by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 6 Apr 2000 -- A coalition of non-government activist groups of the North and the South who played an active role in the run-up to the Seattle Ministerial meeting and campaigned against a new round with new issues have launched a new campaign to rollback the authority and power of the World Trade Organization.

While much media attention at the Seattle Ministerial meeting last year focused on street protests and violent demonstrations, the much broader coalition of NGOs had come together against moves for a new WTO trade round with new issues to be launched at Seattle.

This NGO coalition, many among which had first joined hands and sunk the moves for a Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) at the OECD, had come together in the preparations to Seattle Ministerial and had campaigned around the slogan "No New Round, But Turn Around." They had mobilised governments, legislators, enterprises and broad groups of grass-roots movements in the South and the North on the real implications to development of the corporate agendas pushed by the US and EC, and had perhaps played an important role in highlighting the negative effects on development of the Uruguay Round agreements.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Seattle meeting, even as the "trade establishment" is trying to reconvene the ministerial meeting and launch the new round with new issues, the NGOs have launched a new campaign: "WTO - Shrink or Sink! The Turn Around Agenda".

They have called for a change of course and for developing an "alternative, humane, democratically accountable and sustainable system of commerce that benefits all" and that entails "rolling back the power and authority of the WTO."

They have called for removal of the WTO's Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement, and restoring national patent protection schemes, as well as elimination of the Trade-Related Investment Measures Agreement from the WTO, expanding and operationalising the Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries and for reform of the Dispute Settlement System which was enforcing an illegitimate system of unfair rules.

The core group includes activists from Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Europe, Ecuador, Ghana, France, India, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United States.

The consensus document drawn up by the groups at a strategy meeting in March, and now posted on bulletin boards for signatures by other groups and organizations, has the goal of launching a new international NGO campaign, and incorporates the approaches and issues of a variety of organizations and networks.

An international Day of Action is also being planned by the groups, with press events, teach-ins, demonstrations, etc. in cities and capitals around the world, similar to the one held by them in the run-up to Seattle.

The document notes that the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Third Ministerial Meeting in Seattle collapsed in November 1999 in a spectacular fashion, in the face of unprecedented protest from people and governments around the world.

The GATT Uruguay Round Agreements and the establishment of the WTO were proclaimed as a means of enhancing the creation of global wealth and prosperity and promoting the well-being of all people in all member states.

"In reality, however, the WTO has contributed to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich few; increasing poverty for the majority of the world's peoples, especially in Third World countries; and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

"The WTO and GATT Uruguay Round Agreements have functioned principally to pry open markets for the benefit of transnational corporations at the expense of national and local economies; workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, women and other social groups; health and safety; the environment; and animal welfare.

"In addition, the WTO system, rules and procedures are undemocratic, un-transparent and non-accountable and have operated to marginalize the majority of the world's people.

"All this has taken place in the context of increasing global instability, the collapse of national economies, growing inequity both between and within nations and increasing environmental and social degradation, as a result of the acceleration of the process of corporate globalization."

The governments which dominate the WTO, especially the United States, the European Union, Japan and Canada, and the transnational corporations which have benefitted from the WTO system have refused to recognize and address these problems. They are still intent on further liberalization, including through the expansion of the WTO, promoting free trade as a goal in itself.

"In reality, however, free trade is anything but 'free'. The time has come to acknowledge the crises of the international trading system and its main administering institution, the WTO.

This old, unfair and oppressive trade system should be replaced with a new, socially just and sustainable trading framework for the 21st Century. The cultural, biological, economic and social diversity of nations and peoples must be protected, and progressive policies introduced to prioritize local economies and trade. Internationally recognized economic, cultural, social and labour rights should be secured and the sovereignty of peoples and national and sub-national democratic decision-making processes should be reclaimed.

"In order to do this, we need new rules based on the principles of democratic control of resources, ecological sustainability, equity, cooperation and precaution."

Towards this end, "we reiterate our opposition to continued attempts to launch a new round or expand the WTO by bringing in new issues such as investment, competition, government procurement, biotechnology and accelerated tariff liberalization."

It is inappropriate and unacceptable for social rights and basic needs to be constrained by WTO rules.

"Thus, WTO Agreements must not apply to issues critical to human or planetary welfare, such as food and water, basic social services, health and safety, and animal protection.

"Inappropriate encroachment by trade rules in such areas has already resulted in campaigns on genetically modified organisms, old growth forests, domestically prohibited goods and predatory tobacco marketing."

Areas such as health, education, energy and other basic human services must not be subject to international free trade rules. In the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the principle of "progressive liberalization" and the implications of foreign investment in service sectors has already led to severe problems.

The NGOs also demand "the removal of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS) from the WTO" and said "there is no basis for inclusion of intellectual property claims in a trade agreement."

Additionally, the TRIPS agreement promotes monopoly by transnational corporations; prevents access to essential medicines and other goods; leads to private appropriation of knowledge and life forms; undermines biodiversity; and keeps poorer countries from increasing their levels of social and economic welfare and developing their technological capacity."

The patenting of life forms must be prohibited in all national and international regimes.

Food is a Basic Human Right, and measures should be taken to promote and protect food security and sovereignty. Subsistence farming, humane farming practices and sustainable agriculture must be exempt from international free trade rules.

"There must be a prohibition on export subsidies and other forms of dumping of agricultural products, especially on Third World countries. The trading system must not undermine the livelihood of peasants, small farmers, artisanal fishers and indigenous peoples." The WTO Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) Agreement must be eliminated, and all countries, especially Third World countries must have the right to use policy options (such as local content policy) to increase the capacity of their own productive sectors, especially small and medium enterprises.

"The TRIMS review must not be used to extend the investment issue in WTO."

The special and differential rights for Third World countries must be recognized, expanded, and operationalized in the world trading system. "This," says the document, "is to take into account the weak position of Third World countries in the international trading system. Without the enforcement of special and differential rights, there can be no possibility of Third World countries benefitting from world trade."

Actions taken to implement multilateral agreements dealing with the environment, health, development, human rights, safety, indigenous peoples' rights, food security, women's rights, workers' rights and animal welfare cannot be challenged at or undermined by the WTO.

Calling for democratisation of the WTO decision-making, the document says: "People must have the right to self-determination and the right to know and decide on international commercial commitments. Among other things, this requires that decision-making processes in negotiations and enforcement at international commercial bodies be democratic, transparent and inclusive.

"The WTO operates in a secretive, exclusionary manner that shuts out most Third World country Members and the public. It is dominated by a few powerful governments acting on behalf of their corporate elites."

The NGOs said that the WTO dispute settlement system, enforcing as it did, an illegitimate system of unfair rules and operating with undemocratic procedures, was unacceptable.

The system usurped the rulemaking and legislative role of sovereign nations and local governments.

A socially just international trade system will also require change outside the WTO. Given the attacks by multinational corporations and governments on basic workers' rights; the reversal of the gains of workers' struggles; the undermining of job security; and the race-to-the-bottom in wages, workers' rights must be strengthened worldwide.

Also, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the regional development banks must write off 100% of the debts owed to them by poor countries. The use of structural adjustment conditionality to force trade liberalization in Third World countries and elsewhere must be stopped. Governments must negotiate, through the UN system and with full democratic participation, a binding agreement to ensure that corporate conduct is socially and environmentally responsible and democratically accountable.

The initial signatories to the campaign said: "We are committed to a sustainable, socially just and democratically accountable trade system. Thus, as a first step, we demand that our governments implement the changes listed in this document in order to roll back the power and authority of the WTO and turn trade around. We commit ourselves to mobilize people within our countries to fight for these demands and to defy the unjust policies of the WTO. We will also support other people and countries who do so with international solidarity campaigns." (SUNS4644)