Trade Now, Pay Later [Environmentalists Have Much to Learn from the World Trade Organization]

By Shrybman, Steven | New Internationalist, January/February 2000 | Go to article overview

Trade Now, Pay Later [Environmentalists Have Much to Learn from the World Trade Organization]


Shrybman, Steven, New Internationalist


That's the credo of the World Trade Organization. But take heart. Steven Shrybman argues that environmentalists have much to learn from such a powerful opponent.

FOR activists who have been working to establish an international legal framework for the environment there is some good news and there is some bad news.

First the 'good' news. In 1995 more than 100 nations endorsed an agreement that will have profound impacts on biodiversity, climate change and virtually every other major environmental issue. The agreement is binding and is armed with powerful enforcement measures to ensure that every member lives up to its obligations under the treaty.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that this international treaty will be an environmental disaster.

Can't guess which agreement this is? Here are more clues. The treaty wasn't established under the UN Environment Programme; instead it was the product of highly secretive negotiations conducted by public officials working hand-in-glove with the worlds largest corporations. Nor is it explicitly about the environment. In fact the treaty rarely mentions the word and never even refers to biodiversity, climate change or desertification.

For those still wondering, this international 'environmental' treaty is -- the General Agreement on Trade and Services supervised by the World Trade Organization (WTO). While its proponents deny that it is anything more than a commercial agreement, their protests betray the dangerously myopic perspective they bring to economic and trade policy. The WTO's environmental relevance has also been obscured behind a smokescreen of jargon. In 'trade-speak' environmental standards become 'technical barriers to trade', food-safety regulations are 'sanitary and phytosanitary measures' while the genetic common becomes a system of 'intellectual property rights'. This also explains why its backers have been successful in denying the link between trade agreements and environmental concerns.

In broad terms, the WTO is designed to entrench 'grow-now, pay-later' globalization by removing the power of governments to regulate corporate activity in the public interest. The result is that it will undermine our capacity to redirect current economic, development and trade policies towards a truly sustainable path.

Clear evidence of its impact can be seen in a number of successful trade challenges to environmental, conservation and food-safety regulations. Since the WTO was founded four years ago we have watched (its rules prohibit public participation) as the treaty's enforcement machinery has been wheeled into action to punish governments that flout its rules.

The growing list of casualties now includes European and Japanese food-safety measures, US clean-air regulations and marine mammal conservation laws, aid and development treaties between Europe and a few impoverished former colonies, and Canadian cultural programmes. And the list is likely to grow.

These trade disputes represent only the most visible conflicts between free-trade rules and the environment. Indeed, the most damaging effects of this new global regime occur out of sight. Governments quietly abandon laws protecting the environment, consumers, worker rights and conservation rather than become embroiled in international trade disputes.

Lately, many environmentalists have come to realize that while they were plodding down the hallways of conference centres trying to negotiate international agreements to combat climate change, protect biodiversity or reduce hazardous-waste trade to poor nations, the ink was drying on an agreement that would only heap fuel on these ecological fires.

This is discouraging, but it is also instructive. The WTO's authority depends on powerful enforcement machinery and in this regard it offers a model for environmental treaties. It proves that when governments are motivated they will sign up to truly binding international agreements. …

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