Politics & Policy

Death and The Wto

The WTO’s mission creep may lead to the organization’s suicide.

CANCUN, MEXICO — If suicide is the ultimate act of self-destruction, then the suicide of a Korean farmer and long-time political activist, who killed himself this week to protest World Trade Organization (WTO) policies, serves as a reminder of the self-destruction at the heart of the anti-globalization and anti-WTO movement.

According to witnesses, at a protest by hundreds of “globalphobics” (as the native Mexicans are calling them down here) on the opening day of the WTO’s Fifth Ministerial Meeting, Kun Hai Lee (alternatively known as Lee Kyung-hae) stood in front of police barricades and declared that “the WTO kills farmers.” With that, he knifed himself to protest the WTO’s agricultural policies. He died later at a Cancun hospital.

Weirdly enough at this vibrant and sunny beachside resort, murder — self-inflicted or otherwise — has become a major theme of the conference.

Earlier in the week, the Center for a New Europe, a Brussels-based think tank, released a report claiming that European agricultural policies were responsible for killing thousands of people in developing countries. The report says that “EU trade barriers kill one person every 13 seconds.”

According to the report, “Trade barriers imposed by the EU are more than just a technical issue. Lack of access to the European market — by far the richest in the world — slows development in the poorest countries of the world, condemns thousands of millions of people to poverty and kills many others.”

And before the conference even started, an organization called Christian Aid dubbed Europe “The Undertaker of the Development Round” for its agricultural policies. Criticizing the EU’s repeated delays of CAP reform and other efforts to lower trade barriers, Oisin Coghlan, an NGO representative for the Irish government delegation, said “each broken promise bangs another nail in the coffin.”

This disgust with European agricultural policies crosses political boundaries. Left-leaning voices such as the New York Times and Washington Post editorial pages, as well as NGOs such as OxFam, repeat the same arguments made by the Wall Street Journal and the Cato Institute.

So if agricultural barriers are so obviously a moral horror, and if there is such a thorough consensus across the political spectrum arguing that Europeans (and Americans) should eliminate them, why is it taking so long to tear down these barriers to trade?

The answer is complicated, and certainly domestic political farm lobbies are partly responsible. But some of the blame — indeed much of the blame — rests with the anti-globalization activists and protest groups who this week mourn a compatriot who took his own life.

The World Trade Organization is primarily an economic organization, designed to facilitate the reduction of obstacles to trade. In a booklet called “Understand the WTO,” the WTO defines itself thusly: “Simply put: the World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the rules of trade between nations at a global or near-global level.” And in a sense, it really should be that simple. But it’s not been allowed to remain simple for long.

Since its inception in 1995, activists and ideologues have looked to transform the WTO, to expand its mission and scope. For them, it’s not enough for the WTO to work on tearing down trade barriers — a difficult enough task in its own right. Instead, for green groups like Greenpeace and Worldwide Fund for Nature, the WTO must also work to influence environmental standards around the globe. Labor unions and other organizations want the WTO to enforce global labor standards. Health activists, such as the group Doctors Without Borders, insist the organization must also weaken intellectual property rights, which they believe will help boost global health and medical provision.

To be sure, the realm of global trade touches on the environment, labor, and healthcare, just as it does a host of other issues. But activists and NGOs have lobbied the Organization so effectively to focus on their pet concerns that the WTO has now moved a considerable distance away from concentrating on its core mission.

Consider that on the day before the conference began, the European Union delegation hosted an all-day conference to celebrate what it called “Sustainable Trade Day.” The focus was not of trade itself, or on reducing obstacles to trade. Instead it centered on questions of “sustainability” — green regulations, labor standards, and the like.

Even the United States, generally perceived to be the most pro free-trade member nation, is facilitating the WTO’s mission creep. At a panel its delegation hosted on trade and the environment, the Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Environment and Natural Resources, Mark Linscott, addressed the intersection of trade and the environment. He said the United States was looking forward to working with NGOs on finding ways to tackle concerns about the impact of global trade on the environment. When I asked him if there would be any discussion of alarmist environmental barriers to trade — such as European restrictions on trade in genetically modified foods — he said “there was not a negotiation on that this week.”

In other words, the WTO would be focusing on the potential harms done by free trade, and not on the barriers blocking trade from happening in the first place.

There is still hope that the WTO can reach an agreement on tearing down indefensible European and American trade distorting subsidies that prevent the developing world from getting on the path to prosperity. But given the large and ever-increasing number of issues the organization must — at the sometimes violent insistence of interest groups and activists — concern itself with, it will be little wonder if the WTO fails to take concrete action on anything of substance this week.

That would be a shame, for a Korean farmer will have taken his life in vain. In a sad irony, his compatriots in the protest and NGO communities have only themselves to blame for the WTO’s failures to help the world’s poor farmers.

Nick Schulz is editor of Tech Central Station.


The Latest