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Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on the World Trade Organization’s Five-Year Record

Oct. 13, 1999

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on
the World Trade Organization’s Five-Year Record

Five years ago, the World Trade Organization came into existence amid grand promises that it would bring unprecedented prosperity worldwide. These promises drowned out the concerns of labor, environmental and consumer groups that predicted the new trade rules would undercut our health and safety protections and erode our democratic decisionmaking.

Sadly, the concerned voices were right. The situation we face today is grave. Not only have the promises of economic booms not materialized, but the creation of the WTO has led to an unparalleled erosion of democratic freedoms and rights — not only in other countries but right here at home. And many of our most cherished social safeguards are at risk.

Today we are here to announce the findings of a yearlong investigation of the first five years of WTO operations. This is truly a unique study. It was extraordinarily difficult to prepare because the WTO operates in almost total secrecy. And what we discovered is startling: Not one single public health, safety or environmental standard that has been challenged as a so-called “trade barrier” under new WTO rules has been upheld by the WTO dispute resolution courts.

This alone raises serious questions about the true nature of the WTO and about whether the United States should continue its membership. That’s why we have titled our study: Whose Trade Organization?

Under this new trade regime, the WTO is the final authority. It can require nations to change their laws and standards to accommodate its decisions made in secret proceedings by trade officials — or else be subject to severe economic sanctions.

This is astounding. Never before have national governments in such a manner been denied their effective authority to enact basic protections for their populations.

Who is behind this power grab, this usurping of governmental authority? Mega-corporations that want the world to be a playing field governed by their rules. Representatives of these companies have profound influence. They persuade governments to act on their behalf before the WTO, coaxing governments to clear a path for them to do business without the nuisance of safety regulations to hamper their activity and without the leash of sunshine and democratic decisionmaking that tames their aggressive pursuit of profits.

The public and concerned citizens are completely shut out of this process. The public is not permitted to attend WTO dispute proceedings. Concerned groups cannot even submit information to dispute panels. This is hardly a reliable way to ensure participatory democracy. In fact, it undermines the ability of people to exert any influence over the quality of the food they eat, the air they breathe, or the environment they live and work in. Control has shifted and now lies squarely in the hands of giant companies.

Proponents of this new and powerful system of trade governance say they are simply promoting “free trade.” Let us not buy into their language. This is not free trade. This is monopolistic trade. This is managed trade — corporate managed trade. It’s the kind of trade that concentrates more and more power in fewer and fewer gigantic corporate hands.

In only five years, many laws and regulations have been watered down or revoked as a result of the WTO flexing its new muscles or threats of WTO action. What is alarming is that many more disputes are brewing that have not been resolved. It appears likely that they, too, will result in the dismantling of protective laws and standards unless the basic framework of the WTO is changed and it is democratized.

We now have an opportunity to put the brakes on this dangerous and freewheeling system. In late November in Seattle, government officials will convene to discuss the status of the WTO and proposals to expand the WTO’s powers and jurisdiction. Let us not fall into this trap again. Let us not repeat history. The WTO should not gain more power; rather, it should be relieved of power it now has. It has invaded policymaking areas that are only appropriate for accountable, democratic procedures.

If we do not stop the expansion of the WTO now, we will see even more serious consequences later. We simply cannot afford to jeopardize our food, environment and public health — and indeed our cherished democratic processes — in this manner. Our citizens must regain the ability to participate in the creation of laws that affect them. Nations must regain the ability to enact safety standards they deem necessary. These are not barriers to trade. In fact, they enhance public confidence in the marketplace. We are certain that in Seattle, WTO proponents will once again promise us that prosperity is just around the corner if we just add more authority to the WTO’s plate. We are sure we will again hear optimistic speeches about the wonders of “free trade.” But now we have documented the falsity of these promises so the public will not be lulled into complacency by talk about “free trade” and economic booms.

The worldwide coalition of consumer, environmentalists, labor, human rights and farmers has stopped the Fast Track procedure in the Congress that was used to ram the GATT and NAFTA into law. Our coalition is growing in size, sophistication and power. Our goal is to reverse the course of this preemptive juggernaut. We will turn around the WTO.