Intervenor: Vol 24. No 3 July - September 1999

WTO's 'Millennium Round' in Seattle

Trade ministers from 134 countries will gather in Seattle, Washington from November 30 to December 3 to launch what some are calling the "Millennium Round" of trade negotiations within the World Trade Organization. Preparations for this ministerial meeting are now proceeding around the world, by both governments and non-governmental organizations. Lib-eralization of trade in agriculture and services are "built-in" agenda items, due to previous WTO decisions but significant differences exist between industrialized and developing countries regarding what those negotiations should achieve, and what other issues should also be on the agenda.

Northern countries, including Canada, support the inclusion of liberalization of investment, government procurement and moves to harmonization of competition policies, in addition to negotiations on agriculture and services. However, these countries are also attempting to ensure that their own domestic agricultural policies, including (in the EU and US) huge agricultural subsidies, are not eroded by any new WTO rules. As we know, Canada also subsidizes production, and is concerned to protect domestic agriculture and the marketing boards that operate here. The attempts of WTO members to open up services to WTO rules put our education and health services systems at risk.

Some Northern countries also speak of addressing environmental and labour concerns during this round. They don't indicate how they intend address these questions, but are not willing to discuss amendments to the existing trade rules which affect the environment and public health. Southern countries are articulating other concerns. The majority wants negotiations that focus on their difficulties in even implementing requirements from the last set of WTO agreements, and on the continuing lack of benefits to developing countries from the liberalized trade regime. At a recent meeting of the G77 (developing countries), the concluding declaration focused on these problems:

"The non-realization of benefits by many developing countries in areas of interest to them has resulted from the failure of major trading partners to fully and faithfully meet their obligations in these areas, particularly textiles and clothing. We therefore urge that the question of the implementation of the Marrakech Agreements and Decisions be addressed and resolved at Seattle by the Third Ministerial Conference of the WTO."

Issues of importance to them include "balanced protection of biological resources and disciplines to protect traditional knowledge," transfer of technologies, and increased access to Northern markets for their exports. Merely participating in WTO negotiations and dispute settlement panels is a problem, and the financial costs amount to a barrier to equity for Southern countries.

Even the World Bank has recently called for a comprehensive round of negotiations focused on development goals, including the elimination of Northern export subsidies, reduction of tariffs on agricultural goods, opening up construction services for movement across borders, and movement of people. (Movement of corporate "persons" but not actual people is favoured under current trade rules).

No country or institution is suggesting that further liberalization and single-minded reliance on "the market" are not likely to solve development, labour, and environmental issues.

In contrast, non-govern-mental organizations around the world have united to call for a halt to negotiations, pending a detailed assessment of the impacts of WTO rules to date. An unprecedented 1114 groups in 87 countries have endorsed a "Statement from Members of International Civil Society Opposing a Millennium Round or a New Round of Comprehensive Trade Negotiations", see related information below. 

The groups, including CELA, call for an assessment to be conducted with civil society's full participation, to examine the WTO's impacts on "marginalized communities, development, democracy, environment, health, human rights, labour rights and rights of women and children."

In addition, thousands of activists, including CELA staff, will travel to Seattle to participate in educational workshops and a large demonstration. The goal of this mobilization is to remind the WTO negotiators that just as we caused the demise of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, citizens will continue to actively and effectively oppose the expansion of the WTO rules.

CELA has been engaged with the impacts of free trade regimes on the environment and citizen rights for over a decade. After Seattle, and during the next year, we intend to conduct an evaluation of world-wide citizen strategies of opposition to corporate-oriented free trade, in order to further refine our own thinking and strategic actions.

Michelle Swenarchuk is the International Programme Director at CELA