The WTO as a neoliberal project: Testimonies from people of the Global South

Liza Maza of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle criticizes the World Trade Organization (WTO) during the November 30 protest in Manila. (Photo by Carlo Manalansan / Bulatlat)


Global peoples’ movements addressed the sudden postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World trade Organization (WTO) with an International Day of Action Against the WTO on November 30.

The WTO’s MC12 was supposed to start on November 30 and run until December 3 but was postponed after COVID-19 strain Omicron was declared a ‘variant of concern.’ But even before this postponement, member governments of the WTO have always prioritized in their negotiations the policies in tariffs and quotas that basically maintain the neoliberal framework in trade – destroying people’s lives, livelihoods, and the environment. 

The conference was postponed at a time of a world economy shaken by major economic contraction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Grassroots and civil society organizations have underscored that the current and post-pandemic trade recovery proposed by WTO remains in the service of super profits and corporate agenda. 

“This global trade regime is to blame for the continued deaths in the pandemic. WTO has stolen our right to health, livelihood; and for it to continue to exist would cost us our lives and our future,” said Filipina activist Liza Maza in front of farmers and workers who were also commemorating the 158th birth anniversary of Filipino anti-colonial hero Andres Bonifacio in Manila, Tuesday.  

Vaccine patents tantamount to WTO’s inhumanity

Even before the postponement of the MC12, there had been a deadlock in the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver negotiations. According to Maza, more deadly mutations of the COVID-19 virus could have been prevented if patents for the vaccine and treatments have been waived. “A no response from the waiver amounts to inaction and culpability to the rising COVID-19 deaths in the world. This is inhumane,” Maza adds.

In an online forum organized by the People Over Profit (POP) last November 24 titled “A Future Without WTO: People’s Health and Livelihood Over Profit”, doctors, health workers, peasant and fisherfolk organizations shared their testimonies on how the WTO has intensified global inequality and degradation of their rights. 

“The TRIPS was really put as an issue of trade, rather than an issue of health. It’s not just COVID-19 that’s killing the global people, we are being killed by many diseases because antibiotics are very expensive, and because they are still covered by patents,” said Edelina dela Paz of Health Alliance for Democracy.

Last October 2020, India and South Africa proposed the TRIPS waiver and was later supported by more than 100 countries. Addressed to the WTO, the waiver seeks to remove intellectual property rights barriers for the vaccine and COVID-19 prevention, containment and treatment technologies. More than a year later, a resolution is nowhere in sight. 

“The only time WTO can be relevant in this health emergency, they failed to rise up to the challenge of urgently passing the TRIPS waiver. This speaks volumes on how much they care more about profit of Big Pharma than human lives,” said POP, a network of organizations campaigning against free trade agreements (FTAs) and corporate plunder.  

Subsidies for corporations, none for the working peoples

The crisis of neoliberalism has been widely discussed long before the outbreak of the COVID-19. The pandemic has even further exposed deep shortcomings in the dominant mode of global economic and political organizations reflected by the WTO. The free trade agreements brokered and promoted by the WTO have perpetuated this system of inequality between nations of the North and the South.

The organization exerts extraordinary power in a world where international trade agreements can override not only national economic policies but even multilateral agreements that relate to labor, human rights or environmental protection.

WTO has been negotiating the fisheries subsidies for more than 20 years and was supposed to be tabled at the MC12. However, fisherfolk groups and environmentalists have been asserting that it will do more harm than good. 

“We are very worried about this [fisheries] subsidy. It should go directly to our small fishers and not predatory fleets that continue to deplete our fish stocks and violate our right to livelihood,” said Zoila Bustamante of People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty-Latin America and the Caribbean (PCFS-LAC).

Contrary to the WTO, people’s movements assert that global fisheries and food systems are not merely an issue of trade but one of people’s rights, ecosystems, food sovereignty, and genuine development. For instance, more than 80 percent of subsidies today go to large export-oriented fleets which left millions of small-scale fisherfolk and fishworkers wanting, poor and neglected.

In the Philippines, the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF) Law has treated below-subsistence Filipino fisherfolk as criminals for attempts to survive through their livelihood. It continues to deny that crises in fisheries were perpetrated by the industrial fishing sector of imperialist economies, and global trade racing for giant profits. It has treated countries like the Philippines as mere adjunct to the major global market for fish products.

“Despite WTO’s apparent policy of allocating the majority of subsidies to corporate fishing, it has hypocritically claimed to advocate for ocean conservation and equal opportunity,” said PAMALAKAYA Philippines Chairperson Fernando Hicap who marched in one of the globally coordinated actions versus WTO.

“Filipino fisherfolk demand to uphold sustainable fisheries by giving small-scale and artisanal fisherfolk sectors around the globe, more and adequate subsidies in the framework of social justice, right to food, right to work and equal renumeration,” Hicap added.

With the WTO’s direction, neighboring agricultural countries like India are pursuing a neoliberal economy which subsequently increased foreign direct investments causing the corporatization of lands and resources.

“It is not just targeting our lands, but also the neoliberal agenda in agriculture. For example, the free-trade agreement has also led to dumping of our agricultural products controlled by corporate bodies.  It has affected many Indigenous Peoples across Asia and even in my part of the world here in Manipur in the north east part of India,” said Jiten Yumnam of the Asian Peasant Coalition – Pakistan.

WTO as a neoliberal evil, organization for corporate greed

Critics, including most aid agencies, say that the WTO has done little that could be described as ‘beneficial’ to developing countries. Instead, it has presided over a system that has forced open poor world markets to the advantage of the rich world and its corporations. The result has been deepening poverty and inequality.

The formal meetings like the ministerial conferences, meanwhile, are ‘just a ritual’. For those left out in the cold, it is infuriating. Developing countries have been repeatedly pushed into accepting agreements that damage their interests. Equally distorting is the power and access given to transnational corporations by the WTO.

As if its impacts on developing countries aren’t enough, the WTO continues to interlock its policies with similar institutions of greed such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. This has tremendously affected poor countries. These institutions hide under the guise of ‘coherence’ while people from the ground have known full well that this jargon has always been a sorry excuse for WTO’s corporate agenda and business-as-usual provisions. 
Fight for a future without WTO

The WTO MC12 may have been postponed, but definitely not in the case of people’s protests around the world. Social movements in the global south, led by POP, ILPS, health workers, and peasant organizations participated in yesterday’s International Day of Action against WTO. 

In the Philippines, labor and peasant groups led the mobilization in Manila with the banner calls “Junk WTO” and “Prioritize People’s Health Over Profit”. Simultaneous on-ground protests were also organized by groups in Hong Kong, Indonesia, US, Latin America, Africa. A culminating online action was also organized last night titled “Forging Solidarity for a World without WTO”.

“The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference that is supposed to commence face-to-face on November 30 may have been postponed, but not the negotiations. The postponement also adds legitimacy and urgency to our call of waiving the TRIPS, which kept the needed technologies to fight and end the COVID-19 pandemic in the hands of Big Pharma and beyond the reach of the peoples from the South”, POP said in a statement. 

“There is no postponement in fighting for the people’s rights to a future without plunder and neoliberal greed. Now, we not just condemn its inutility amid this health emergency but we are determined to forge a future without WTO,” Maza ended. (

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