Why the World Trade Organization Is a Threat to Libraries

By Hunt, Fiona | American Libraries, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Why the World Trade Organization Is a Threat to Libraries


Hunt, Fiona, American Libraries


Publicly funded libraries around the world could face extinction under a World Trade Organization (WTO) treaty known as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The GATS strives to liberalize all service sectors in all member nations over time. The threat to libraries comes specifically through the WTO principle of national treatment--the right of foreign companies to be treated the same as, or better than, domestic companies.

Despite the failure of the WTO talks in Seattle in 1999 (AL, Jan. 2000, p. 34), the GATS is moving ahead briskly, with meetings taking place regularly throughout 2000 and 2001. WTO members hope to further these negotiations at the upcoming November 9-13 meeting in Doha, Qatar, but will proceed without it should Doha agenda issues remain unresolved. The pace of the GATS negotiations makes it especially necessary for us to become aware of what is taking place behind closed doors at these international discussions.

What do multinational corporations have to do with the future of libraries? The WTO sees services as the next big area for the expansion of international trade through the GATS, with tremendous potential for profit making. Services include almost everything that is not a commodity--including libraries, museums, and archives. Article 19 of the GATS states that the aim is "to achieve progressively higher levels of liberalization of trade in services."

Libraries as export

In 1999 the Canadian government sent a questionnaire to public libraries asking them to identify areas where libraries might have "export" interests. Rather than protecting taxpayer-supported public services within Canadian borders, the government chose to focus on potential profits to be made from exporting Canadian public services. Support for the GATS is being solicited using exports as the carrot, conveniently ignoring the other side of the coin--namely, the threat of privatization of services currently in the public sector.

One of the greatest concerns among anti-WTO activists is that the GATS could deny governments the right to regulate in their citizens' interest. The GATS Working Party on Domestic Regulation is currently drafting a set of rules that would enable members to challenge each other's domestic regulations. Disputed rules would have to pass a "necessity test," meaning that the government imposing the regulation would have to prove that the rule is not unnecessarily trade-restrictive and that it could not have implemented anything less trade-restrictive. Such challenges would be heard by the WTO Dispute Settlement Panel--which has proven itself to be highly trade-friendly, ruling consistently against government measures that protect air quality, endangered species, and food safety as "unnecessary barriers to trade."

In answer to a 1996 challenge by the U.S. of the European Union's eight-year-old ban on the sale of domestic and imported beef treated with bovine growth hormone, the WTO Dispute Settlement Panel ruled that the EU must nonetheless begin importing hormone-treated beef by May 1999. When the EU refused to comply--because of BGH's suspected (but not proven) link to cancer, as well as to premature pubescence in girls--the U.S. requested that sanctions be applied. The EU currently pays over $116.8 million in trade sanctions. The right to choose had been superseded in favor of the "right" to trade.

In response to a challenge from another WTO member, a country would need to prove that a disputed domestic regulation (e.g., a clean-air statute) served a legitimate objective as defined by the WTO. Already rejected as legitimate objectives are "safeguarding interest," "cultural diversity," and "environmental protection."

Thinking commercially

The GATS excludes "services provided in the exercise of governmental authority" and defines government services as "those supplied neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with other suppliers.

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