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Global civil society celebrates failure of talks at World Trade Organization

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Photo: World Trade Organization/flickr

Yesterday in Geneva, WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo announced that governments have failed to reach agreement on a "Bali package" in advance of the December 3-6 Ministerial meeting in that city. The Council of Canadians, along with the global Our World Is Not For Sale (OWINFS) network, which has long opposed the talks on "trade facilitation" (see June letter), celebrated this outcome, while urging governments to focus their time in Bali on making permanent changes to WTO rules to allow developing countries to pursue food security.

A deal on trade facilitation would have bound developing countries to the customs and port-of-entry policies and procedures that rich countries have implemented over many decades to their own advantage, imposing excessive regulatory, human resources, and technological burdens on developing countries. At the same time, developed countries have been unwilling to commit to providing resources for poor countries to modernize their facilities, meaning that they would have to prioritize computerizing their customs offices over their schools, and improving infrastructure at ports rather than at hospitals. The United States and its allies, including Canada, have tried to spin this deal as a "win-win" for developing countries, but they saw through that farce and didn't give in to U.S. bullying.

OWINFS calls on WTO members to continue negotiations toward addressing historical imbalances and existing unfair and damaging rules in the WTO through the other aspects of the "Bali package," including agriculture and policy changes to benefit Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Unbelievably, existing WTO rules allow developed countries to massively subsidize their agriculture (to the tens or hundreds of billions annually) while only 17 developing countries are allowed to subsidize over a minimal amount.

As poor farmers make up a large percentage of the "bottom billion," removing this limit to food security in the WTO is the most sensible way the international community can reduce hunger, poverty, and inequality. In the last year, India has courageously led a coalition, including dozens of other developing countries, to demand that WTO rules change to allow them to subsidize farmers producing food for domestic consumption, so that they can implement a national food security law, and reach the Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger.

Unfortunately, the United States has stubbornly blocked this proposal, flatly refusing to negotiate on it during the year while also refusing to agree to significantly reduce their own agribusiness subsidies. Thus the current debate focuses on a potential "Peace Clause" -- a temporary moratorium on WTO disputes on the food rules in question.

This clause would only make sense if it were to be in effect until a permanent change to the rules could be agreed upon, says OWINFS. But WTO Director General Azevêdo proposed a "compromise" instead that would last only for four years, with no requirement that a permanent solution be agreed. The compromise required developing countries to prove that their domestic subsidies do not distort trade -- while developed countries would still be allowed to spend billions on trade-distorting subsidies.

Press reports blaming India for blocking such a "compromise" show a little grasp of the current WTO rules, or outright bias towards the United States. Global civil society sent a letter last week, urging governments to reject a temporary fix and instead negotiate a permanent solution to remove WTO obstacles to Food Security.

In addition, global civil society called on members to approve a package of policy changes to allow LDCs to gain more from global trade. Now that talks on expanding the WTO have collapsed, members should take advantage of the time in Bali to discuss an urgent agenda of transforming existing rules to allow countries to pursue food security policies, as well as jobs, sustainable development, access to affordable healthcare and medicines, and global financial stability. Proposals to achieve these, as well as other changes that should be made to the global trading system, form the Turnaround Agenda endorsed by nearly 250 civil society groups -- including development advocates, trade unions, farmers groups, environmental and consumer organizations -- from more than 100 developing and developed countries from across the globe.

The post-Bali agenda should also leave aside other efforts to expand the WTO's failed corporate globalization agenda. In particular, letters urging caution in the talks to expand the Information Technology Agreement, and urging governments to abandon talks towards a Trade in Services Agreement, have demonstrated widespread global civil society opposition to that direction of the WTO negotiations.

Photo: World Trade Organization/flickr

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