From Socialist Voice, February 2006

WTO betrays poor people yet again

From the 13th to the 18th of December last year, ministers from 149 governments around the world met in Hong Kong to negotiate what was intended as the final leg of a development-focused round of talks. This so-called “development round” was agreed in 2001 at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Doha, Qatar, where rich governments promised—under pressure from the governments of poor countries and protesters around the world—to put the fundamental concerns of poor countries at the forefront of the agenda of the WTO negotiations.
    But—as a growing mass of activists who are speaking out against the WTO point out—there is nothing remotely developmental about the WTO. What transpired from the talks in December was yet another betrayal and devaluation of the lives of poor people in the majority world by the governments of rich countries.
    Leading up to the talks, poor countries were deeply concerned to protect their markets from forced liberalisation and heavily subsidised products from rich countries, which are having a detrimental impact on their domestic economies. The nature of the agreement reached in Hong Kong, however, highlights clearly the fact that issues that are of vital interest to poor countries were sacrificed to the priorities of the rich. This is illustrated through a lack of progress on a range of issues. For example, the failure of the United States to adequately address its cotton subsidies will continue to put African cotton farmers out of business. The failure at Hong Kong to make progress on securing “special and differential treatment” for poor countries also fails to establish a basis for allowing the application of different trade rules to countries at different economic stages.
    Much has been made in the media of the agreement at Hong Kong by the European Union to phase out export subsidies to European farmers by 2013. However, this hard-fought-for and minor gain is not copperfastened in the text and pales almost to insignificance when compared with the concessions forced on poor countries in relation to services and industrial tariffs. In addition, concessions to “least-developed countries” to receive duty-free, quota-free market access could exclude certain important goods viewed as too competitive by rich countries. For example, the United States could block imports of textiles and clothing from Bangladesh, while Japan could block imports of cheaper rice from Cambodia.
    More than nine hundred arrests were made in Hong Kong as protesters fought to make their voices heard against the lack of democracy at the WTO. The South African activist Kumi Naidoo, commenting on the Hong Kong meeting, said: “Once again this year the people have roared and rich countries have barely whispered. The wealthiest nations have squandered a critical opportunity to rise above vested and commercial interests to inject development into this so-called ‘development’ round. While they avoid and postpone redressing the gross imbalances in global trade, millions of women, men and children are denied the basic human right to lead their lives in dignity, free from hunger and want.”
    Despite this depressing picture, poor countries demonstrated a far more aggressive and unified approach to protecting their people’s interests through the formation of the “Group of 110,” comprising poor countries from various regions and blocs. As the Hong Kong meeting postponed key decisions, especially in relation to agriculture and industrial goods, further meetings are likely to be held in April and July this year.
    Activists around the world have vowed to continue fighting the human suffering and environmental destruction being perpetuated by the WTO in 2006. As Percy Makombe from the Southern and Eastern African Trade Information Negotiations Institute asked, “Who will stand up for the poor? To question those who want to auction our lives is not only our right: it is our duty. To challenge those who seek to commodify our lives is not only a necessity, it is our responsibility.”

[NNC]

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