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June 2003

    Trade Conference Challenges WTO Agenda
    Marco Procaccini

    The major corporate media may not want to report on it, but the World Trade Organization is alive and well and will be meeting this September, and our federal government seems ready to let it run our country, according to a recent trade and investment conference in Vancouver.

    “Canada is continuing to pursue a ‘deregulation’ agenda by agreeing to let WTO panels decide our economic standards, zoning bylaws, environmental and health and safety, business hours and other standards,” says Ellen Gould, veteran trade and investment researcher who spoke at the conference. “Any laws or bylaws or standards set by any government can be challenged (by a corporation) at these WTO panels, which will decide what is acceptable.”

    Gould says, like the panels of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the WTO panels are made up of life-time appointed trade and fiscal bureaucrats and corporate executives who make rulings in secret and are not subject to public scrutiny or the judicial system.

    She adds Ottawa is once again supporting the creation of an international capital investment regime similar to the failed Multi-Lateral Agreement on Investment in 1999. The MAI called for turning control and regulation of all multi-national investments and capital deployment over to similar secretive tribunals.

    The proposed deal was being negotiated in secret, starting in 1997. However, it was made public through the efforts of labour unions, non-governmental organizations and concerned citizens. As news of the MAI became more public, opposition to it began to grow. Finally, two years later the deal was scrapped.

    “The government released a study claiming these type of investment regimes don’t actually increase investment in national economies,” she said. “Yet they keep on promoting them. They got really bruised over the MAI. So this agreement isn’t exactly the same. But it is based on the same idea.”

    Federal government officials repeatedly insist they are not trying to revive the MAI, nor are they giving away the sovereignty of the country to the WTO. However, they have admitted through various reports that they pursuing the idea of creating a regulatory regime that is “less burdensome to multi-national corporations,” she said.

    Gould agrees these regimes, including NAFTA, are not about “free trade” between countries as much as they are about “taking regulatory power out of public hands and putting into private ones.”

    The WTO, Gould says, is being empowered to administer a variety of international trade, investment and regulatory standards agreements, such as the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs (GATT) and the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), though its secret tribunals. Currently, 28 broad international agreements are under its control.

    NAFTA, which by WTO standards is considered a regional agreement, is administered by similar tribunals appointed by the national governments of the signatory countries (Canada, United States and Mexico). It is not directly administered by the WTO.

    However, Gould says its provisions are largely harmonized with the WTO, and the same corporate take-over of trade regulation applies. More secretive negotiations are under way to expand NAFTA to all countries in North and South America. This proposed pact is called the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

    “Any standard that is higher, or is less favourable to multi-national corporations, is ruled as invalid,” she said. Anyone who does not comply with any ruling is subject to trade retaliation and economic sanctions.

    Despite this, a recent Ipsos-Ried poll claimed that about half of Canadians feel NAFTA has been an overall benefit to the country, and 70 per cent say we should stay in the agreement regardless of whether or not it is beneficial.

    But Gould says the proof of the failure of such agreements is in the track record of trade disputes between the participating countries.

    “The signing of these agreements has not lessened the number of trade disputes between Canada and the US,” said. “They haven’t stopped the US government from taking unilateral action against Canada, like with the Softwood Lumber Tariff, which has really hurt our economy.”

    The conference, sponsored by the Council of Canadians, was held to inform people about these trade regimes and the current negotiations for the upcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun this September.


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