Sunday, November 19, 2000

Closed-door process needs change

World Trade: A global debate

        Lori Wallach, author of this guest column, is director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, a Washington-based group calling for more public participation in international trade agreements.

        TABD does not stand for Truly Appalling Backroom Deals, but it should. The TransAtlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) is a coalition of U.S. and European CEOs that has been key in pushing World Trade Organization (WTO) expansion.

        TABD provides an official path for corporations to make countless policy demands of the U.S. and European governments about removing “barriers to trade.” But what TABD corporations think of as trade barriers are what we cherish as our key worker protection, consumer safety and environmental laws that guard the public health, protect us from unsafe products and keep our air and water clean.

        TABD's overarching goals of corporate globalization, elimination of public interest safeguards and privatization are succinctly summarized in its annual report.

        “The new obstacles to trade are now domestic regulations,” TABD declares, listing on its astonishing Web site many of our cherished laws and regulations as trade barriers that must be eliminated. TABD wants to replace public services with private services, replace government inspection with company self-inspection, and impose uniform global rules on the diversity of democratically achieved domestic policies.

        For example, TABD companies back an international standard which could dangerously narrow emergency exit aisle widths on airplanes in order to pack in more passengers, and another international standard which could dumb down U.S. protections against cell phone radiation.

        Sometimes people talk about corporations ruling the world, but this sounds like the real thing.

        First, TABD is a powerful promoter of the WTO's system of strictly limiting people's choices with regard to domestic policy. The WTO has tribunals in Geneva, Switzerland comprised of three trade bureaucrats who are empowered to decide if a nation's worker, consumer and environmental safeguards are illegal “barriers to trade,” even if they treat domestic and foreign goods or investors alike.

        Once the WTO rules, a country must change its “WTO-illegal” laws or pay millions of dollars in trade sanctions. For example, a 1998 WTO tribunal ruled that a U.S. Endangered Species Act regulation implementing a global environmental treaty violated WTO rules. The U.S. regulation required all shrimp sold in the U.S. to be caught with nets that include inexpensive turtle-excluder devices (TEDs) to prevent endangered sea turtles from becoming ensnared in the nets and drowning. After the WTO ruling, the U.S. changed the rule to allow shrimp from countries that do not require their shrimp fishers to use TEDs. But this change did not go far enough for some countries, and now the underlying Endangered Species Act has been newly attacked at the WTO.

        Second, TABD wants to get around the checks and balances of democratic, accountable policymaking so it can get its special-interest results. For instance, it wants the U.S. and Europe to establish all their product regulations in global organizations that often provide for corporate, but not citizen, representation. Indeed, thanks largely to TABD, many of our new auto safety regulations will now be negotiated in Geneva; TABD wants all the rules governing the safety of the food on your table to be set by a Rome-based organization dominated by agribusiness called the Codex Alimentarius Commission; and, already, many global aviation safety standards are being negotiated behind closed doors at Boeing's headquarters in Seattle.

        Consumers cannot participate in many of these international bodies, and even if they can go to meetings as “observers,” they cannot possibly afford to fly all over the world to attend frequent meetings. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S. system of democratic, accountable policy-making, which requires free access to documents, public meetings, and the right to comment in writing on draft proposals.

        Just how influential is this TABD? According to Stuart Eizenstat, a former top State Department official, “The TABD has become deeply enmeshed and embedded into the U.S. government decision-making process on a whole range of regulatory, trade and commercial issues. The TABD has had truly remarkable impact in our country, in the Transatlantic dialogue, and multilaterally.”

        In contrast, consumer, labor and environmental dialogues belatedly created to balance the growing awareness of TABD's influence are ignored and marginalized by the same governments that dote on TABD's every demand.

        The one-year anniversary of the spectacular collapse of WTO negotiations in Seattle is fast approaching. Little has changed regarding the closed-door and undemocratic manner in which the U.S. government develops its international trade agenda, thus we can expect to see more unacceptable, backwards corporate-managed trade deals. Until there are significant changes in process and policy, civil society will have no option but to knock loudly upon closed doors.


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