Why It's Good
That The Trade
Talks Broke Down
By Anuradha Mittal
Globe and Mail
19 September , 2003
'It's over. Talks
have collapsed and there is no agreement," said George Ong'wen,
Kenyan delegate at the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico.
His decision to stand up and walk away from the table on Sunday afternoon
forced the chair of the talks, Mexico's Luis Ernesto Derbez, to declare
that negotiations had broken down. Thus ended hopes that the 33 countries
attending would be able to inject new momentum into negotiations on
a global trade pact.
But this was not
necessarily bad news: As protesters in Cancun's streets learned the
news, festivities started on the barricades. They rightly saw the breakdown
as proof of a new resolve and tough-mindedness among developing countries.
The talks failed
-- for the second time in four years -- for a simple reason: irreconcilable
differences between the rich, developed nations and the poorer and developing
nations. The rich 20 per cent of WTO membership continues to ignore
every promise made to the other 80 per cent. Once the rich countries'
strong-arm tactics kept the poorer countries coming back to the table,
ready for compromise. Those tactics just won't work any more. And understanding
why is our only hope for finding a way forward.
The majority of
the developing countries are opposed to launching new negotiations on
the so-called Singapore rules -- proposals on investment, competition,
trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement that the
richest countries badly want in order to protect multinationals' interests
in developing countries -- until more basic issues are resolved. These
basic issues are longstanding divisions over the rich countries' agricultural
Cancun saw the emergence
of a new power group, the G21-plus -- an alliance of developing countries,
with Brazil, India and China at its heart. This group demands that the
U.S. and EU eliminate their agricultural subsidies, which amount to
$1-billion (U.S.) a day. Dismissed as "a grouping of the paralyzed,"
by Robert Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, the G21-plus represents
more than half the world's population and some two-thirds of its farmers.
Indeed, Mr. Zoellick's dismissal ensured that the group's demands were
heard loud and clear.
Meanwhile, on the
streets outside the talks, civil society protesters were making their
own strong statements. At "Camp Lee," farmers from around
the world marched day and night, among them Koreans commemorating the
death of Lee Kyung Hae, who had stabbed himself on the first day of
the talks while wearing the sign "WTO Kills Farmers." His
death in Cancun -- along with demonstrations and national mobilizations
in capitals around the world -- reinforced the G21 delegates' determination
to stay true to the will of their people.
For the first three
days, the conference focused mainly on the controversial agriculture
issue. And, indeed, the richest countries did make some shallow concessions;
texts were revised.
Then the conflict
intensified over Europe's insistence on resolving the Singapore issues
even without an explicit consensus from the member countries to start
negotiations. The developing countries were outraged that their concerns
around agriculture had been left out.
The WTO has long
been plagued by secret negotiations and the use of brute power. Transparency
and accountability are essential to any democratic decision-making process.
So the text revisions only had the effect of intensifying rather than
reducing feelings of polarization.
The collapse of
talks raises fundamental questions about the future of the WTO. While
various ministers have expressed their commitment to move ahead, the
Cancun failure is a severe blow not just for the WTO, but also for other
multilateral trade agreements such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas
In the press conference
following the collapse of talks, Pascal Lamy, the European Trade Commissioner,
branded the WTO as "a medieval organization" and called for
fundamental reform of the 146-member group. He conveniently ignored
the fact that following the WTO's previous talks in Doha, developing
countries had put forward proposals for making future talks more participatory
and transparent. It was the EU and other developed nations that blocked
Just before Cancun,
developing countries and NGOs again tried to raise the issues of internal
transparency and improved participation at the WTO. However, any attempts
to make the WTO democratic or accountable have been swept aside by the
Lack of attention
to the demands and legitimate concerns of the developing countries shows
that the promise of free trade has failed the poorest and the most vulnerable
in our society. It has also disappointed those civil society groups
in the richer countries.
But Cancun is not
a failure -- for it offers a lesson: Strong-arm tactics are not going
to work any more. And no agreement is better than a bad agreement.
is co-director of the California-based Institute for Food and Development
Policy, also known as Food First. She was in Cancun.