WORLD: Requiem for the WTO

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press News Service (IPS)

Civil society activists, who early on foretold the inevitable collapse of the Doha Round, are now predicting the beginning of the end for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) itself, which sponsored the failed negotiations.

"My sense is that it is a very mortally wounded organisation at this point," said Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South and sociology professor at the University of the Philippines.

But in fact, the first references to the Doha Round's doomed future did not come from the ranks of non-governmental organisations. It was Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath who declared, with a dose of black humour, that the Round was not yet dead, "but it is definitely between intensive care and the crematorium."

He was the first major participant to make such a comment on the negotiations that careened off the tracks Jul. 25 when talks broke down among negotiators from Australia, Brazil, the United States, India, Japan and the European Union, who had met in an attempt to resolve differences that would revive the agenda of the WTO talks.

Bello observed that "the monopoly of decision-making being undertaken by the six countries was a very flawed process and it definitely showed why the WTO is not a democratic organisation."

Doha had been shadowed by dire predictions almost since its November 2001 launch in the capital of Qatar. At that time, irreconcilable differences between the developing world and industrialised countries were already surfacing -- principally regarding the opening up of trade in agriculture.

Once the talks were obviously faltering, responses from non-governmental organisations to trade issues varied according to their degree of opposition to the WTO, although all agreed that the initiative would not end well.

"Oxfam fears that multilateralism will go further into crisis," said Celine Charveriat, head of that humanitarian organisation's Make Trade Fair campaign.

Carin Smaller, Geneva-office director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), commented that "the current WTO system has been devastating for small scale farmers all over developing countries, and hasn't worked for family farmers in the U.S. either. There is a fairly broad consensus that we have a system that is cracking at its seams."

Bello called the WTO "very weak at this point," noting the collapse of the third ministerial conference in Seattle (1999), the fifth in Cancún (2003), and now Doha.

"It's very hard for an institution to survive such major collapses of its decision-making process," the Filipino academic told IPS.

Indonesian activist Henry Saragih, of Vía Campesina, said WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has recognised that the multilateral institution is going through a time of hibernation.

"I hope that it is in a coma with death as the only end," added Saragih, co-ordinator of the global alliance of peasant, landless worker and other rural-producer movements from 56 countries, including several European nations.

But the WTO does not look set to disappear any time soon, with close to 635 employees and a budget this year of 175 million Swiss francs (some 141 million dollars). Also, it still is responsible for administering established trade agreements.

The WTO Dispute Settlement Body, which resolves trade disagreements between its 149 member states, is likely to face an increased workload following the failure of the Doha negotiations, as observed last week by U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab.

Nevertheless, Bello believes the "WTO will continue to be there, just like the League of Nations continued to be there after it was no longer essentially functioning."

The League of Nations -- the forerunner to the United Nations -- was established in 1919 in Geneva. Its mission was to intervene in matters of international security and cooperation, as well as to arbitrate disputes.

The League dissolved in 1946 upon the creation of the U.N., following at least a decade of inaction, in which it failed to prevent World War II (1939-1945).

With a "mortally wounded" WTO, developing countries need to understand that the organisation "really doesn't work for them," said Bello.

Furthermore, the Doha Development Round was really a misnomer, having nothing to do with development, emphasised the director of Focus on the Global South.

Another activist -- Uruguay's Alberto Villarreal -- of the Friends of the Earth environmental organisation, welcomed the news of Doha's failure, because an agreement in these negotiations "would have meant greatly increased trade in forestry, fishing and mining products, with devastating environmental impacts."

The rapid liberalisation of agriculture proposed in the negotiations was also threatening to put even more pressure on the earth, Villarreal told IPS.

Bello's view is that developing countries should now work to roll back the Uruguay Round (1986-1994), which gave rise to the WTO and incorporated agriculture in the multilateral trade system for the first time.

For example, developing countries "should weaken, if not eliminate, the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement," also introduced in the Uruguay Round, he argued.

Along these lines, Villarreal supports trade agreements established "under the auspices of the U.N., where trade interests are not put first."

This requires an institution that would maintain an appropriate balance between environmental protection and other social interests, and would not allow multinational corporations to dominate with their trade agenda, which inevitably occurs in WTO negotiations, said the Uruguayan activist.

This is the time to halt negotiations and rethink multilateral institutions, particularly those involved in trade, he emphasised.

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources