Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The bluffer’s guide to… The WTO

The WTO? Not another governing body for boxing is it? Nope, it’s the World Trade Organisation. Oooh, that sounds grand. Tell me more. The WTO was set up in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). Gatt was designed to reduce taxes on imports, but the WTO’s programme has greatly expanded […]

September 1, 2003
4 min read

The WTO? Not another governing body for boxing is it?

Nope, it’s the World Trade Organisation.

Oooh, that sounds grand. Tell me more.

The WTO was set up in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). Gatt was designed to reduce taxes on imports, but the WTO’s programme has greatly expanded to include the removal of almost any restrictions placed on trade. Based in Geneva, the organisation governs international trade between 146 member countries. Every two years all member nations meet at a Ministerial Conference, which this year is in Cancun.

Sounds like a big international free trade love-in.

Hmm, not quite. Although the WTO is ostensibly democratic, the big boys from the US, Canada, Japan and the EU – known as “the Quad” – rule the roost. One developing country delegate at the 2001 Doha ministerial conference said: “If I speak out too strongly the US will phone my minister. They will twist the story and say I am embarrassing the US. My government will not even ask: “What did he say?” They would just send me a ticket home tomorrow.” The Quad meets several times a year to decide policy behind closed doors. Its decisions are then sold to less powerful governments.

What policy decisions are taken?

Official WTO policy can be summed up thus: anything deemed an obstacle to the pursuit of profit should be labelled an illegal barrier to free trade. But while liberalisation of markets is the stated aim, one north African WTO delegate said the Quad’s message to the less powerful was “you liberalise, we”ll subsidise”.

US agriculture is heavily concentrated in the hands of multinationals. High levels of subsidies were increased massively by the 2002 Farm Bill. Less developed countries don”t have the capital to subsidise their farmers. As Noam Chomsky said: “Nobody in the corporate world or government takes free trade seriously. The parts of the economy that are able to compete internationally are primarily the state-subsidised ones.”

But surely that’s a breach of WTO rules and the offending countries will be punished?

Hang on while I stop laughing. It’s one rule for the powerful and another for the rest. A Clinton administration spokesperson summed it up perfectly: “We do not believe anything the WTO says or does can force the US to change its laws.”

So the WTO is powerless then?

Not if you are a powerful state. Take the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), which requires all WTO member countries to honour patent rules (including those relating to pharmaceutical products and processes), regardless of their levels of development or health needs. Trips allows 20-year market monopolies and restrictions on the measures countries can adopt to get access to cheaper medicines. Thus, many people in poorer countries are dying because of the exorbitant cost of drugs to treat diseases like HIV/Aids.

There’s also the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats), which creates a framework for foreign businesses to turn basic necessities like water, health and education into commodities. Earlier this year, WTO members submitted their initial lists of the services that they would like, and would agree to being, liberalised. Cancun will see a round of stock taking.

According to the EU, Gats is “first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business”. In other words, Gats intensifies that old capitalist principle: if you can”t pay, you don”t get.

I’m not sure I like the sound of the WTO.

You”re not alone. Mass protests at the 1999 Seattle ministerial gave the WTO a global profile. The UN said the organisation’s unbalanced and inequitable approach to trade liberalisation, non-transparent procedures and inattention to the human rights implications of trade policy meant that it is a “veritable nightmare” for large parts of the world – particularly developing countries. Roll on Cancun.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain.’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition.

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it