The WTO at Cancun: What's at stake?

The fifth WTO ministerial will take place in Cancun, Mexico, September 10 - 14, 2003.

A few specific issues will likely dominate the negotiations and civil society activities at the WTO meeting in Cancun. Here’s a brief overview:

The Built-In Agenda
At the conclusion of the GATT Uruguay Round in 1994, some items were so contentious that governments agreed to create a timetable to review some of the agreements. Three of these agreements are agriculture, services, and patents and other intellectual property rights. Here are the key issues of debate within these agreements.

  • Dumping — Food companies in North America and Europe continue to export agricultural products at prices far less than the cost of production, sometimes as low as 50 percent of the cost, not including environmental or social costs. Export dumping is driving farmers out of business around the world and destroying long-term food security. Existing trade rules are not helping.
  • Food Security — The WTO rules on agriculture presuppose an industrial model of production and a global system of exchange that undermines most of the world’s farmers. The WTO rules have opened developing country markets to legalized dumping of food by companies from rich countries, and squeezed small farmers out of their local markets. In turn, this has depressed production in countries that face chronic food shortages.
  • Food Safety — Attempts to use the WTO as a mechanism to weaken national food safety standards have caused tremendous trade tension.

The proposed extension of WTO rules governing the provision of services—the General Agreement on Trade in Services or GATS—is highly controversial. Governments accountable to the public interest have traditionally provided most basic human services, including, water, health, energy and education. In recent years, more and more private corporations have taken over these services in many nations around the world, although they remain under national and local oversight. The proposed rules under a revised GATS would legally require governments to expand private ownership of these services within a set of one-size-fits-all global rules that are of particular benefit to transnational companies.

Intellectual Property Rights
Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) have become one of the most controversial issues in the history of trade policy. In two areas, the patenting of life forms and monopoly pricing of vital drugs, the debate is extremely bitter. In Doha, there was agreement on a special “Declaration on TRIPs and Public Health” affirming governments’ rights to protect public health and bypass normal patent restrictions in order to produce and distribute drugs during a public health crisis. However, this special Declaration failed to address the problems of countries with little or no manufacturing capacity in the pharmaceutical sector, and it does not address issues related to patented seeds and food security.

For a variety of reasons, from poor oversight to narrow interpretations of the agreements, developing countries have not received the benefits they expected from membership at the WTO. Developed countries have ignored these concerns, insisting in effect that developing countries should negotiate again for the benefits they were promised last time or to rectify mistakes made in the rush to conclude multiple agreements simultaneously to end the Uruguay Round. The developed countries have thereby made it clear that they do not see the need to provide developing countries with the differentiated status that is developing countries’ right. Fifth Ministerial—Cancun, Mexico

The left-over agenda from the first WTO meeting

More background on the Cancun meeting:
The WTO: Its history and role
The grassroots agenda at Cancun

The first WTO Ministerial level conference was held in Singapore in 1996. Three of the issues left over from the Singapore meeting raise major concerns among civil society organizations and many WTO members. Their inclusion in the negotiation process was controversial in Doha, and a critical decision will be made in Cancun on whether or not to negotiate them.

Investment — Rather than creating space for the public oversight of private investments, proposed rules would license private companies to sue governments for potential profits lost due to legislation that protects human health and the environment. Citizens are not granted this same license against damaging company practices.

Competition — These rules would pave the way for multinational corporations to enter national markets by eliminating any special treatment to nationally based small and medium-sized businesses. An agreement would force countries to adopt a costly administrative and judicial infrastructure that would allow foreign companies to challenge host country laws and use host country courts if they perceive that national companies receive treatment that restricts foreign competition.

Procurement — There are attempts underway to use the WTO as a vehicle for overturning or limiting the rights of local, state and federal governments to designate how their tax dollars will be invested. Some governments want to create WTO rules that will force municipalities and other local governments to abandon preferences for procuring goods and services in ways that promote local development, such as businesses owned by women and minorities.

Reprinted with permission of the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy.