Between The Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Nov. 8, 1999

World Trade Organization Undermines Democracy

"Globalization," a buzzword heard often during the last decade, is used to describe a world where international trade barriers are falling and giant corporations conduct commerce without regard to borders. If any institution has come to represent the "new world economic order" it's the World Trade Organization or WTO, created in 1994 to resolve trade disputes. One of the guiding principles of the WTO is neo-liberalism, which dictates that deregulation and privatization is key to growth and prosperity.

But increasing numbers of citizens in the U.S. and around the world are questioning the WTO's secretive decision-making process, which has undermined many nations' environmental, health and labor laws designed to protect the public from an unregulated marketplace. In late November, when the WTO holds its summit in Seattle, Wash., thousands of representatives of grass-roots organizations from across the globe will be there to protest what they claim is the WTO's subversion of democracy.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Michelle Sforza, research director with the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, who summarizes the findings of her group's study of the five-year record of the World Trade Organization.

Michelle Sforza: What we see with the World Trade Organization was the continuation of what we saw with NAFTA: the realm of trade policy encroaching on areas of domestic policy making that had formally been left to citizens and their democratically-elected representatives. We're talking about environmental laws, public health laws, food safety laws, labor laws -- all of these things became subject to WTO scrutiny.

One country can challenge the environmental law of another. We never had an enforceable set of global rules before. ... We never had an institution before that empowered trade bureaucrats in Geneva, Switzerland -- as the WTO does -- to sit and rule on a nation's public health or environmental laws and tell that country they either have to change the law because it imposed a barrier to trade in some way, or suffer economic sanctions. So we saw a shift in the way that commercial policy actually operated on a global level.

So when we saw trade policy encroaching on domestic policy -- unrelated to trade-- without any real public debate, without any involvement of experts in those domestic policy areas like environmental policy, protection and public health protection, we realized that this is a real problem. And we started to monitor the rulings as well as the negotiations as they've progressed these past five years.

Between The Lines: Now if you had to sum it up in just a few words, how powerful is the World Trade Organization? And who is it accountable to? What kind of transparency, or accountability does it have?

MS: It really has no accountability. Everyday citizens have no access to its meetings. They're not required to publish the minutes of the meetings of the different WTO committees. Citizens have no access to the proceedings. Environmental laws are being challenged by countries because they say it poses a barrier to their product.

Take the U.S. Clean Air regulations, for instance: Venezuela said it interfered with the import of their gasoline into the United States. U.S. experts on clean air, never mind U.S. citizens, have no access to these proceedings whatsoever. So it has none of the due process guarantees that a typical proceeding in domestic U.S. courts would have. Yet, the WTO does have the power to impose sanctions to pressure the United States to change its laws, so it's completely unaccountable to domestic populations.

BTL: What is at stake for American citizens, and citizens across the globe who want some voice in their own national and community destiny, preventing products that could be hazardous from entering into their marketplace?

MS: What's at stake is citizens' own inability to influence the process and to have control over issues that affect their lives. You think that you won a battle in getting certain public health and public interest regulations enacted just to see all that reversed when a country is able to go over your head, and go over the head of the domestic process and go to the WTO to have those things attacked. It's kind of a rear-door attack on very important public interest regulations, and on the democratic process in general. I think that's what's at stake.

BTL: What are people doing to challenge the hegemony of the World Trade Organization and their allies in the corporate world?

MS:Well first, people are starting to learn how the WTO affects issues of importance to them. And the U.S. is going to be the host of the bi-annual World Trade Organization meeting -- the so-called "Ministerial" -- in Seattle, the 26th of November through the 3rd of December. Thousands of people, individuals, and organizations, working on all sorts of issues -- labor, environment, gender, development, democratic action groups -- will be converging there for that week to basically participate in teach-ins, protests, street theater, and to meet other progressive activists and leaders from around the world who are highly critical of the World Trade Organization and all it stands for.

You can find out more about this teach-in -- what we call the "Road to Seattle" -- by consulting Public Citizen's Web site, and that is http://www.tradewatch.org. There is also a special Seattle Web site that is set up among a lot of the groups working on the issue, and that is http://www.seattle99.org.

Public Citizens' study of the World Trade Organization, titled: "Whose Trade Organization: Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy" is available by calling (202)546-4996.


Scott Harris is WPKN Radio's public affairs director and executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on WPKN 89.5 FM's Associated Press award winning weekly newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending Oct. 15, 1999.

Between The Lines Q&A is compiled and edited by Anna Manzo. For a cassette copy of the full half-hour interview with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch's Michelle Sforza, send $8 in check or money order to Between The Lines, WPKN Radio, 244 University Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604-5700.

Copyright 1999 Between The Lines. All rights reserved.


For in-depth interviews with individuals and organizations not ordinarily given access in mainstream media, listen to WPKN 89.5 FM Radio's "Counterpoint" with Public Affairs Director Scott Harris from 8-10 p.m. on Mondays and "Between the Lines" Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 8 a.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. (Wednesday's show airs at 7:30 a.m. during fundraising months of April and October)

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