It seemed more like a big carnival than a protest. In fact, some have called it one great end-of-the-millennium rave. The tens of thousands of protestors in Seattle at the World Trade Organisation Third Ministerial meeting come from many different perspectives. It's not often that one gets to see defenders of sea turtles parading with big Labor. Some are advancing marginal causes but others raise some serious issues about the power of corporate interests and the direction they are leading the world. Though there are as many causes as there are groups, they all have one goal: to disrupt the meeting and bring attention to non-corporate concerns. I'm sure many of the 6000 delegates have spent some sleepless nights in Seattle.
Markets inevitably reflect societal values. We have a problem when the market starts to dictate those values. As one commentator put it, the WTO is the lead chariot in the procession that is Globalization. And Globalization is nothing more than Westernization. The protestors have successfully turned the Seattle summit into a referendum on globalization and its impact on society and the environment.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 52 percent of Americans believe "the global economy will hurt America." Many more would probably be opposed to the direction and speed of trade liberalization if the issue was explained in greater detail than that of simply being about free trade. Yet, governments have taken their marching orders strictly from the corporate quarter. Hopefully, the protestors have forced many more to ask whether WTO rules should only protect those who benefit from trade. and whether profits should be put before everything else?
WTO supporters swear that the expansion of global trade promotes growth and this growth in turn improves the welfare of all. With the rules as they are today, only the rich -- the developed world and multinational corporations -- have truly benefited. Many WTO critics openly call for its dismantling while others call for reforms. Clearly, increased trade is beneficial and inevitable but the corporate pursuit of the almighty dollar must be balanced with national sovereignty, societal and environmental concerns. This balancing will require a number of reforms.
The WTO's subordination of all non-commercial concerns to trade is at the root of the problem. Any and all domestic legislation or standards to protect or further human rights, the environment, health, worker rights, consumer rights, and safety among others must be carried out in the "least trade restrictive" manner. Nothing is sacred. The clearest example of how far this can go is illustrated in the WTO's recent ruling in favor of the United States that a European ban on U.S. beef laden with growth hormones violated the WTO. Or consider the $970 million dollar lawsuit launched by Canada's Methanex Corp. against the United States after California ordered the phase-out of a fuel additive known as MTBE, which was found in the drinking water in Santa Monica, Santa Clara and South Lake Tahoe. Methanex, a producer of MTBE, seeks damages for loss of business under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The fact of the matter remains that some protectionism is required to allow the developing world to compete on an equal footing. The WTO rules prevent any attempts at attaining self-reliance through government protection of even infant industries. Is this not the developed world changing the rules while we are ahead? How can industries in the developed world that have yet to establish solid foundations compete with the multinationals? Imagine the consequences to the unsubsidized subsistence family farms when the huge multinational plantations with their genetically engineered high yield seeds enter the market without any restrictions?
The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is another serious concern that has not been given due attention. TRIPS poses a serious problem in the field of pharmaceuticals where the prices of medicines could be driven beyond the means of many. In fact, many drugs including badly need AIDS medicines are already out of reach. But another significant threat is posed by the legitimization of patents on life forms. Recently, Mars Incorporated - the maker of the Mars bar, Snickers and Twix -- patented a gene to extract cocoa flavoring without the need for cocoa. What happens to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people directly and indirectly dependent on cocoa farming throughout Africa and Asia?
The secrecy and exclusivity of the WTO is clearly another problem. This "corporate types need only apply" attitude cannot be for the benefit of humanity. Why is consultation out of bounds? Why are meetings held in secret? Why should unelected and unrepresentative international trade lawyers sitting on trade tribunals have the power to set the agenda for the world's billions?
Will the WTO and its proponents have the will to reconsider these issues beyond cosmetic reforms? Will they consult with and allow input from concerned parties? There is some indication that the battle in Seattle may have convinced some to reconsider the status quo. In fact, President Clinton, addressing the meeting, said that it was time to allow some of the critics into the trade tent.
The meeting is scheduled to end on December 3, 1999. Interestingly, this is the fifteenth anniversary of one of greatest industrial disasters of this century. Over 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leaked from Union Carbide's factory in Bhopal, India. More than 16,000 deaths have been attributed to the disaster to date and the after effects are felt to this day. Clearly on a day shared by this somber anniversary and the end of the WTO meeting some reflection is needed on the impact of the unbridled corporate drive for profits.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs