses to their lives.

"When finance and trade ministers from governments around the world gather in Seattle, working people have to worry about what they are up to," Brian McWilliams, president of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), warned his constituency. "These representatives of globalisation are out to create a world where 'free trade' and 'free markets' dominated by transnational corporations will override human rights, worker rights, environmental regulation and all local control and national sovereignty," added McWilliams.

"The WTO is not familiar to most people," complained one activist, "but it should be. It is, essentially, our unelected global government."

One of the primary mechanisms serving corporate globalisation, established in 1995, the WTO is a powerful new global commerce agency which has translated the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Trade Related Intellectual Property Measures (TRIPS) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) into an enforceable global commercial code. In addition to enforcing GATT guidelines with a vengeance by dismantling all remaining trade and tariff barriers along with any left-over legislation protecting national industries from takeover by transnational monopolies, the aim of the upcoming Seattle summit is to gain effective regulatory control of the global service sector -- a loose category which effectively encompasses most known commercial activities.

How does all this affect people's everyday lives? Take TRIPS, the intellectual property agreement, specifically sponsored by the pharmaceutical giants. If TRIPS is enforced according to schedule in 2005, its implementation will terminate the unlicensed production of affordable medication and dismantle the generic drug industry, which is especially vital in the South, thus affecting the health and endangering the lives of the poor worldwide.

On another equally vital front, GATT signals the end of subsistence agriculture and the corporate takeover of small- and medium-scale farming by transnational agri-businesses. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have paved the way for this neo-colonial project by imposing structural adjustment programmes on the South, which require the mass cultivation of export-oriented monoculture cash crops, instead of encouraging food self-sufficiency based on traditional forms of sustainable agriculture.

Many analysts believe that the agreement to be forged in Seattle hinges on the plan to grant agri-businesses effective control over the food production system through global distribution licences.

This process, which has been underway since the early 1980s, has been accelerated by the creation of the WTO. A small handful of companies trade virtually all the world's corn, wheat and soybeans. A case in point is the Cargill corporation's current bid to buy Continental's grain operations. If it succeeds, Cargill will control more than 40 per cent of all US corn exports, one-third of all soybean exports and at least 20 per cent of wheat exports.

Affecting grain prices worldwide, this takeover has already led to the further consolidation of what were already near-monopoly conditions and, hence, reinforced corporate price control over the farm supply sector, as well as the food processing and distribution systems, according to the Working Group on the WTO, a US-based trade watch dog.

While its advocates claim the new world economic system is based on "free trade", the WTO's 700-plus pages of rules in fact serve to establish a licence for the corporate management of trade. Under this system labour laws, health and safety legislation and environmental rules are systematically sidelined and bypassed with the sole aim of maximising corporate profits.

As well as consolidating and expanding GATT and other trade agreements in Seattle, there are also plans, led by the European Union, to reintroduce the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) through the WTO. The MAI is a highly controversial international investment treaty secretly negotiated since 1995 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a rich nations' club which brings together the 29 most-developed countries. The treaty was stalled last year following an intensive grassroots campaign opposing its ratification.

At stake is the free and unrestrained movement of foreign investment capital across national borders and the global protection of profits -- real or potential -- at the expense of national sovereignty and decision-making. Nicknamed the "Corporate Bill of Rights", the MAI grants investors inalienable powers over and above standing national and international legislation. "What makes the MAI so remarkable is not just its very broad definition of investment, but also its unique process to protect the rights of investors," explains Canadian lawyer Barry Appleton, adding that "the MAI's 'investor-state' dispute settlement process provides for a fast and effective means of settling disputes between investors and governments by bypassing domestic courts completely."

Essentially designed to protect the profits of foreign investors in developing countries, under this new dispute-settlement mechanism foreign investors could no longer be held accountable under local legislation and could effectively challenge the statutes of binding international treaties and conventions for undermining their profits, whether real or merely potential. If reintroduced in Seattle, the MAI will effectively consecrate the undermining of national sovereignty as the WTO's core mission.

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