Free trade,
closed minds
– W.T.O.

□  PETER GARRETT argues that
the World Trade Organisation
talks in Seattle will have a
lasting impact on the way we
live our lives.
THE fact that the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation has blown up should not surprise anyone with a passing interest in the free trade debate.
   Public discontent is inevitable when the powerful WTO produces policy which, for instance, penalises a government trying to protect endangered sea creatures such as dolphins and turtles, as happened recently with a United States ban on shrimp imports.

"Free trade, closed minds"
Peter Garrett

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    WTO concerns are about the impact of trade agreements on issues such as environment, health, safety and jobs which are important to people everywhere.
    People want to know, for example, whether our old-growth forests could be logged because the WTO will allow a multinational company to override local laws in the name of free trade.
    We want to know whether the WTO will allow genetically modified food exporters to sell their products without labelling, despite health concerns.
    The secondary issue of process also is a driving factor in the disquiet that surrounds the WTO.
    Behind closed doors, government-to-government negotiations are no longer accepted as out of bounds to citizens.
Mr Downer
refers to
most of the
world's aid

    In this era of an emerging global economy dominated by immensely powerful transnational corporations, competing forces are at play.
    Increasing local activism, Web [Internet] networking and community scrutiny of international politics are as important as national governments in contesting, or at least mediating, the activities of these financial juggernauts.
    A politically literate community needs openness and participation to ensure public confidence in negotiations of this scale.
    The Australian Government's decision to prohibit environmental and social justice organisations, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Council of Social Services, and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, from attending as part of the Australian delegation, while allowing business and farming groups this privileged status, is a poor one.
    We accept that there is a real national interest in ensuring that Australian farmers get a better deal and expect Australian representation on this issue to be vigorous.
    But the plain fact is that those negotiations have a profound impact on other key environmental and health issues, including the vexed question of regulation and labelling of GM [Genetically-Modified] foods.  Relevant non-government organisations [NGOs] have a right to be involved.
    While Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer calls those who oppose the WTO talks "Luddites", US President Bill Clinton agrees that there may be a case for expanding the trade negotiations to include employment and the environment.
    This would make good sense, unlike the examples of WTO skewing trade rules to override national laws, where for instance, asbestos exports to countries which banned the substance are challenged because the ban infringes on free trade.
    The Luddites Mr Downer refers to include most of the world's big aid and environmental organisations.
    The WTO's failure to take into account social and environmental objectives diminishes seriously its credibility and governments owe a duty to their citizens to open the doors on the WTO.
    Otherwise, disenchantment with the international system of trade will become an epidemic.    -- ©The West Australian, December 6 1999, p 14

  [COMMENT: Mr Garrett is also a qualified lawyer.  Because of the robust nature of the protestors in Seattle, the WTO opening ceremony had to be cancelled, and the following day the police etc. used tear gas etc. to clear the demonstrators.  The ministerial talks broke down because some blocs wanted to include human rights, safety and the ecology in trade agreements in future, and other blocs objected.  Those who oppose their inclusion by saying that other treaties cover such aspects forget that the other treaties provide no financial penalties, and so are usually ignored or defied if money or power is at stake.]
   {In The Weekend Australian of December 18-19, 1999, a Peter Garrett article "Genetic manipulation of food will be one of the most heated environmental issues of the future" was published in the Chronicles of the Future section, page 4.}

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