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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out