More Information on the World Trade Organization (WTO)

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Established in 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO) transformed the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into an enforceable global commerce agency with one-size-fits-all binding rules to which every signatory country is required to conform its domestic policies. The WTO operates as a Trojan horse mechanism to implement corporate-rigged non-trade policies that often fail in democratic fora. While the GATT covered traditional trade matters, like cutting tariffs and opening quotas, the WTO enforces a dozen agreements that have nothing to do with trade.

The WTO system, and its rules and procedures, are undemocratic and untransparent. The WTO has functioned principally to establish rules for the global economy that benefit of transnational corporations at the expense of national and local economies; workers, farmers, and indigenous peoples; health and safety; and the environment.

The WTO enforces a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Agreement that requires WTO countries to guarantee monopoly protections for pharmaceutical firms so they can block competition from generic medicines. (Yes, a trade agreement includes an obligation to establish protectionist rent-seeking monopolies for certain industries.) The WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) limits the regulation of financial, health, and other services and provides new rights for mega retailers and other monopolistic firms. Another WTO chapter called the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement limited food safety. The name of the WTO’s “Technical Barriers to Trade” agreements says it all: this agreement limits signatory countries’ domestic policies that we call consumer and worker safety standards, toxics standards and more. The WTO Agreement on Government Procurement bans domestic preferences and human rights or environmental conditions in government procurement policy. Check out our book Whose Trade Organization? for historical background on the WTO’s expansive non-trade provisions and their effects on the environment, our health and food safety, jobs and wages, development in poor countries and more.

Unaccountable WTO tribunals have ruled have ruled that governments must change legitimate public policies meant to protect consumers, public health and the environment or face potentially billions in trade sanctions. The WTO has ruled against U.S. policies we rely on to protect public health, the environment and make informed decisions as consumers. The U.S. has weakened these policies to meet WTO dictates. Examples include: U.S. country-of-origin labels on meat, Clean Air Act rules, fuel efficiency standards for cars, endangered species rules on sea turtles, and the ban on tuna caught with nets that kill dolphins. The U.S. ban on sweet-flavored cigarettes designed to combat youth smoking was also ruled against, but the U.S. settled the case without eliminating the policy.

Because the WTO shifted decision-making on many policies that affect our daily lives to unaccountable, closed door venues and required every nation to adopt an array of retrograde non-trade policies, it was opposed by civil society organizations in countries worldwide. But, the corporations that helped design the WTO sought to expand its scope and powers through additional negotiations.

The first major push to expand WTO collapsed in spectacular fashion and the agency has struggled to restore its legitimacy since. The November 1999 WTO Ministerial Meeting in Seattle faced unprecedented protest from people and governments around the world. In the negotiating suites, representatives of developing countries rejected a corporate agenda that would worsen global poverty. In the streets, 50,000 people protested against WTO expansion and demanded a new rules for the global economy that would put people and the planet first. These events are documented (via a fictionalized account) in the Battle in Seattle film.

Another attempt to expand the WTO was launched in 2001, the “Doha Round” of WTO expansion negotiations. Developing countries demanded negotiations to change the existing WTO rules to eliminate the special protections for corporations and provide policy space to fight poverty. But the corporate agenda largely prevailed, although focus on some “development” issues was promised. But efforts to meaningfully reform the existing WTO rules were sidelined. Instead, the talks focused on expanding the WTO’s harmful, pro-corporate rules privatizing and deregulating services, allowing subsidies for agribusiness and adding new corporate investor rights and limits on procurement and anti-monopoly policies.  Indeed, every effort to reform the WTO rules met fierce resistance from the WTO Secretariat and key member nations. Even after the global financial crisis, efforts to rollback WTO limits on financial regulation were derailed.

This had led to years of deadlock in WTO talks, with periodic attempts to “harvest” various pieces of the corporate agenda. A 2013 commitment for countries to update their customs procedures and implement weak trade benefits for least developed countries that had been agreed to years before was heralded as a “victory” by pro-WTO forces desperate to salvage the agency’s relevance and legitimacy.

Since then, WTO members have continued the bitter fight over the future of WTO negotiations. Corporate interests in developed countries have pushed to permanently abandon the development mandate that was included in the Doha round to pave the way for negotiations on already-rejected “new” issues that move the corporate agenda forward without addressing the WTO’s many existing problems. Many developing countries have continued to insist that the full range of development issues included in the Doha mandate must be the basis for negotiations. Civil society groups have called for negotiations to roll back the WTO’s limits on public interest safeguards and to re-establish policy space for countries to create their own non-trade policies. Talks have remained deadlocked since 2001.

Global civil society movements have demanded a WTO turnaround agenda to roll back WTO rules and democratize the process, while firmly rejecting any attempts to expand the mandate of the WTO into new areas, such as digital or investment issues. When corporate interests have faced road blocks at the WTO, they have attempted to push their agenda through mega-regional talks such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and plurilateral agreements such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA).  To date, this strategy has also failed after the same civil society coalitions that stopped WTO expansion shifted focus to the new venues.

Increasingly the only element of the WTO that has operated throughout, its powerful dispute settlement system, is coming under disrepute as unaccountable tribunals substitute their judgement to create new rules to impose on the governments that are signatories to the WTO. The WTO’s crisis of legitimacy has deepened in recent years.

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WTO Attacks Against U.S. Consumer Safeguards

In a set of recent decisions, the WTO has ruled against U.S. country-of-origin labels on meat, dolphin-safe labels on tuna, and the ban on sweet-flavored cigarettes designed to combat youth smoking. These are the policies we rely on to allow us to protect children’s health and make informed decisions as consumers.

WTO Undermining Financial Reregulation

One of the root causes of the global financial crisis has largely been ignored: over the last several decades, the U.S. government and corporations have pushed extreme financial deregulation worldwide using “trade” agreements and international agencies like the WTO.

Global Movement to Turn Around the WTO

A worldwide network of organizations, activists and social movements are committed to challenging trade and investment agreements that advance the interests of the world’s most powerful corporations at the expense of democracy, people, and the environment.

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