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The Time the WTO Yawned at the Revolution

In a Covid-19 world, revisiting the WTO talks in 1999 sheds light on what developing countries can do to end the pandemic.

In These Times Editors

Environmental activists and police clash on the streets as protestors attempt to block delegates of the World Trade Organization from attending an annual meeting on November 30, 1999 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

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The World Trade Organization has been on the defensive during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many groups and countries calling for waivers on international patent rights for vaccines so they might possibly be cheaply manufactured and urgently distributed around the world. Do developing countries stand a fighting chance?

Outside the hall, tear gas and rubber bullets are being used on protesters. In the meeting, faint snoring can now be heard. ... The meeting continues with the poorer countries more or less against the proposals.

One case study comes from John Vidal, covering the Battle of Seattle in 1999 — specifically, the collapse of the talks at the WTO that year. What is less remembered about the historic conference is how poor countries banded together to reject demands from rich countries to expand free-market capitalism even more.

In January 2000, John Vidal wrote:

Four tables, each 30 yards long. More than 100 ministers each sit opposite a diplomat or civil servant. A few observers line two walls. It is standing room only in Hall 6B. Of those present, 90 percent are middle-aged men in dark suits. The women wear bright scarves. …

The working party of the World Trade Organization’s Singapore Group and Other Issues” is forbidden territory to the 3,000 journalists in Seattle and the nongovernmental organizations baying for information about the talks. But to the thousands who are in Seattle to express their misgivings about the WTO, and who have been arrested for marching outside the convention center in pursuit of accountability and open negotiations,
it is like the far side of the moon.

I have access to the talks because, in its incompetence, the WTO has issued me the wrong accreditation. Instead of a green press card they have given me a nice blue delegate one. In short, I am a sort of least developed country. …

The five WTO working groups are where countries meet each day to thrash out some common ground. If the gap between them is too large, then they either enter bilateral agreements with each other or they can be called in by Michael Moore, the WTO director general, to negotiations. … It’s called international diplomacy.

In the packed hall, the afternoon meeting is trying to establish whether the WTO should include talks over investments and competition in the next round of negotiations. Investment and competition are huge issues, with ramifications for democracy and sovereignty. If the WTO secretariat can get countries to reach any sort of agreement, these issues will be on the new trade agenda, and three years from now, after long talks in Geneva, all 135 WTO countries might have to amend their laws to allow, say, foreign companies equal access to their markets.

The NGOs are deeply worried that this would be a charter for transnational companies to go anywhere they like. They fear that eventually no country will be allowed to protect its own national interests. It seems there should be a stirring debate. The delegates look bored. The gavel bangs and the deputy chair announces that many ministers have been detained not by protesters, but by talks with President Clinton. But the meeting should go ahead, he says. …

Some basic political decisions need to be taken,” he says. The question is whether member countries are ready to start liberalizing and harmonizing their investment and competition laws, or whether they should continue to debate as they have for the past three years. …

Most rich countries, including Britain, want the new round to include the investment and competition clauses. The poor say repeatedly that they are not ready and it would be unfair because they do not yet have the basic laws in place. The richest 29 countries in the world tried to get a major investment treaty passed in the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) last year. They failed after campaigning led by more than 600 environmental and consumer groups around the world. The investment issue was passed to the WTO. …

Outside the hall, tear gas and rubber bullets are being used on protesters. In the meeting, faint snoring can now be heard. … The meeting continues with the poorer countries more or less against the proposals and the middle-income ones swinging both ways.

The delegate from the Czech Republic booms his approval for further liberalization but the United States is hesitant, if only because it is worried that the proposal to liberalize investments and competition might rebound on its own protectionist attitude toward agriculture. We feel it’s important not to prejudge the issues,” says a squeaky American voice. He suggests substituting a more focused way” and urges the other delegates to listen to civil society.” …

In the far distance, one delegate is blowing bubblegum. One by one, the countries say their bit, but it looks as if the gap is far too wide to be bridged. The developing countries can breathe a sigh of relief.

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