WTO 'Millennium Round' challenged by NGOs

by Niccolo Sarno

Brussels, Apr 28 -- Non-governmental organisations and representatives of Third World countries meeting in Brussels rejected the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Millennium round of trade negotiations to be launched in November.

A two-day conference organised by the European Parliament's Green group adopted late Wednesday a 'Millennium Manifesto' aimed at tracing a set of guidelines "to guide humanity towards economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development".

The manifesto points out that the notions of trade and investment "cannot be separated from social and environmental considerations" and that "there is a very real chance that the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) will reappear within the WTO regime.

The conference - "From the MAI to the Millennium Round" brought together people opposing further economic and financial deregulation and seeking alternatives to ensure higher standards of living for the world's poor.

"The rules that are being written now, in my view, are mostly being dictated by the United States and by the agenda of ultra liberalisation:they are being written by transnationals, and that is what the MAI is about," Susan George, director of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute said.

The MAI, "which would have taken away the rights of sovereign states to regulate investment," was killed off in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) earlier this year, partly thanks to the work of civil society organisations," she stressed.

"This (WTO) structure, it seems to me, that is being built before our eyes is absolutely unacceptable," said George during the conference.

"Globalisation is not only pushing wealth from bottom to top, but also pushing power up to the top, away from elected governments, away from democracy," she added.

In November, officials from 130 countries will meet in Seattle, United States, for the WTO's third ministerial conference, during which a negotiations agenda for the coming decade will be set.

The European Union (EU), backed by Canada, Japan, the US and other industrial nations will push this meeting to launch a new round of trade negotiations, the so-called Millennium round. Egypt, India, Malaysia and many African countries have spoken out against a new round, but most Latin American and some Asian countries have indicated their agreement.

Should the Seattle meeting launch this new round of negotiations, it is presently still unclear if it will be a narrow round - focusing on agriculture and/or services- or a broad one bringing in new issues such as investment, competition and government procurement.

NGOs fear that a wide round of negotiations will set the stage for new attempts to impose an ultraliberal investment scheme such as MAI, judged detrimental to poorer countries.

"We not only want no new (WTO) round, but we need to achieve a turnaround, and this is first and foremost not more deregulation," said Lori Wallach, director of the Washington- based Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, at the Brussels conference.

Wallach also pointed out that "the empirical outcomes after 5 years (of WTO work) are not only contrary to what we were promised (...) but as well (show that) totally legitimate domestic laws in many different areas have been sacked."

In a joint effort, some 350 organisations of the civil society worldwide committed themselves this year to campaign against any effort to expand the powers of the WTO through this new round of trade liberalisation.

A key concern of these groups is that a wide round of negotiations, as proposed by some Western countries, "would take the WTO and its dispute settlement mechanism further into the social and environmental dimensions of national economies," said Roy Jones, Senior Policy Advisor at the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Paris-based OECD.

The coalition says that in the past five years the WTO has contributed to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich, increasing poverty for the majority of the word's population and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

"The Uruguay Round Agreements have functioned principally to reward open markets for the benefits of transnational corporations at the expense of national economies; workers,farmers, and other people, and the environment," say the organisations in a statement.

"We call for a moratorium on any new issues or further negotiations that expand the scope and power of the WTO," the statement adds.

During this moratorium, they propose to carry out a review of existing agreements "conducted with civil society's full participation."

"The big differences are really between the major countries and the developing world, in terms of interests, in terms of negotiating ability, in terms of the ability to even understand what the rules are, this is where the great divide is," said Martin Khor, director of the Malaysia-based Third World Network.

"I really feel that it is the civil society in the North that can play a very crucial role," he added.

"They (developing countries) do not have the resources to be present at the meetings, they don't have missions in Geneva, they are not invited to the small informal group meetings.

"And even if they make the resources available, the president of the United States might ring up the president of those countries and say: your negotiator must behave himself, your IMF (International Monetary Fund) loan is due next week, why don't you tell your negotiator that he is on the wrong track?" said Khor.

Miriam Vander Stichele, researcher at the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations in Amsterdam, warns that "the European Union (EU) and US consultations towards the next WTO negotiations based on business interests has not only consequences for EU and US citizens, but also for the rest of the world."

The EU's executive Commission (EC) "organises meetings with NGOs but ignores the concerns and demands from NGOs and citizen organisations because they are asking for a moratorium for the negotiations, which is not in the mandate of the EC," said Vander Stichele. (IPS)

 The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor(SUNS).

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