The Case against the WTO

The Progressive, January 2000 | Go to article overview

The Case against the WTO


In Seattle, we witnessed an event of historic importance: the first coordinated mass revolt in the United States against global capitalism in the modern era. No less than that.

Here was an event that united labor unionists, environmentalists, consumer advocates, human-rights activists, farmers, organic food lovers, AIDS activists. From Jimmy Hoffa Jr. to the Sierra Club, from steelworkers to people in sea turtle costumes, thousands of people took to the streets to denounce the World Trade Organization (WTO).

We oppose the violence of self-styled anarchists. The breaking of windows and looting and trashing that went on we cannot condone. But neither do we condone the violence of the police. Nor do we condone the suspension of civil liberties in downtown Seattle.

And we insist on pointing out, contrary to the media images, that the vast majority of the protesters were nonviolent.

The protest proves that if governments leave the people out of the decision-making process, if governments set up an institution like the WTO, which favors the rights of multinational corporations over everybody else's, at some point people aren't going to take it anymore. They're going to say enough is enough, and they're going to rise up.

That's exactly what happened in Seattle.

This is new for the United States. But it's not new for England or France or Germany. And it's not new for Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and dozens of other Third World countries, which for years have faced the wrath of multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Now, finally, the lash of the slavemasters of the world economy is coming down on the backs of U.S. citizens, and they are not liking the feel of it.

Now, finally, Americans understand what it's like to have a multilateral institution pressure us to weaken our own standards.

Now, finally, Americans are appreciating that when multinationals call the shots, many of the things we hold precious are in jeopardy.

The fight against the WTO is a crucial one. This agency has enormous power, and it uses that power to penalize countries that do anything that could be even remotely construed as standing in the way of free trade.

"Since it was created in 1995, the WTO has ruled that every environmental, health, or safety policy it has reviewed is an illegal trade barrier," Public Citizen notes in a recent report entitled "Whose Trade Organization? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy." (See www.citizen.org.)

The fundamental policy of the WTO is that the laws and regulations of member countries need to be the least restrictive to trade as possible. Laws or regulations that protect the environment, labor rights, food standards, or human rights can be deemed improper restraints on trade.

If the unelected, three-person WTO panel judging these disputes rules that they are improper restraints, then the "offending" country has a choice: Either change its law, or face costly duties on its own exports.

Here's what this means in practice.

On the environment:

In 1996, Venezuela brought a claim against the United States, alleging that the Clean Air Act unfairly discriminated against Venezuelan gas imports to the U.S. The Clean Air Act required foreign gasoline sold in the United States to be no more contaminated with additives than the average 1990 level of contaminants in U.S. gas. Venezuela said the law allowed a fraction of U.S. producers to sell gas with higher levels, and thus claimed it was being discriminated against. The WTO agreed. It said the United States either had to dilute EPA standards or pay $150 million in trade sanctions for not allowing Venezuelan oil with high levels of contaminants into this country. The U.S. chose to dilute the standards and allowed the importing of gas that can cause more air pollution and lung disease. …

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