20 years after the Battle of Seattle the WTO needs real change, not Trump unilateralism

December 2, 2019Deborah James argues that, 20 years after huge protests surrounded the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial meeting in Seattle, promises of prosperity and job creation remain unfulfilled.

The protests from unions, environmentalists and other community organisations delayed the meeting, while developing countries inside the meeting refused to agree to new WTO negotiations that would have ignored their development needs.

In 2001, developing countries did agree to a new round of WTO trade talks, dubbed the ‘Doha Development Round’ which promised to address development needs, but those promise have not been met.

James argues that, as the protestors predicted, WTO agreements on trade in goods, agriculture, trade related intellectual property rights and trade-related investment measures have met the needs of global corporations but constrained government regulation in the public interest, especially in developing countries, without any safety nets to prevent erosion of labour rights and environmental standards.

She argues that ‘while rich countries have been allowed to maintain their level of agricultural subsidies on exports- which are mostly handed out to large producers, not family farms - developing countries have not been allowed under WTO rules to subsidise food production for domestic consumption to guarantee food security.’

WTO Intellectual property rules gave pharmaceutical companies 20 years of monopoly to charge high prices on new medicines, which James argues is ‘a far bigger distortion of "free trade" than tariffs - and one that has cost untold lives, as prices of medicines have skyrocketed.’

She also criticizes the current e-commerce talks taking place between a minority of mostly industrialised WTO members as an attempt by tech industry giants like Google and Facebook ‘to write a new constitution for the global (digital) economy, to give them rights to access markets and to permanently privatise the biggest resource in the world - data - while handcuffing governments from regulating the industry in the public interest.’

James slams the ‘false nationalism’ of the Trump administration in blocking appointments to the appeals body of the WTO Dispute Settlement Mechanism (DSM), while pursuing its own bilateral deals that are still dominated by corporate interests.

Instead she argues for trade based on multilateral principles that facilitates decent jobs, access to affordable medicines, healthy food, and a thriving environment. She stresses that nearly all governments agreed to this mandate through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, but they have not been integrated into WTO goals or practice.

She concludes that a blueprint for achieving these goals can be found in "A New Multilateralism for Shared Prosperity: Geneva Principles for a Green New Deal" published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).