Why we need the WTO

Posted on 08 September 2003

As security services in Cancún gear up for anti-globalization demonstrations, Claude Martin, Director General of WWF International, says he believes we do need the WTO - but a reformed version that focuses on its core business.
Mexican security forces are preparing for the next anti-globalization onslaught on the World Trade Organization. Bruised after the violent riots of the Seattle meeting four years ago, the WTO slunk away to Qatar's deserts for its last meeting in 2001. But international meetings don’t look good hidden away from the citizens they are supposed to represent, so for its 5th Ministerial Meeting this week the WTO has opted for a beach resort in Mexico. Feelings about globalization and the institutions that govern it run high here — the WTO would be hard-pressed to find a country where demonstrations against the impacts of market liberalization are more heart-felt or vocal. Once again, calls to ‘shut down the WTO’ will be in the air along with the scent of tear gas. But why is the WTO hated so much? When the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — the precursor to the WTO — was created in the aftermath of the Second World War, its aims were simple: to dismantle barriers to trade and agree to rules prohibiting discrimination. There is something innocuous, even beguiling, about free trade. We are all for freedom after all. So what is it about the WTO that incites an expected 23,000 farmers, protestors and activists to plan marches, sit-ins, and protests, threaten to block airports, and risk arrest and beatings? And what should be done to address their grievances? I believe that the problem — and the root of the anger — springs not from the core business for which the GATT was originally shaped, but rather its failure to deliver on some aspects of this agenda, like the inequalities caused by subsidies, and its increasing involvement in issues beyond its competence, like investment. These are problems made worse by the lack of transparency in WTO decision-making processes themselves. As a result, for some the WTO has come to represent the injustices of today’s world order — favouring rich countries and multinational corporations, plundering the resources of developing countries, and disregarding environmental, social justice, and human rights issues. There is little doubt that it plays its part in perpetuating these injustices. But if it is to become the scapegoat for all the world's ills, we need to think carefully about what the alternative might be. And I believe the alternative could be far worse. A glimpse of what could happen is already apparent. Recent months have shown the eagerness of some rich countries to throw international co-operation to the wind in pursuit of an agenda shaped to national demands. From the Kyoto Protocol to the Chemicals Weapons Convention, there is all too much willingness to ditch internationalism when this implies making any type of compromise. Trade agreements are no exception. Some developed countries see that they can strong-arm more concessions out of poor countries by picking them off one at a time, on their own terms and to their own benefit, rather than negotiating with these countries together in a global forum. The United States is pursuing an aggressive agenda of one-on-one trade deals — so-called 'competitive liberalization' — from Colombia to Morocco as a central plank of its trade strategy. But these bilateral agreements can be far worse for people and the environment than those brokered at the WTO. The collapse of the WTO would only serve to accelerate the proliferation of such deals. We do need an international organization that enforces a rules-based trading system, relieves pressure for the free-for-all dash for one-off deals, and promotes trade which contributes to sustainable development. We need an international agreement to force fairer trade in agriculture and fishing through slashing subsidies and reforming tariffs. And multilateralism must stay alive and well. But the WTO should keep out of issues for which it wasn’t designed. A potential standoff between trade rules and the Kyoto Protocol is a prime example, with the WTO refusing to say that climate change experts can implement the protocol without fear that they will be hauled up for breaking WTO rules. A similar situation could develop for 'ecolabels' on products produced in sustainable, ecologically friendly ways. This appetite for ever-greater jurisdiction is being made worse by the European Commission, which negotiates at the WTO on behalf of EU member states. While the EU talks grandly about the need to resuscitate multilateralism and prove that the WTO can still deliver, it is simultaneously trying to introduce a rag-tag of new issues at the Cancun meeting that it can’t get addressed elsewhere. These so-called "Singapore issues" contain radical proposals to bind countries to new rules, for example on investment. Incorporating these into the WTO will only stretch its scope further — and with it the patience of developing countries whose hard-pressed and under-staffed missions to the WTO have neither the expertise nor appetite to negotiate new areas. So where do we go from here? I believe that, rather than looking to shut down the WTO, we should campaign for a fundamentally reformed WTO — but nonetheless one that does what it is best placed to do: facilitating trade deals that are fair to all and that promote sustainable development. We should demand that governments re-examine the way that international decision-making processes are divided between existing international organizations. We should ensure that these bodies with the proper expertise are invested with the responsibility to make decisions on development and environment issues, rather than being told — as they were at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg last year — that they are trespassing on the WTO’s turf. This means that the WTO should actively defer key decisions to appropriate UN agencies. It means that — even in areas where the WTO is playing to its strengths — it should consult with other organizations. The current practise of barring environmental experts from the room when the WTO is discussing the relationship between trade rules and international environment agreements needs to stop. If these measures are not taken, then, with or without the help of anti-globalization protestors, the WTO — gorged and bloated on issues with which it has no business — will implode. And hopes for a multilateral system that works for the benefit of the poor and the environment will recede still further. * Claude Martin is Director General at WWF International.
The WTO should focus on its core business, for example promoting fairer trade in agriculture.
© WWF / Mauri Rautkari