Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 42
Will the WTO get out of the way of global production of COVID-19 vaccines and meds so we can end this pandemic? Whether Big Pharma or humankind will win is the biggest question as the WTO’s major biennial ministerial meeting starts the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. But Big Tech also has a play…
More than 120 countries support waiving some of the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules that are limiting production of COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests. But the European Union, UK and Switzerland are blocking. A waiver won’t happen without more leadership from the Biden administration.
With all this as a backdrop, Big Tech corporations are also vying for influence at MC12, urging the body to push so-called “digital trade” proposal that would close domestic policy space on issues of great importance, including gig economy worker protections, discrimination and algorithm transparency, competition policy and anti-trust, corporate liability, and consumer privacy. Big Tech wants the WTO to formalize what have been rump talks in violation of its own rules.
The stakes could not be higher for the WTO or for the world: Failure to enact a waiver will prolong the pandemic, leading to more death, illness, economic hardship, and social and political disruption. And rushing through a “Trojan Horse” set of “digital trade” rules will only further erode democracy worldwide.
Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod.
Transcribed by Sally King
Welcome back to Rethinking Trade where we don’t just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I’m Ryan and I’m joined once again by our in house trade expert, Lori Wallach. Last week, we discussed US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s recent comments on the World Trade Organization and the need for some big changes to take place there. Well, the WTO is having its 12th ministerial at the end of the month in Geneva, Switzerland. And there will or will not be some big things on the agenda. Lori, why don’t you tell us first what a WTO ministerial is what happens there and why you appreciate that this specific one is scheduled to start on November 30, of all dates.
So the WTO, the World Trade Organization, that global commerce body that replaced the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, has a governing structure that involves a typically every two years big confab of the trade ministers, the politically appointed people. So in the US, it’s the United States trade representative who’s currently Katherine Tai. The actual part of the government, not the career staff, the professional staff who go between governments but the political people come together at a WTO ministerial. And in what is called the Marrakesh agreement, which established the WTO in 1995. The governing rules are set such that this Ministerial Conference, because that’s what’s officially called the Ministerial Conference. And this is the 12th one. So shorthand will be MC 12 is when the forward agenda of the organization is determined for the next several years, where important decisions are made the really high-level political decisions are made. And it’s auspicious that it happens to be on N30 November 30. Because the mother of all WTO ministerial was probably was the one in Seattle in 1999. And the call to action for what became a huge protest that shut down that ministerial and in partnership with a lot of developing country negotiators on the inside saying no-way no-how to WTO expansion ended up derailing. What was planned to be a huge increase in the WTO is corporate rigging and powers meddling behind borders and non-trade stuff. So the action alert that year that Public Citizen sent out the beginning of online organizing was mark the day N30. Exclamation point. And N30 has become a really rallying cry for global justice, trade justice activist because that was a day activism really changed the world at the WTO.
And so this episode is our precursor to the 12th WTO ministerial. So we’re going to talk about a few of the major items. The elephant in the room is of course, the trips waiver. And the fact that this ministerial is happening at a time when many countries in the Global South have yet to break out of single figure vaccination rates, due in part to monopolies on COVID drugs. Lori remind our listeners what the trips waiver is, and what’s at stake for it at this ministerial. And then maybe what are some of the things to look out for in terms of the outcomes? .
So TRIPS is trade related intellectual property, it’s one of the agreements that got hatched with the WTO. Before this WTO took over from the GATT the trade agreement, the global trade agreement dealt with trade. Instead, with the WTO, a lot of different corporate interests rigged all kinds of rules that basically got them new rights and privileges, and that constrain governments from acting in the public interest. And probably exhibit number one of that is the agreement called TRIPS, which yes, in a Free Trade Agreement requires 20 year monopolies on patents and copyrights and industrial designs. And the pharmaceutical industry, pharmaceutical corporations were mainly behind doing this because what they ended up doing is imposing worldwide obligations and every government that’s in the WTO that you had to have these big long monopolies. And a lot of developing countries didn’t, the US didn’t have that kind of monopoly intellectual property protection system. Until we were very much developed country, we were basically borrowing technology from Europe. And so this sort of imposition of one size fits all rules, the TRIPS agreements is seen as one of the most nefarious because, you know, covers medicine. It covers seeds. So it’s like, are you going to live and die or you’re going to eat. And the TRIPS Agreement waiver is a proposal put forward initially by South African India that now has almost 70 official written co-sponsors, 100 countries supporting a waiver of the WTO trips, agreement monopoly rules, because those rules guaranteeing pharmaceutical corporations have monopoly control over how much COVID vaccines are made, and where they can be sold, how much of the new treatments that are, couldn’t save lives are going to be made how much of the tests in this kind of incredible global pandemic disaster. This is when you use what is called the waiver mechanism. So when the WTO was hatched, it has what’s called the Article Nine, that’s the Roman numbers, so IX, that’s Article Nine of the agreement, establishing the WTO allows for waivers of any WTO rule. So South African India basically said, “We’re facing this catastrophe, we have to make sure we can get enough vaccines and treatments and we have to do it right away. And there are a lot of qualified producers. Let’s have a temporary waiver of these rules until we get the COVID pandemic under control.” The US came out in support of it Joe Biden reverse Donald Trump in May, which is great live other countries saw the US do that there were very few that were against, but the ones that were mainly rich countries, join the US in support of a waiver. And at this moment, we’re like a week before the start of the WTO ministerial, the European Union, on behest of Germany is blocking the whole rest of the world and saying,”Nope, we’re gonna stand for the pharmaceutical corporations and keep these monopolies.” So the TRIPS waiver is a big honkin deal. And it would be obscene. If there wasn’t an agreement. After a year since it was introduced. It was first introduced in October of 2020. If there wasn’t a deal at this big wig, WTO ministerial, how what would be the reason to have a WTO ministerial except to get the WTO out of the way of stopping the pandemic. And more than 100 countries agree though, way to do that is to waive these monopoly rights that are basically prolonging the pandemic. And making it such that qualified producers cannot be making these medicines to help save lives. Will it happen though? A lot of that’s been independent, all the activism, the action, the pressure, the EU is going to have to break their allegiance with pharma enjoying the rest of the world. And the Biden administration is going to have to step up and basically lead to get the EU out of the way and to bring this over the finish line with South Africa and India. It really is the only thing the WTO should be doing this ministerial.
And if you look in the summary of this episode, you’ll see some links for the global days of action and some other context in factsheets about the trips waiver campaign. So Lori, if TRIPS, you know if TRIPS is a good example of what Big Pharma can do when they get their hands on trade rules. Let’s talk about something we also talked about in a recent episode, which is so called digital trade rules, and how big tech firms are pushing and utilizing trade rules to extend their own monopoly powers. Can you talk about the state of digital trade rules at the WTO and what the big tech firms are pushing for in terms of global trade rules?
So in the department of learning from history, the notion that there would be a trips waiver at this ministerial after in that famous infamous one in 1999 in Seattle, there wasn’t a waiver then for medicine for HIV AIDS. And millions of people in Africa died. Thanks the two year delay until finally some action was taken in 2001 at the WTO. Well, in that same horrible category of not learning. It turns out that what Big Pharma pulled off monopoly protections in the so called free trade agreements. Right now big tech is trying to take page right out of Big Pharma has handbook and as we’ve discussed on this podcast before, they have branded as quote unquote, digital trade, basically a set of handcuffs, policy-handcuffs, they want to put on governments not to regulate against big tech abuses. And they have a bunch of rules are sort of anti anti trust, which is to say pro monopoly rules. So all the things that big tech is doing to abuse us as consumers, our privacy, us as human beings, all the algorithm discrimination, online surveillance, as well all of the ways in which they are directly hurting people, sales of unfair products, abusive working conditions, or the outrageous gig economy abuses. All of that stuff, governments around the world, some much more advanced than the US in this work have been creating policies to try and break up those behemoths and to get them to behave. And the US Congress is stepping up right now to do the same. So these firms are desperately trying to use the WTO, to set down rules to make it impossible for that stuff to happen. And so what is happening at this ministerial? To date, the big tech firms have not been able to get an official launch of official WTO negotiations to set up global rules that they want. So they’ve started sort of a side gig. And that is called the joint statement initiative on e-commerce. Could it be more arcane, so you have no damn idea that you’re basically being held up? People in Geneva, talk about an e-commerce JSI sounds totally boring. But what it means is basically letting big tech screw the world. And so these rules are not completed. But the mission that big tech house for this particular ministerial is to sort of get them made kosher, which is to say they want them to be brought into the process, they want them to be officially recognized. And given this is supposed to be a body where the only thing that happens is the thing that the members of the organization, the countries agreed to as sovereign nations, this should not be happening, as countries said no. Yep, the negotiations have gone forward. And there are 80 countries no rump group of 164 WTO countries who’ve been just on their own like, “Well, we’ll just pretend we have the authority. Let’s write some rules.” And so the big issue is whether this ministerial will issue and kind of a statement that somehow invites out rump operation right into the WTO.
And so Lori, having gone through those two kind of big items, what are some of the other items that are going to be discussed at the WTO that US and other you know, folks in our network coalition partners, we’ll be tracking? And then maybe you can just take us out for this episode, because we’re gonna have a part two, after the ministerial where we’ll be talking about what actually happened.
So some big union federation’s like Public Services International have called for this whole ministerial to be postponed. And their logic which makes a lot of sense is if there isn’t guaranteed to be a deal waiving the TRIPS, intellectual property barriers, to getting vaccines and treatments against COVID around the world, then why the hell would you even be coming to Geneva at this point, to have a negotiation because all the other things that might be on the agenda are bad news for working people, for consumers, for the planet. And amongst those other bad news, things besides the digital trade, so-called digital trade negotiations, are negotiations around what is called, again, seems really benign, but it’s not: domestic regulation of services. And what that is about is basically setting up strictures limits, and how the government’s though the members of the WTO, almost all the governments in the world 164 countries are not allowed to regulate services. So what’s a service? It’s everything you can’t drop in your foot. So it’s education, its retail, its transportation, it is energy, it is a whole set of, you know, sort of office and insurance and banking, and you name it, basically, it’s probably a service and was literally physically, it is a product. So limiting regulation on those things has huge implications for climate, for workers, for consumers, for our economy. And this is an effort by a lot of big multinational corporations united together, so big oil, plus Wall Street, plus, plus, plus, they’ve all gotten together to try and get agreement on those limits. Then there’s an agreement on what’s called investment facilitation. But that’s kind of a sideways way to try and get new foreign investor protections into the WTO. Just at the point that around the world, the investor state dispute settlement system ISDS is in ill repute and countries are backing out of it. This is an effort by the mining and oil companies that multinationals that want these rights to try and sneak back ways into putting these rules back in order through the WTO. And then there are some negotiations that aren’t happening, which is really outraged a lot of developing countries, including those on food security and development issues. So you understand why some of the big international organizations have said unless it’s TRIPS waiver time, this dang thing shouldn’t happen at all because nothing else but badness is on the agenda. And that is what we will leave off because in a short matter of two weeks we will be on the other side of this ministerial and we’re going to know if the good things happened, if the bad things happened or if it got postponed.
Rethinking Trade is produced by Public Citizens Global Trade Watch. To learn more you can visit Rethinktrade.org. You can also visit Tradewatch.org. Stay tuned for more and thank you for listening.