Intro to Seminar on Alternatives to the WTO

Introduction to the Seminar on Alternatives to the WTO Agenda,
10th November, 2002, Tom Mann Theatre, Sydney.

by Dr Patricia Ranald,
Public Interest Advocacy Centre and AFTINET Convenor

I work for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. I am also the convenor of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) is a network of 57 organisations, including unions, church groups, environment groups, human rights groups and other community organisations which supports fair trading relationships with all countries. We recognise the need for regulation of international trade but we want a different and fairer trade framework.

We are here today to discuss Alternatives to the WTO Agenda because on November 14-15 an "informal" meeting of World Trade Organisation (WTO) member governments will be held in Sydney. Only 25 of the 144 member governments of the WTO have been invited. The WTO is dominated by the economically powerful: the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan. The Australian government has joined with them to pressure selected governments to support an agenda dominated by transnational corporations.

In the last week there have been claims that this meeting is all about making sure that developing countries get access to essential medicines. In fact it is WTO rules that have been used to prevent this access, and the demands of developing countries are still being resisted by pharmaceutical companies and by the US and the EU. We hope that developing countries will overcome this resistance, but we note that this "informal" meeting cannot actually make decisions on behalf of the WTO.

Why do we want alternatives to the WTO Agenda?

We live in a world where 2 billion people live on less than US$2 per day, with little access to health, education and water services, where workers rights are violated in many countries, and with continued destruction of the environment. Poverty and inequality are also increasing in countries like Australia.

In this context of increasing global and local inequality, governments are making the political decisions to transfer economic powers to global economic bodies like the WTO, often behind closed doors and with little public accountability. These bodies create uniform economic conditions for global trade and investment but can actually remove local policy options for addressing poverty and inequality.

The World Trade Organisation makes binding legal agreements for trade and investment which can impact on many areas of government regulation and policy. These agreements seek to apply commercial rules to all areas of policy, paying little regard to social or environmental impacts.

The WTO agenda puts free trade and corporate rights before worker and human rights. Some examples of this agenda are:

  • Giving corporations patenting rights regardless of the impact on basic needs, such as medicine and seeds. The WTO Trade in Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS) has been the main barrier to access to affordable medicines for developing countries. This access is still being resisted by pharmaceutical companies, and by the US and the EU, and proper access is yet to be negotiated through the formal WTO process .

  • Treating essential services like health, education and water purely as commercial goods, weakening social regulation to ensure access to them and opening them to privatisation, through proposed changes to the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

  • Double standards about free trade in agriculture to benefit subsidised agribusiness in rich countries, especially the US, Europe and Japan, while developing countries have had to open their markets to subsidised imports which undermine their food security.

  • Restricting governments from using government purchasing to assist local jobs and development, through a proposed new WTO agreement on government purchasing which would prevent policies to favour local firms.

  • Reducing the right of governments to have social and environmental regulation by allowing objections to them from transnational investors through a proposed new WTO agreement on investment, resurrecting the discredited OECD MAI defeated by community campaigns in 1998.

We believe a better world is possible. We support international regulation of trade through open and democratic processes with all nations freely participating. We support alternative policies including:

  • Developing countries should have access to affordable medicines, and rights to food security.

  • Governments should have full rights to regulate and fund essential services as democratically decided at national and local levels. Essential public services should not be included in trade agreements.

  • Governments should retain full rights to regulate for social and environmental reasons, and to have industry policies to support local jobs and development.

  • Trade agreements should support not undermine human rights and labour rights.

Our speakers and workshops today will discuss these issues and explore such alternative policies.