The WTO 6th Ministerial: People Power vs. Corporate Power

A grand global fight looms in Hong Kong in December—a fight between the rich corporations and governments of the First World, and the vast number of people in the Third World worst hit by the W.T.O.

By Joseph Yu
Ibon Features
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With two failed ministerials out of five, the World Trade Organization (WTO) faces a crisis as it prepares for its Sixth Ministerial Conference on Dec. 13-18 in Hong Kong. The U.S. and European Union (EU) need to close an agreement in December to open new markets for their agricultural and industrial overproduction and stave off their intensifying economic crisis.

The Ministerials, held every two years, are the WTO’s highest decision-making body. Their purpose is to enable trade ministers to make decisions on how to move forward on any of the multilateral trade agreements. But ministerials in Cancun and Seattle have ended in deadlock as developed and underdeveloped countries have failed to reach an agreement on vital issues.

A third ministerial collapse would present rich countries with the almost impossible task of salvaging the WTO. Hence, a grand global fight looms in Hong Kong between First and Third World countries, and between transnational corporations (TNCs) and the vast number of people worst hit by the WTO.

The ‘Doha Development Agenda’

Set to be discussed in Hong Kong is the “Doha Development Agenda”, which was launched at the Fourth Ministerial at Qatar in 2001. The Fifth Ministerial held in Cancun in 2003 was supposed to have concluded the current round of negotiations under the Agenda but it collapsed as WTO members failed to come to an agreement on key negotiating issues.

The Doha program includes the mandated review of the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the renegotiation of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), as well as negotiations on non-agricultural market access (NAMA) and the four Singapore Issues (investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation).

The completion of the Doha Agenda is being promoted by the WTO and its supporters as necessary to enable the multilateral trading system to work for the poorest countries. But past experience has shown that the WTO’s major agreements have merely served to strengthen the monopoly power of the world’s largest corporations, many of which are based in the U.S..

Intellectual Property

One notorious example of how the WTO upholds corporate power is the TRIPS agreement, which corporations are using to deny poor countries access to low-cost generic versions of patented medicines. Although TRIPS allows compulsory licensing and parallel importing in the name of promoting public welfare, these have been challenged before the trade body by the big drug companies.

For example, South Africa imports cheap AIDS drugs from India, which produces generic versions of such medicines for a fraction of what is charged elsewhere. The U.S. pharmaceutical industry is threatening to challenge this practice before the WTO. If successful, millions of sick people in poor countries may be unable to afford much needed medicines.

Further, since intellectual property as defined by TRIPS allows plant varieties to be patented, the agreement undermines the food security of poor countries by exacerbating the already limited access to food and seed by poor farmers.

Under the TRIPS, local farmers must pay annual fees to use seeds patented by corporations, even if such seed varieties were the result of cross-breeding by farmers’ ancestors. Farmers who plant for their own and their family’s consumption can hardly afford to pay licensing fees and this would effectively deny them the right to use these seeds.

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