Last week Liberal Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew announced that Montreal would be hosting a special meeting of the World Trade Organization in late July. As soon as this news was confirmed, Montreal area activists began preparing an appropriate welcoming for the WTO delegates.
Recently, WTO negotiators have been feeling neglected. A few years back they had more attention than desired, as their 2001 meeting in secluded Doha, Qatar illustrated. Now, however, there is barely a whisper in the mainstream media about corporate dominated globalization, of which the WTO is a linchpin. Since 9/11, ‘globalization’ has been overshadowed by Bush’s “war on terror” (some feel changing the “on” to an “of” better explains it).
Just last week, the Canadian government joined the Bush administration in a challenge at the WTO over a European moratorium on genetically modified foods. Europeans overwhelmingly oppose GM foods, fearing long-term environmental repercussions. GM agricultural exporters and the bio-technology industry, which is overwhelmingly based in the U.S., disagree with the Europeans’ “precautionary” approach. Not surprisingly, they want the moratorium lifted so they can sell to the European market. And if unable to force the Europeans to lift their ban they want to send a message to other countries not to impose similar restrictions on GM foods. The desire of ordinary Europeans is of little importance.
News reports on this WTO challenge and others have been scant. WTO news has been mostly relegated to the business pages or alternative media. This is shameful since WTO rulings can negatively affect people’s lives.
The WTO still maintains quasi supra-national powers and current negotiations could further strengthen its reach.
Two rulings against Canada demonstrate its long-term deleterious effects. In 2000, the Liberal government acceded to a WTO ruling further strengthening patents by making it illegal for generic companies to stockpile drugs in anticipation of the termination of a patent. This has added millions to the skyrocketing costs paid by individuals and cash-strapped Medicare.
The WTO ruling against the Canadian Auto Pact, an agreement that forced American automakers to make a certain percentage of their cars in Canada, will be felt in the years ahead. A rapidly rising dollar and thus the cost of U.S. bound exports will highlight its negative impact on the Canadian economy. Autoworkers and their communities will feel the affects.
Safe from serious public scrutiny, WTO negotiations should be rolling along. They are not. In fact, the goal of Montreal’s special meeting is to rejuvenate the WTO’s “development round”. Poorer countries have stubbornly taken the “development” ingredient seriously and are unhappy with current negotiations. They want changes to wealthy-nation agricultural subsidies. In addition, less developed nations are demanding the right to override foreign patent protections for essential medicines. At the request of the pharmaceutical industry U.S. negotiators reject this minimal request.
Indeed, patent issues touch the core of the WTO’s raison d’etre. Canada and other Group of 7 industrialized nations want to strengthen the WTO’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). Some even claim that the U.S. would abandon the WTO if it weren’t for the TRIPs agreement.
This is because the TRIPS agreement is a major benefit to multinational industry. According to Steven Lohr in the N.Y. Times, “if a global agreement on intellectual property rights goes fully into effect, the developed nations, led by the United States would gain the most… But developing nations would pay more. The U.S., Germany, Japan and France combined, stand to gain $34.9 US billion annually mostly at the expense of China, Mexico, India, Brazil and others. (October 14 2002)”
The WTO has never been legitimized democratically in Canada. And the current lack of debate is further undermining its legitimacy.
Proper political discussion is all the more important as negotiations proceed. Concerns over agreements that could affect Medicare and education are valid. Before Canada and the world are further locked into this system we need a genuine debate.
In late November 1999 “The battle of Seattle” catalyzed ‘globalization’ into North American discourse. Our goal over the next two months is more limited: We will re-establish ‘globalization’ as an issue of popular discussion in Canada.
yves engler is vice president communications for the Concordia Student Union and a member of the recently formed WTO welcoming committee. He can be reached at [email protected]