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Five-Year Record of? WTO Reveals Disturbing Trends: Food Safety, Environment Undermined, Accountable Governance Eroded

Oct. 13, 1999

Five-Year Record of? WTO Reveals Disturbing Trends: Food Safety, Environment Undermined, Accountable Governance Eroded

With an Eye on Looming Seattle World Trade Organization Summit, Nader Team Investigation Documents the WTO’s Performance

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since its creation nearly five years ago, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has launched a quiet, slow-motion coup d’etat against democratic, accountable policymaking and governance worldwide, according to a groundbreaking new study released today by Public Citizen. It documents the WTO’s pattern of undermining critical environmental, food safety, and public health and safety laws throughout the world.

As a result of WTO rulings and threats of WTO action, countries around the world are rolling back the social policies that have been hard won after decades of citizen activism. For example, the United States has watered down dolphin protections and clean air regulations, Guatemala weakened its implementation of the UNICEF baby formula marketing code that protects babies from disease caused when mothers mix infant formula with contaminated water, and South Korea lowered food safety standards on produce inspection and the shelf life of meat.

These are just some of the results of a yearlong investigation published in a 229-page book entitled Whose Trade Organization? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy. The book is part of Public Citizen’s effort to educate the American public that today’s international commercial agreements are no longer about only tariffs and quotas; rather, they now define health, safety and environmental standards as potential trade barriers. These agreements now affect our daily lives in direct ways, such as the safety of the food we serve our families.

“This is not ‘free trade’,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “It’s costly trade. It’s corporate-managed trade. It is monopolistic trade that concentrates more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer powerful corporate CEOs.”

The WTO is empowered to review U.S. policies in closed dispute panels, with members of the press, general public and citizen groups prohibited from observing, much less participating. The book’s review of the record of WTO cases reveals that trade bureaucrats without expertise in the issues being reviewed and who are not screened for conflicts of interest are empowered to decide WTO cases — the results of which are imposed on nations under threat of trade sanctions.

Consumer advocate and Public Citizen founder Ralph Nader, who wrote the preface to the book, calls the WTO “the greatest surrender of our national, state and local sovereignty in American history.” He added that the “WTO’s procedures circumvent our court systems and our freedom of information laws. They subordinate the critical health, safely, workplace and environmental standards of all Americans to the imperatives of international trade.”?
Not a single public health, safety or environmental regulation that has been challenged before the WTO has been upheld; all have been found to be “trade barriers,” the investigation found. The WTO, in reviewing Member countries’ laws, seeks to eliminate any policies that get in the way of trade, including strong environmental or health laws designed to protect the public interest.

“WTO rules go way beyond basic trade principles, such as treating domestic and foreign goods the same, and actually impose value judgments on how much environmental or food safety protection a country will be allowed to provide its people,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, who co-authored the book with Global Trade Watch research director Michelle Sforza. “The WTO’s five-year record looks like a quiet, slow-motion coup d’etat against democratic and accountable policymaking and governance worldwide.”

Public Citizen is releasing the book in advance of the WTO’s ministerial summit, scheduled to be held from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3. While the Clinton administration has announced that it will press for the expansion of the WTO’s jurisdiction, Public Citizen is coordinating with other public interest groups and citizen activists worldwide to push for the paring back of WTO powers and to change the way it functions to ensure that countries regain the ability to enact and maintain public health and safety laws as they see fit. The organizations plan to conduct teach-ins, lead rallies and organize other events. Their slogan is “No New Round, Turnaround.”

The WTO was established as part of the 1994 “Uruguay Round” of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations. These talks transformed the 1947 GATT into a free-standing global commerce agency that sets rules on numerous new areas not directly related to trade, such as intellectual property, investment regulations, food and worker safety policy, environmental and product safety standards, and more. At the time, labor, environment and consumer organizations voiced concerns about the potential impacts of the WTO. In response, government officials promised that the WTO would lead to unprecedented economic gains worldwide: The U.S. trade deficit would decrease; Latin American and Asian countries would boom. Then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen predicted an additional $1,700 in annual income for each U.S. family.

Of course, these promises have evaporated. The trade deficit has exploded. The income gap between the rich and poor has widened. Wages in many countries have been flat, and the standard of living for many people around the world has decreased. Latin America is mired in a deep economic slump, and parts of Asia are in an economic crisis. Bentsen’s rosy prediction has not come to pass; in fact, the median family income has not risen by $1,700 per year during any of the past four years.

“Big business and American democracy are on a collision course, and American democracy is losing,” Nader said.