What's wrong with the WTO?

A guide to where the mines are buried

by Peter Costantini ~ Seattle ~ November 2001

Submerged within the mind-numbing verbiage of the World Trade Organization treaties and their interpretations are a handful of principles that subordinate all other values—environmental sustainability, consumer and worker safety, public health, freedom of labor and human rights—to maximizing trade. The provisions and interpretations articulating these principles impede nations from enforcing their own laws to protect the public good. They imperil rights and protections won by citizens over the last century and undermine national and local democracy and transparency.

Most of these strictures are not intrinsic to international trade. Rather, they have resulted from the veiled efforts of the most powerful nations and corporations, who use WTO rules and rulings as crowbars to wrench open markets and batter down laws defending the quality of human life and the environment.

The record of the past six years is clear: nearly all WTO decisions have gutted democratic restrictions on trade, effectively lowering environmental, consumer protection, public health, and human rights standards. Even when reasonable standards were applied equally to all domestic and foreign producers, the WTO has repeatedly struck them down as trade barriers, demolishing shelters that citizens have built against the stormy side effects of market forces.
When is trade "free"?

A central principle of the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now enforced by the WTO) was non-discrimination: products imported from one country should be treated the same as those imported from all other countries and those produced within the importing country. This principle is expressed in two technical terms:

* National treatment - Goods imported from countries that have signed the treaty must be treated the same as domestic ones.
* Most-favored nation treatment - Goods imported from each signatory country must be treated equally.
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