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WTO Charm Offensive


The “Fix It or Nix It”, and “Shrink or Sink” sign-on statements about the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have been circulating around the world for over three years now. In that time, there have been no signs that the WTO is going to “shrink” or can be meaningfully reformed.

On the contrary, pressure is now on for the WTO to expand yet again, most significantly to include a controversial investment agreement similar to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) which stalled at the OECD in late 1998 after worldwide opposition. The neoliberal model which the WTO advances continues to wreak destruction and misery, hand in hand with the overt militarization of the planet.

Isn’t it time that we clearly acknowledge that the WTO and the other institutions which do the bidding of global capital, and the capitalist model within which they exist should be nixed, not fixed, sunk, not shrunk?

Despite all of the arm twisting and antidemocratic tactics which have been employed by the governments which dominate the 146-member body, the WTO – and the neoliberal agenda – remain mired in a crisis of legitimacy and credibility. There’s been Enron, and Argentina.

Without the cynical and heavy-handed use of the September 11 attacks to conflate support for neoliberal policies with support for the “war on terror”, the last WTO ministerial at Doha might have been as spectacular a failure for the free traders as Seattle. Tension at WTO remains high, with many negotiations stalemated, as we saw most recently with the failure of the June WTO Mini-Ministerial in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, to resolve differences over a number of key areas. So why on earth should we do anything to help the WTO out of its quagmire?

Taking a leaf out of corporate communications strategies adopted by corporations desperate to salvage their besmirched public image, the WTO is looking for other ways to lend itself legitimacy and divide its critics. WTO Director-General and former Thai Deputy Prime Minister Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi recently announced a new co-option scheme directed at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and trade unions – and some have taken the bait.

Dr Supachai has initiated a process of establishing a body to allow him to “consult” with NGOs, selected by his personal invitation. He told a WTO public symposium in Geneva on June 16th that the creation of new informal advisory bodies with business and NGOs would “add to further transparency and understanding on the complexities of the WTO.” These bodies are expected to meet twice a year, after an initial meeting in June. A veneer of consultation with “civil society” – regardless of whether the selected organisations have a constituency to which they are accountable – will help to project the image of the WTO as open, democratic, accountable and transparent. Just what the doctor ordered.

The informal NGO advisory body comprises Consumers International, Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) International, Third World Network, Christian Aid, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Public Services International (PSI), the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

I am deeply curious to learn about the processes which these organizations engaged in before deciding to accept the WTO’s invitation. With whom did they consult? To whom are they accountable? And on whose behalf do they claim to participate in this “advisory” process?

The debate around whether the WTO can be reformed by polite lobbying or should be dismantled and delegitimized takes us to the heart of understandings about neoliberal globalization.

Can we seriously talk about humanizing or adding a “social dimension” to the exploitation and misery inflicted by market capitalism? Do we truly believe claims by some environmental NGOs that we can “green” the instruments for capitalist expansion which view the natural world as a mere commodity to be bought, sold, and exploited in a global marketplace? Isn’t expecting these institutions and agreements to reform rather like expecting a tiger to become a vegetarian?! How will we build genuine alternatives to neoliberal globalization unless we can dare to think and act outside of the iron box of capitalism?

Some NGOs and trade unions have argued that workers’ rights and the environment can somehow be protected by adding a “social” clause (core labor standards) or a “green” clause in the WTO, and that they should be formally consulted. ICFTU leaders have long been trying to get a seat for themselves at the WTO table. It is paradoxical to expect an institution which so zealously promotes deregulation and liberalization to the benefit of global capital to somehow now regulate to protect human rights and the environment. Many governments, including the USA, are not even signatories to core labor standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on issues like freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, equal pay for equal work, or minimum wage.

We cannot build alternatives on the rotten foundations of an inherently unjust social, political and economic system. This form of engagement by some NGOs and trade unions only serves to legitimize the WTO and its operations, and to contribute towards the marginalization of more radical social movements and organizations which are less detached from the everyday realities of people struggling for justice against the neoliberal agenda. This in turn will contribute to official justifications for the criminalization of movements and organizations which are excluded from such cosy “consultations”, and the massive security clampdowns of the kind most recently directed against mobilizations in Sacramento and Thessaloniki.

Meanwhile many peoples’ movements, unions, and governments in the South continue to criticize attempts to link labor standards and the environment to the WTO as being disguised forms of protectionism for the industrialized countries to use against the South. They have opposed attempts to initiate talks on these issues at the WTO. Partly because of this, much of the focus on the labor/WTO linkage issue has moved to the ILO Commission on the “Social Dimensions of Globalization”. The ILO is working ever more closely with the WTO and the World Bank. It seems likely that when the ILO’s recommendations come out this August, pressure will be brought to bear from some Northern governments and the ICFTU to move this issue back into the WTO.

For those organizing at the grassroots, exploitation, discrimination and repression in the workplace are the natural consequences of globalization, not an unfortunate by-product to be fixed with a social contract. Canadian Union of Postal Workers activist Dave Bleakney likens lobbying for a social clause to “fighting for guarantees that you have the right to be present at your own execution”. He says this approach is based on “the notion that you can make peace with trade rules that undermine people and their communities”.

As Hong Kong-based labor activist and researcher Gerard Greenfield succinctly puts it: “It’s in being uncivil that we find we can challenge the WTO and what really lies behind it.” As we count down to Cancun – and beyond, in our struggles against the economic warfare being waged against us, we need to keep both our feet firmly on the ground, not strive for a seat at the WTO table for “civil society”.

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