The WTO's Rigged Game
Mobilizing against globalization could bring
revolution to Seattle
by Mark Weisbrot and Neil Watkins
Toward Freedom magazine Sept / Oct 1999
Should countries have the right to set health and safety standards
for the food their citizens eat? Should they he allowed to exclude
foreign-produced foods that don't meet national standards? Or
should these questions be decided by the World Trade Organization
Like it or not, these issues are being decided right now.
In the latest trade dispute between the world's two largest trading
partners, the US placed sanctions worth about $117 million on
European goods in late July. The goal is to force the Europeans
to import US beef that is raised with growth hormones.
Ordinarily, the decision to place 100 percent tariffs on French
truffles, foie gras, and other delicacies that most of us have
never tasted would violate our international trade agreements.
But, in this case, the US has the backing of the WTO, a 134-nation
body that was created four years ago to negotiate and govern world
trade. Ruling that Europe's ban on hormone-treated beef is illegal,
it authorized the US to impose retaliatory trade sanctions against
the European Union.
Consider the arguments: The Europeans don't allow beef that
is treated with growth hormones to be sold in their markets, regardless
of where it's produced. They just don't think it's all that safe
to eat. But most US beef is, in fact, treated with these hormones.
So the government, at the request of the US beef industry, filed
a complaint at the WTO, arguing that the ban was an unfair restriction
The WTO's rules say that any health or environmental standard
that affects trade must be supported by scientific evidence. Thus,
it appointed a three-judge panel, which decided in March 1997
that there wasn't enough scientific evidence to justify Europe
s ban on hormone-treated beef.
An independent panel of scientists, assigned by the European
Commission to consider these questions, reached a different conclusion.
They found that one of the six hormones commonly found in beef
is a "complete carcinogen." For the other five, they
concluded that further study would be needed-although anyone reading
the 142-page report would undoubtedly wonder why the US allows
these drugs to be pumped into its livestock.
The next battle will commence in November, when WTO ministers
gather in Seattle for a new round of trade negotiations.
Well, if most people actually knew what they were eating,
they probably wouldn't-especially those most susceptible to the
effects of the hormones, such as children and pregnant women.
But there are no labeling requirements for these extra ingredients
in US hamburgers.
Regardless of how one assesses the scientific evidence, shouldn't
the Europeans be allowed to err on the side of caution if they
so choose? Most people would say yes. This case is particularly
outrageous because everyone agrees that the law against hormone-treated
beef was designed to protect Europe's consumers, not its domestic
cattle industry. And the law applies without discrimination to
both domestic and foreign producers. Yet, the WTO insists that
an unaccountable, three-judge panel, meeting in secret, can overturn
a European law-simply because it has an adverse impact on trade.
Clearly the tail (trade) is wagging the dog here. And this
is exactly what environmental, consumer, and labor groups warned
would happen when the WTO was created four years ago. Its track
record has validated these warnings. In 1997, for instance, the
US Environmental Protection Agency weakened its regulations on
contaminants in imported gasoline, in order to comply with a WTO
ruling that found these rules to be an unfair trade barrier. The
enforcement of the US Endangered Species Act-specifically, the
protection of sea turtles-has also been compromised by recent
From the point of view of big business, and especially large
multinational corporations, these aren't disturbing developments.
For them, it's only natural to see human beings and the environment
as mere instruments for expanding global trade and commerce. They
are quite comfortable with having these decisions made by a tribunal
of an international organization where they can have the predominant
influence-unencumbered by any congress, parliament, or other elected
officials that might have to care what ordinary citizens think.
The WTO is their creature, and so it has been pretty consistent
in taking the side of business against the rights of citizens
and the global community. As more people are beginning to see,
this is the crux of the problem. Institutions like the WTO, the
International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank-as well as commercial
agreements embodying the same principles, like NAFTA or the recently
derailed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI)-are deliberately
designed to transfer power over economic decision-making from
governments, which are at least somewhat (and potentially more)
accountable to their citizens, to unaccountable decision-makers.
These institutions aren't likely to change their basic mission
in the foreseeable future. But they can be stopped from pursuing
it. In the case of the WTO, the next and possibly pivotal battle
will take place in late November, when ministers from nearly 150
countries gather in Seattle to launch a new round of trade negotiations.
Preparations are underway for a massive "mobilization
against globalization" at this meeting. Tens of thousands
of steelworkers and longshoremen will join environmental activists
from Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth, AIDS
activists, students, and international activists from Canada,
India, Malaysia, Germany, and Mexico to protest corporate globalization.
The Wall Street Journal recently quoted a trade lobbyist who compared
the planned Seattle protests to the convergence of anti-war activists
on Chicago in 1965.
The protesters descending upon Seattle will convey a strong
message against corporate globalization to the world leaders there,
as well as the international media covering the launch of a new
round of trade negotiations. And when citizen activists aren't
in the streets (or forming a human chain around the convention
center where the official meeting is taking place), they will
be attending events at a parallel "citizens' summit,"
where participants can learn more about the WTO's record and the
impacts of globalization...
Mark Weisbrot is research director and Neil Watkins is a research
associate at the Preamble Center For further information on this
and related subjects, see the Prearnble Center's website at www.prearnble.org,
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (202) 265-3263, ext. 274.