by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 12 Nov 99 -- The World Trade Organization (WTO) must freeze further trade liberalization until it can respect human and environmental health, according to the environmental organization, Greenpeace.

Launching a global campaign to reform the WTO, a delegation of Greenpeace representatives met with the WTO Director General Mike Moore last week and presented him an eight-point agenda that they would like to see reflected in the outcome of the WTO's upcoming Seattle conference.

Outside the WTO secretariat, Greenpeace activists were joined in by representatives of farmers, also keen to express their grievances against the world trade body.

"Our governments must protect themselves, and our environment, from the WTO's risky practice which endangers the global environment," said Remi Parmentier, Director of the Political wing of Greenpeace. "From now on, we will be closely following developments at the WTO - at Seattle and beyond - and will be coordinating campaigns in every part of the globe."

A new report, "Safe trade in the 21st century," prepared jointly by Greenpeace International and the Centre for International Environmental Law, brings out cases of serious conflicts between trade and environment and sustainable development.

"By putting trade expansion before environmental caution, the WTO could cause irreversible damage to the world's crop supplies and affect the public's right to know what they are eating," Greenpeace said.

Quoting trade disputes over beef hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the disposal of electronic wastes, among others, Greenpeace warns that "in practice, the WTO undermines the precautionary principle because it places the burden of proof on those who seek protecting the environment and human health instead of on the industry."

The "Safe Trade" report details examples where the WTO failed to take proper consideration of health and environment concerns and to shift the burden of proof in favour of the environment, such as the WTO ruling against the EU ban on imports of US beef from growth hormone fed cattle.

It also describes how WTO regulations are used to challenge national or regional environmental regulations, such as a US computer industry challenge to a draft EU Directive which seeks to reduce the use of toxic materials in computers and to increase the recycling of disused hardware.

In this and other cases, the mere threat of WTO interference can be sufficient to prevent the adoption or implementation of environmental regulations.

This was particularly evident, says Greenpeace, when major GMO trading nations (the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) pressured to prevent the adoption of a Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

It points out that both US and Canada, in their respective reports (WT/GC/W/288 and WT/GC/W/359) have proposed that WTO create a working group that would attempt to harmonise policies regarding GMOs. Similarly, Japan (WT/GC/W/365) has talked about a GMO labelling scheme.

"If this is not stopped, the WTO would prevent, restrict or delay the adoption of a biosafety regime under the UN CBD," warn Greenpeace and others.

The companies promoting the proliferation of GMOs in food and agriculture "are pulling the strings to give mandate to the WTO to restrict or eliminate environmental agreements in these areas," the organization charged.

Greenpeace also criticised moves afoot at the WTO that would cause further destruction of ancient forests. For instance, the APEC countries are proposing to "sharply cut forest product tariffs" as part of an Accelerated Tariff Liberalization (ATL) initiative submitted to the WTO.

"This is occurring at the time when major logging multinational companies that are responsible for deforestation in South East Asia are known to prepare a major and unprecedented expansion of their activities in the Amazon," said Parmentier. (SUNS4551)