in this issue:
WTO: Confronting a Menace of the Millennium
by Adriene Sere
Imagine a world in which the long, arduous, ancient movement toward genuine democracy is officially put to an end.
Imagine a world where public education is owned and controlled by the highest bidding corporations. No elected government can require educational standards, multicultural inclusiveness, or curriculums that teach critical inquiry.
Imagine a world where citizens have no legal right to curtail a brutal regime by organizing economic boycotts through their city or state governments.
Imagine a world where workers have lost their power to organize for safety protections and living wages. Jobs are precarious, temporary, exploitative, dangerous.
Imagine an ecologically devastated world in which the last of the planet's forests, wild animals, and fertile, food-growing land are up for grabs by transnational corporations unhindered by legal and moral constraints.
Imagine a world where fresh water is scarce, mostly polluted, and under the control of a corporate elite beyond the legal reach of citizens.
Imagine a world where herbs, plants, and other living things can be patented by corporations, so that ordinary people cannot use them without first paying the patent-owning corporations. To prevent "illegal" agricultural use of seeds, corporations have genetically manipulated seeds so that the seeds of each new plant are sterile. The seeds of the genetically manipulated plants pollute the seeds of traditional plants through pollination, rendering new seeds sterile. Farmers and ordinary citizens become utterly dependent on corporations for new food-growing seeds, year after year.
Now imagine a point in time where all this hasn't quite happened yet--not entirely. Imagine that you are still at the crossroads between two worlds--a world of transnational corporate rule that is beyond the reach of people's will, and a world that continues on its difficult, bumbling way toward genuine democracy. Imagine being at that point in time where people can still choose which world lies ahead.
Imagine that that point in time is here and now. That the choice between two worlds is being made right now, this decade, this corner between millenniums, by your elected officials who are still accountable to you. Imagine that it is not too late for individuals, communities, and organizations to have an impact on this choice.
The World Trade Organization, one of major the vehicles for any and all of the above scenarios, will meet for its Third Ministerial meeting November 30 to December 3 in Seattle to discuss its agenda for the next decade. This will be a crucial time to take public action, to do everything we can to turn our future course away from corporate tyranny, and toward local, sustainable, responsible economies, social justice, and environmental healing.
Here is some of the background: In the early '90s, with very little public debate, and with very little knowledge of what they were doing, our elected officials set a new precedent in giving away the people's democratic power over to corporations. Under the name of a "trade agreement," they, in essence, gave transnational corporations legal decision-making power over our nations--over the people of these nations--to further unfettered corporate profit.
This precedent was officially established in 1993 with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada, which gave corporations the power to sue a country for damages when a country's democratically created standards--public health standards, environmental standards, labor standards--interfere with corporations "right" to make a profit. Corporations' new legal power to force nations into perpetually compensating them for their "loss" of profit means that they can essentially overturn and prevent laws, laws which serve the public interest but are defined as "trade barriers."
The NAFTA precedent helped make way for the 1995 establishment of the World Trade Organization, which evolved from and subsumed GATT (Guaranteed Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). Unlike GATT, which operated through voluntary consensus of member nations, the WTO is a supra-governmental trade organization involving 135 countries worldwide. The WTO has its own tribunal which imposes its decisions onto nations after determining in private corridors whether democratic law violates a corporations "right" to make a profit.
The WTO can find a democratic law "illegal" if the law requires a standard of corporations above and beyond the lowest common standard among other countries. The WTO enforces its rulings by punishing a disobedient government with fines or perpetual trade sanctions until the country conforms to the trade body's ruling. The WTO has ruled on 100 cases during its four and a half years of existence. So far, all WTO rulings have been in favor of corporations.
The WTO has proven to be as potent as NAFTA in overturning democratic law--but it operates on a global scale.
For instance: the US used to have a Clean Air Act that required gas refiners to produce cleaner gas. Venezuela claimed this rule was biased against foreign refiners, and took the case to the WTO. A WTO panel ruled against the US law, determining that this requirement was a "trade barrier." In 1997, the EPA changed the clean air rules to accommodate the lower standard, despite its acknowledgment that the change could have an "adverse environmental impact."
The WTO has also ruled that Europe must accept US and Canadian beef infested with artificial hormones, even though the European Union's science board called the hormones carcinogenic. Europeans are resisting the ruling, and as they face sanctions, their hostility toward the US grows.
The establishment of NAFTA and the WTO was a declaration that democracy is an obsolete form of governance. After the WTO's ministerial meeting in Seattle in a few months, our compromised democracy--and the entire world's potential for social equality, justice, and planetary survival--could be headed for the shredder.
When the WTO meets in Seattle later this year, it plans to move toward agreements over whether and how to expand its jurisdiction. US Trade Representative Charlene Barshevsky has declared that the US will seek to vastly expand corporate control over public services. If countries such as the US get their way, corporations would gain guaranteed rights to invest in services that are usually delivered in the public sector. Education, libraries, transit systems, and health care are just some of the public services potentially up for grabs. Under WTO rules, governments would have to treat corporations the same way they treat public or non-profit institutions. A government's refusal to allow corporate purchase and control of public services could amount to a WTO violation, grounds for fines (in the hundreds of millions of dollars) and severe trade sanctions.
If the EU gets its way, the WTO will also negotiate an investment agreement that contains some of the aspects of the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI). WTO negotiations on investment could result in an agreement to give power to corporations to sue countries directly for their "trade barriers," turning the WTO into a worldwide NAFTA.
Even more certain is that the new round of negotiations in Seattle are set to increase corporate access to the world's forests, corporate power over "intellectual property," and corporate control over native use of plants and herbs to create medicines.
The WTO's newly created power over elected governments, and its potential for expanding its rule over the world, are not well known or understood by the population--or our elected officials. The mainstream media, owned by corporations which want their share of the loot, have been veiling and protecting the WTO, particularly while the WTO is young and vulnerable. The media, left to its own agenda, will inform the public on the real workings of the WTO in direct proportion to the WTO's entrenchment and invulnerability to public opinion.
But for now, public opinion still matters. A lot. Our elected officials have the power to pull the US out of the WTO--with six months notice. If the US--the WTO's most powerful member--pulls out, the WTO collapses. Our elected officials can still be held accountable by citizens. As citizens, we can demand that that all international commerce and trade agreements prioritize global human need, genuine democracy, local and sustainable economies, and respect for the environment.
While we still experience relative freedom, we might find it hard to believe that our civil rights and power could actually be taken away, without recourse. It might be hard to believe that our slow, historical progress toward greater equality and justice is being dismantled, with the official approval of our government.
But democracy has long been a tenuous thing. It has never been inevitable. For most of known history, democracy did not exist. Feudalism existed. Tyranny existed. Slavery, including men's ownership of women, existed. These outrages still exist in much of the world. Democracy is not, at this point in time, the norm. It is not where gravity takes us.
If we take our civil power, and our country's abundance, for granted, the safety and integrity of the planet, and everything on it, will be intruded upon, slowly, piece by piece. And this is the corporate intention. We aren't suppose to be aware of this fundamental encroachment on our democratic rights, and the dangers that lie ahead, until the WTO and its brethren are already so entrenched that they can no longer be challenged.
But right now, at this crossroads in time, it is not too late.
Thanks to Ellen Gould for her input.
Copyright © 1999 Adriene Sere - All rights reserved by author.
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