|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
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.