World Trade Organization (WTO)



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Breaking News: Civil Society Groups Banned From WTO Ministerial

As if the WTO was not already in a legitimacy crisis, 20 non-governmental organizations were just abruptly notified that their accreditation to attend the WTO ministerial starting Dec. 10 has been revoked. Yup, literally on the anniversary of the WTO Seattle meltdown – 11/30!  The WTO Secretariat began warning people not to travel to Argentina as they will be sent home. Those banned include representatives from global union confederations, Friends of the Earth, and development think tanks – literally organizations and individuals from all over the world who have attended every WTO ministerial since the WTO was launched. The WTO Secretariat says that they have warned Argentina, whose government is behind these bans, that this move will cause serious harm to the WTO’s legitimacy. Argentina won’t budge, so now the leading NGO network focused on WTO is calling for the WTO Director General to move the ministerial, which is planned for Dec 10-13, back to the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is a powerful global commerce agency that establishes rights and powers for corporations and constrains the policies governments can use to promote good jobs and wages, safeguard food safety and the environment, and ensure access to affordable medicine. The WTO was launched in 1995 after years of closed door negotiations shaped by hundreds of corporate advisors. It combines a regime of corporate-managed trade with expansive limits on many non-trade policies on which our families rely – from limiting our ability to rein in the Wall Street banks that wrecked the economy to weakening safeguards for consumers, the environment and public health. The WTO is branded as a trade agreement, but in fact it is packed with corporate protections – including new monopoly rights for pharmaceutical firms that raise prices of essential medicines. The WTO rules are strongly enforced through tribunals that can order countries to alter their laws or face trade sanctions. Since the WTO’s launch, 92 percent of the attacks on domestic policies have been successful. 


Established in 1995 after the “Uruguay Round” of global trade talks, the WTO transformed the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into an enforceable global commerce agency with 800 pages of 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 policies that often fail in democratic fora. Indeed, as one WTO staffer admitted to the Financial Times, the WTO “is the place where governments collude in private against their domestic pressure groups.”

The WTO system, and its rules and procedures, are undemocratic and untransparent. Unaccountable WTO tribunals 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 dolphin-safe labels on tuna. The U.S. ban on sweet-flavored cigarettes designed to combat youth smoking was also ruled against and the U.S. settled the case without eliminating the policy.

Given the WTO shifted decision-making on many policies that affect our daily lives to unaccountable, closed door venues, 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.  

This led to years of deadlock, with periodic attempts to “harvest” various pieces of the 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 past inequities. 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. Talks have remained deadlocked since 2001 and 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.

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.

The WTO's crisis of legitimacy has deepened in recent years. 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. 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.

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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.


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