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The WTO’s raw deal

Tom Burgis
19 December 2005

Margaret Beckett did not hide her displeasure. When openDemocracy pointed out that the current round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks was meant to be about promoting development – and not about carving open markets for western businesses – the British environment secretary snapped: “This is a negotiation. All countries will have to leave their comfort zones.”

So it proved – although it is unlikely that any trade negotiator reached the level of discomfort visited upon the 900 mostly Asian peasants, unionists and farmers who spent Saturday night on a bitterly cold road without food, water or a toilet, the stench of teargas clinging to their clothes and their skulls still ringing from the impact of wooden batons before they were eventually carted off to assorted dungeons and strip-searched.

As the European Union and the United States have made abundantly clear throughout the World Trade Organisation’s sixth ministerial in Hong Kong (13-18 December 2005), when it comes to the scramble for the global economic pie, he who forks hardest laughs longest. Aid agencies point out that all the rhetoric about rich countries graciously correcting the injustices in the system of global commerce without requiring anything in return from developing countries has proved to be wholly bogus.

Over six days of talks here, Venezuela, Mauritius, Cuba, South Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia and Benin have all been on the verge of walking out, causing the summit to collapse as did those in Seattle (1999) and Cancún (2003). Central to their grievances was an aggressive push by the European Union’s trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, to force the pace of liberalisation in services; the refusal of big farming exporters to stop dumping cheap produce on hapless overseas markets; and intransigence on the erosion of market access for poor exporters of cotton, sugar and bananas.

Eventually, with the future of the rules-based trading system on the line, developing countries were blindsided. In exchange for some smoke-and-mirrors on ending agricultural export subsidies by 2013, they put pen to paper on a deal that locks them in the helter-skelter liberalisation in manufacturing and services.

But let us not pretend that poor countries are somehow naïve. Brazil and India sat at the head of a mammoth new bloc called the G110 – containing almost every developing country – and sold out their new comrades. In forty-eight hours, Kamal Nath, the Indian trade negotiator, reversed his position from one of grandstanding scorn to hailing the latest Doha deal as one that would fundamentally alter the global economic architecture. In the meantime, the deal, if anything, had worsened.

On the most serious injustices in global trade, the text offers next to nothing. Next time round, the perennially belligerent Korean farmers may be marching alongside a great many parched Africans and jobless Asians.

The unholy nexus

On the streets, savvy protesters (many of the peasants have business cards) stressed that they are not mindless wreckers. When they attempted to storm the fortified summit on Saturday, the Koreans, as is their wont, resorted to violence – and lots of it. There were ninety-seven injuries. That should be tempered by the facts that not a single police officer was seriously injured, and not a single windowpane broken. Riot shields seized in the scuffle were returned. The protest groups came with a deftly coordinated strategy and specific goals – not a hazy opposition to anything involving canapés. They are not the enemies of multilateralism, not of a trade regulation. They are fighting a misnomer: that “free trade” is somehow equitable or the global economic panacea.

Early in the week, Gopal Pillai told a bandstand of simmering peasants that the task at hand was to break the “unholy nexus” of big-business lobbies and western governments. The senior Indian trade negotiator observed that $29 billion of the US farm subsidy cash that flows to agribusinesses finds its way back into the war chests of the Republican and Democrat parties – what Pillai called an “unholy nexus”. As it turned out, India too proved less than altruistic and hung the least-developed countries out to dry in exchange for bilateral promises from Washington to grant visas to elite Indian professionals.

But Pillai’s phrase loses none of its force for that. The challenge is to break the lobby racket but with a password that pulls the delegations’ strings and has dictated a deal that, as far as Focus on the Global South’s Aileen Kwa reckons, will go some way towards reversing the industrialisation of the “third world”.

The new protest dynamic

Adriano Campolina Soares, director of ActionAid Americas, flew to Hong Kong as one of ten civil-society representatives on the Brazilian delegation. Ten others were from big business (and thus, unlike delegates, journalists and campaigners, did not have to register), along with thirty diplomats.

“We’re on the delegation to exercise our right as citizens to hold our governments to account”, Campolina says. “Brazilian agribusiness would have sold out manufacturing and services at a shot if they thought it would buy them a wider corner of the European beef and soya markets. They take narrow and extremely self-interested positions. Landlords occupy 70% of arable land and represent 15% of farmers; but the small farmers produce most of the food for domestic production. “Food security” (what the French call “gastronomic sovereignty”) is the rub, he says. “What really matters is ensuring that every citizen has access to food.”

“Three years ago, small farmers came together. They brought trade into their agenda. They developed a network and produced sound research. They started to influence the Lula government.” In October 2004, during crunch WTO negotiations in Geneva, 500 Brazilian peasants stormed the foreign ministry in Brasilia. That went some way towards formatting the mandate of Brazil’s trade negotiators – though, it would seem, not far enough.

All the same, the change in the relationship between protest and power over the last fifteen years has been acutely evident here. On Saturday, veteran campaigners and dissident economists left the summit to lead a march of 4,500 peasants, farmers, trade unionists, migrants and activists (and one man dressed as a chicken). As Korean farmers laid siege to the ranks of riot police with ad hoc battering-rams, they showed key passages of the latest draft resolution to others bloodied from the fray or bellowed into mobile phones to get the latest from sources privy to Green Room wrangling. Waves of (not always accurate) information governed the mood and intensity of the protests.

“We have an insider-outsider system to derail the WTO”, said Adrianna Natsoulas of Washington DC-based Food and Water Watch. “It is vital to have information flowing both ways. But we’re not opposed to trade per se; we’re opposed to the WTO’s stranglehold on people, food, fish, water and the natural environment. These are not things to be traded.”

There is now a year to complete the Doha development round. The Hong Kong deal will be fleshed out in the backrooms of Geneva. But one thing is already clear and was best put by Arvin Boolell, Mauritius’s minister of agriculture and chair of the fifty-six-strong African, Caribbean and Pacific Group: “Once again, we are being placed between the hammer and the anvil.”

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