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13 May 2001 Issue
The WTO and the New Global Realities

by Dr. Steven Best - sbest1@elp.rr.com

“If Americans wish to repair their own decayed democracy, they must
also make themselves into large-minded citizens of the world.”
~~ William Greider

With the recent, turbulent events in Quebec City surrounding the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), it is clear that the New World Order, currently under the “leadership” of a blatantly pro-corporate U.S. president, is aggressively advancing. The FTAA would be the most comprehensive “free trade” agreement ever developed. It is an extension of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) to most of the Western hemisphere, from Alaska to Argentina, as it cobbles together aspects of other world trade institutions and treaties.

The various acronyms of the New World Order –- NAFTA, FTAA, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), IMF (International Monetary Fund), WTO (World Trade Organization), and so on, spell one basic thing: corporate domination on a global scale. They mean the end of national sovereignty, the erosion of social services, species extinction, attacks on workers, war against indigenous peoples, the unleashing of genetic engineering and agribusiness, biopiracy (the theft of genetic stock), and the
rape of nature.

The New World Order of global capitalism involves trade without geographical boundaries or ecological and moral considerations that are rejected as unfair “restrictions” on “free trade.” The reorganization of capitalism signals a shift of power from national to international structures. Since it is difficult enough to influence local or national governments, it becomes all the more challenging to control what transpires behind the closed doors of multinational corporate bodies.

The Gospel of Globalism is presented to us in positive terms of modernization, liberalization, and enhanced prosperity and democracy for all. In fact, in these turbulent waters where all boats are supposed to float, ever more people are starting to drown. The new global trade treaties are a Trojan horse for greater centralization of markets on behalf of the dominant world powers, and therefore exacerbate every existing social and environmental problem. Organizations such as the WTO and treaties like FTAA are viruses for deregulation, privatization, and marketization of all social infrastructures and relationships.

In their wake, the New World Order has brought fewer jobs and more poverty, environmental ruin, and animal exploitation. It is common knowledge that in the last few decades the gap between the rich and poor both nationally and internationally has been widening. By the 1990s, the richest one percent of Americans owned twice as much as the poorest 80 percent; the 3 richest people in the U.S. have more money than the combined GNP of the 48 least developed countries.

The “Battle of Seattle” in December 1999 was a turning point in oppositional politics. It demonstrated a heightened awareness that the intricate global trade treaties being fashioned are not abstract or irrelevant to our lives, but rather are having a huge impact on people, animals, and the earth. It reflected a new consciousness that as capitalism globalizes, so too must the struggles against it. Activists understand, moreover, that these resistances can no longer be separated. U.S. workers, for example, can best protect their own wages by helping foreign workers raise their own living standards, and labor and environmental causes must be interlinked, as “teamsters” and “turtles” share a common enemy.

And so 50,000 activists from around the world, representing dozens of different causes, largely mobilized through the Internet, took to the streets in Seattle, and effectively disrupted the proceedings aimed at greater world dominance. Such anti-globalization struggles have been repeated in Washington, Prague, and Quebec. Everywhere the New World Order tries to solidify its control over life on this planet, activists are uniting against it. Against media misrepresentations, the new militancy is not anti-trade (the jobs of many workers depend on global trade); rather it rejects “free trade” (the freedom of the rich to further exploit the poor) in favor of fair trade.

The backbone of the New World Order is the WTO, which grew out of GATT trade agreements in a 1948 compact among 23 nations. Currently, the WTO has 135 member nations and is responsible for over 90 percent of world trade. Its goals and responsibilities are to remove all barriers to global markets, to arbitrate trade disputes, and to create new international power structures dominated by the strongest nations. Trade disputes are discussed in Geneva, behind closed doors, by a panel of 3-5 people stacked with pro-corporate representatives. If they overrule a country’s law, the offending nation must either change the law, or suffer stiff fines and trade sanctions.

In most cases, criticisms against the WTO concern its impact on jobs and the environment, and one rarely hears or reads about its toll on animals. Yet many animal protection groups consider the WTO to be the single most dangerous threat to animals. A few examples illustrate why this fear is justified.

Sea Turtles: The shrimp fishing industry catches sea turtles in their treacherous nets where they drown, and pushes them to the brink of extinction. New nets were devised that allowed the turtles to escape if entangled, and the U.S. refused to import shrimp from any country not using “turtle exclusion devices.” But upon complaints from 4 Asian nations in 1996, a WTO dispute panel found this policy in violation of free trade rules, and so the US was forced to accept imports of shrimp from countries using turtle-killing nets.

“Dolphin-Safe” Tuna: As tuna swim near dolphins, they are caught by encircling dolphins. The U.S. banned the sale of tuna snared by chasing and killing dolphins, and established a “dolphin-safe” tuna label. Mexico challenged this law as an unfair trade barrier, and the U.S. agreed to changes in the labeling law that allowed tuna caught by killing dolphins to be fraudulently labeled as “dolphin-free.”

Steel-Jaw Trap Ban: Lest one think the U.S. government is the “good guy,” it too has challenged trade laws it found to its economic disadvantage. In fact, the U.S. initiated almost half of the 117 WTO challenges issued between 1995 and 2000. In 1995, for example, the EU passed legislation against the vicious steel-leg hold trap and banned the import of fur from nations that used them. The U.S. protested this to the WTO in 1997, and the WTO forced the EU to weaken and delay implementation of the ban.

Dozens of progressive laws concerning workers’ safety, public health, the environment, and animal welfare have been struck down in this way, rejected as barriers to free trade. The U.S. Clean Air Act was challenged by the WTO, as was the EU ban on hormones in beef. Not only are old laws being dismantled, new laws are not being shaped from fear they won't withstand a WTO challenge. The WTO willfully discounts the process or means of production of a “commodity,” and so from the “free trade” standpoint, it is irrelevant whether an animal was raised on a family or factory farm, whether it was killed “humanely” or was skinned or dismembered while aware and alive. In the New World Order, no country can justify a ban on animal imports on the grounds that they were raised and/or killed in conditions of extreme cruelty. The WTO is concerned strictly with products, not processes, with economic issues, not ethical considerations.

The multinationals have declared war on the planet, and we must fight back and resist. Citizens must understand the new global realities and create appropriately new political maps and tactics. Activists must struggle on numerous fronts and form strategic alliances as often as possible, including across national borders. The humane treatment of people and animals must remain fundamental rights, and not be redefined as “barriers to trade.”

With Seattle, a new worldwide social movement has arisen, one that has demonstrated global corporate power is contestable and vulnerable. Globalization is irreversible; the question is what form will it take? Globalization from above, or below? Free trade or fair trade? Will it satisfy the needs of life or of profit? Only through new modes of education and organization can people exercise power against globalization from above and preserve what little is left of human rights, ecosystems, and biodiversity.

Steve Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso, a long time vegan and animal rights activist, and author of numerous books and articles in the areas of social theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. Some of his writings are posted at http://utminers.utep.edu/best/ 

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