Date: Sat, 18 Sep 1999 00:15:46 -0500 (CDT)
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Big Business and Democracy on Collision Course at WTO
By Danielle Knight, InterPress Service, 15 September 1999
WASHINGTON, Sep. 15 (IPS) - Union leaders, environmentalists and lawmakers joined hands here Wednesday to strengthen opposition to further liberalisation of trade rules at an upcoming session of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle.
"Big business and democracy are on a collision course, and democracy has been losing," said Ralph Nader, the well-known consumer advocate lawyer who heads a number of public interest groups in the United States.
"The WTO is the greatest surrender of our national, state and local sovereignty and subordinates our critical health, safety and environmental standards to the imperatives of international trade," Nader told a crowd of protesters at a rally on the steps of Congress.
Elsewhere around the world, similar gatherings of more than 1,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) called for a moratorium on further trade liberalization negotiations and an assessment of the impact of past trade rules.
"The WTO system, rules and procedures are undemocratic, non- transparent and non-accountable and have operated to marginalize the majority of the world's people," declared a statement released by environmental and public interest groups in more than 80 countries.
Thousands of trade officials from more than 150 countries will gather in Seattle, Washington at the end of November for the Third WTO Ministerial conference - scheduled to be the largest international trade meeting held on US soil.
US negotiators plan to launch sweeping new global trade expansion talks to reduce tariffs, unions, lawmakers, environmentalists and public interest groups say WTO rules should be overhauled because they undermine federal, state and local regulations and standards.
The Geneva-based trade body, for example, ordered Europe to lift its ban on US beef treated with growth hormones, which some scientists believe may cause cancer.
When the European Union refused to comply, the World trade Organisation allowed the United States to impose high tariffs on luxury imports from Europe.
US environmentalists were further enraged last year when a WTO dispute panel ruled against a US law that requires all shrimp sold in this country to be caught in nets that have turtle escape devices.
These devices could save the lives of nearly all of the 150,000 sea turtles that drown in shrimp nets each year, according to marine scientists.
Human rights activists also were critical of WTO rules since, under the auspices of the organisation, some countries challenged US state, city and local laws that barred governments from spending public funds on businesses that invest in countries notorious for human rights abuses such as Burma and Nigeria.
"Instead of creating a global supermarket for US goods and services, we've created a system of rules that puts more emphasis on property rights than on human rights," said Sherrod Brown, a democratic congressman from Ohio.
At Wednesday's rally, Brown joined other democratic representatives including Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, and George Miller of California, in calling for a reassessment of past trade agreements before pushing ahead for any further reduction in trade barriers.
Amid concern about the impact of economic globalisation, President Bill Clinton's previous efforts to obtain "fast-track" authority to negotiate new trade agreements - routinely granted to his four predecessors over the last 25 years - were defeated in the House during the past two years.
Similar public opposition worldwide led to the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investments proposed by the world's wealthiest industrialised nations of the Organisation of Economic Community and Development (OECD).
Dubbed the 'corporate bill of rights' by activists, this treaty would give investors and corporations the right to sue governments if laws - including health and safety regulations - prohibited companies from making a profit.
Unions fear that the MAI agenda will reappear within the upcoming trade negotations of the WTO and further override worker safety laws.
"We are having our complete sovereignty undermined," said James Hoffa Jr., president of the Teamsters Union, which represents more than one million members in Canada and the United States. "Under the most conservative of tests the WTO has not worked and basic worker rights have come under attack."
He pointed to the challenge coming from the WTO to France's ban on asbestos. Hoffa said the trade body also prohibited efforts to ban products made in developing countries by child labour.
Other trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have only hurt the US economy, he said.
"In 1993, when we debated NAFTA we actually had a trade surplus with Mexico while today we have a 20 billion dollar trade deficit," he told the rally.
He also said that, since the formation of NAFTA, there had been a trend toward lowering wages in the United States while US corporations fled to other countries in search of cheaper work- force and weaker labour standards.
US companies already were using NAFTA rules to sue countries, declared concerned environmentalists who warned that this practice could spread to other countries as the WTO talks progressed.
Under NAFTA, for ecample, when Canada moved to protect its citizens' health from a potentially harmful US fuel additive, the chemical's manufacturer, Ethyl Corp., sued on the grounds that this would obstruct free trade. In July it succeeded in overturning Canadian law.
Metalclad, another U.S. firm, complained to NAFTA that it had been prevented from opening a waste disposal plant because of environmental zoning laws in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.
"In many ways, the WTO has failed the most conservative test of all: 'first, do no harm'," said Lori Wallach, director of the Washington-based Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
Opposition also was mounting in Congress regarding a proposed WTO agreement to eliminate global tariffs on paper and wood products, on the grounds that it could increase consumption and encourage unsustainable logging and violate existing US conservation laws.
A bipartisan groups of 48 members of the House has sent a letter to President Clinton to withdraw from negotiations over the initiative until an environmental impact assessment is completed.
"The WTO was an experiment," said Antonia Juhasz, director of American Lands Alliance's international trade and forests programme. "All we ask is that the world's governments step back and see how that experiment is going, before subjecting the world to new WTO agreements."
Big business does not need a new "bill of rights" under the WTO, added Daniel Seligman, director of the responsible trade programme at the Sierra Club, a major environmental organisation.
Multinational corporations "need a new, enforceable code of corporate responsibilities," he said.
Echoing the concerns of others at the rally, he said tariffs should not be phased out for forests, fisheries or other sectors "until we fully understand the environmental impacts." (END/IPS/dk/mk/99)
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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