Amid COVID disaster, global civil society calls for fundamental transformation of WTO

May 3, 2021: As the World Trade Organisation held yet another failed dialogue on a temporary change to WTO rules to address shortages of COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment, 202 international and nation civil society organisations wrote to all heads of state to call for fundamental change to the whole WTO project.

Current WTO rules tend to meet the needs of global corporations at the expense of workers and consumers, especially in low-income countries. We now have the example of how WTO rules for 20-year monopoly patents for pharmaceutical companies on vaccines mean that governments have to negotiate with the companies for access to vaccines. Those in high income countries are first in line, while the majority in low-income countries will not have access until 2023.

Fifteen Australian organisations, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Fair Trade & Investment Network and the Public Health Association of Australia, were among the labour, environmental, consumer and other organizations from 67 countries who called for the transformation of the WTO to put people and the planet first.

“The original global trade body – the International Trade Organization that was envisioned in the Havana Charter of 1948 in response to the horrors and chaos of World War II – focused on full employment, limiting corporate concentration, fair competition, protections for workers and standards to ensure currency and other related policies did not distort trade. That very different vision for a rules-based global trading system – updated to recognise the climate crisis, systemic inequality, and the unaccountable power of Big Tech – remains attainable, but only if countries agree that global trade rules are supposed to work for people around the world, not the world’s largest corporations,” said the letter.

“The question is what multilateral framework can be inclusive, promote real sustainability, human rights and prosperity for all, and deliver the benefits of expanded trade to most people, while also providing our elected representatives the policy space to promote the public interest. One example is the Geneva principles for a global Green New Deal”, the letter concluded.