Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The WTO Debate, Continued

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 29, 2000

The fact that many people in the world do not have enough "caloric intake" to live is a sign that we do not have it quite right yet.

The significant debate here is not about whether there should be increased global trade. I think the numbers are in, and that a global economy which promotes trade will be better able to sustain its citizens than one which does not.

This is why trade embargos work to produce political reform, and why nations like Cuba and North Korea struggle to feed their citizens. Cutting oneself off from the global marketplace is not an option.

The pro WTO (and even some of the antis) people like to depict the debate as pro- or con- global free trade. It is not.

First of all, neither side promotes unrestricted global free trade (though for different reasons). Both sides promote increased global trade. The battle is about the conditions under which that trade will be conducted.

Any given nation - say Sri Lanka - will have a national trade policy. Such a policy will include a system of tariffs and will specify a set of rules (eg., quality control rules) describing allowable imports.

A nation like Sri Lanka will also have internal policies designed to support local industry, to ensure environmental and labour standards, and social policies such as unemployment or welfare.

Obviously there is great disparity between the policies of one nation or another.

The central issues surrounding WTO is the manner in which Sri Lanka's policies are set: pecifically, what policies they are allowed to set under WTO, and what policies they are not.

(In a system of global free trade, there would be no tariffs or import restrictions, but on the other hand, no limits set on Sri Lanka's internal policies either.)

Pro WTO advocates argue essentially that policies which hinder the ability of a corporation to trade in a nation should be disallowed. This means, essentially, that if Sri Lanka favours its own corporations through tariffs, import restrictions, or domestic policie, then such favoritism would be disallowed under WTO.

The opponents of WTO argue that such measures effectively end Sri Lanka's capacity to help its own citizens or corporations, that they preserve (and even enhance) the disparity betwen strong corporations and weak ones.

They point out, additionally, that while WTO would allow a nation to weaken its environmental or labour legislation in order to become more competitive, WTO views measures which strengthen this legislation as stifling competition.

There is in addition a significant question being raised as to how WTO regulations are being drafted. The anti WTO arguement is that these piedes of legislation are not being drafted in a constitutional manner, that they in fact go against what the citizens of a nation would desire in a free vote, and thus that they are replacing our emerging global democracy with a form of corporate authoritarianism.

I think these are all serious issues, not resolved by simplifying the debate to pro- or anti- free trade, or even by naively stating that the standard of living is rising or sinking in affected nations. If this debate turns into a mere numbers game, then the political and philosophical context is lost, and yet the debate is at its heart a political and philosophical debate.

My own view - expressed previously elsewhere - is that the governance mechanisms currently in place to draft WTO regulations must be balanced through a system of public democracy; that the upper or lower limits on such things as labour legislation, environmental standards, and the like, ought to be put to a global vote.

I moreover argue that a system such as WTO is untenable so long as there does not exist a set of human rights which would prevent WTO and other regulations from fundamentally undercutting citizens' rights to work and live in their own society.

And under WTO there would have to be a global constitution, balancing between the rights of individual nations and the rights of the WTO as a whole.

We must recognize the fact that the WTO is an emerging global government. As such, we must ensure that this government works in a democratic fashion. And as such, we must ensure that it respects fundamental human rights and liberties.

None of these provisions are in WTO as it stands, and that is why people protest in Praha and Seattle, and that is why people write articles such as the one Pasty cites.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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