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WTO Doha trade round begins

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WTO summit plans next round of war against world's poor

After its disastrous Seattle meeting in 1999, the World Trade Organisation has retreated to the Gulf sultanate of Qatar for its 9-13 November gathering. Many delegations have been scaled down; most business delegates are staying away.

Those that do attend will be issued with gas masks in case of attacks from some of those enraged by the US-led war against Afghanistan and who rightly see in the WTO a key economic tool used by the same the forces responsible for carpet bombing one of the poorest countries in the world.

The WTO is as much a part of the rule of imperialist global system as the B52s over Afghanistan's skies. Trade rules rather than cluster bombs may be its chosen weapon of enforcement, but on a global scale its impact no less deadly.

The WTO was born in 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The GATT, dating from the end of the Second World War, was a treaty that committed the signatory nations to a long-term policy of reducing tariffs.

From the outset, GATT was a rich man's club that decided in which sectors free trade would be introduced and in which subsidies could be maintained. For example, the US and European countries insisted that their textile and agricultural sectors had to be protected from Third World imports, while also arguing that the poor nations had to open up their markets to the North's industrial products and the banks.

For example, the supposedly "temporary" Multi-Fibre Agreement, adopted in the 1950s, which protected the US cotton industry from competition, remains in force.

This combination of tearing down tariffs that obstructed its own exports and insisting on special treatment for its own industries and agriculture, served the United States well for 40 years.

By the 1990s, however, its needs had changed. Whereas in the 1950s, it had insisted on excluding agriculture from GATT rules in order to protect its own farming industry, it now wanted to exploit its much higher agricultural productivity.

As the US agriculture secretary, John Block, put it in 1986, "(The) idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products, which are available, in most cases at much lower cost."

Equally, the huge expansion of US-based "multinational corporations" especially after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s created new priorities. The USA, therefore, argued that GATT should be replaced by a new organisation, the World Trade Organisation.

As Walden Bello, has put it, "It was not global necessity that gave birth to the WTO in 1995. It was the USA's assessment that the interests of its operations were no longer served by a loose and flexible GATT but needed an all-powerful and wide-ranging WTO.

>From the free-market paradigm that underpins it, to the rules and regulations set forth in the different agreements that make up the Uruguay round, to its system of decision-making and accountability, the WTO is a blueprint for the global hegemony of corporate America. It seeks to institutionalise the accumulated advantages of US corporations."

The WTO had a larger brief than GATT. Not just agriculture, manufacture and services but its jurisdiction would also reach so-called "trade related investment measures (TRIM's)" and "trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS)".

The first of these sought to remove all barriers to cross-border trade between the subsidiaries of transnational corporations. Restrictions on investment have been reduced virtually everywhere in the 1990s. By 1997 1,330 investment treaties, involving 162 countries, were in place: three times as many as in 1992. TRIPS aims to consolidate the US advantage in the cutting-edge knowledge-intensive industries.

As well as extending the range of trade issues the WTO could deal with, US officials also wanted to create a much more powerful means of enforcing decisions. The decisions of the WTO's "dispute resolution mechanism" are now enforceable through sanctions and apply to all 142 member-countries, thus usurping the legislatures of second and third world nations and of local government.

As C.Fred Bergsten, head of the Institute of International Economics, told the US Senate, a strong WTO dispute settlement mechanism serves US interests because, "we can now use the full weight of the international machinery to go after those trade barriers, reduce them, get them eliminated."

Through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) it intends to bring virtually all areas of human existence under its purview. This would mean, for example, that governments would have to open up areas such as health, education, and energy production to international competition in which the multinational corporations would generally have the advantage over local providers.

GATS is nothing less than a privatisation charter. The European Union commission admits that: "It is first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business". The WTO's services director argued that "without the enormous pressure generated by the American financial sector, particular companies like American Express and Citicorp, there would have been no services agreement."

This agreement aims to break into the public sector and make health, education and transport provision open to competition from private sector. It excludes government services that are "not in competition with [private] services suppliers", but since most UK public services are already in competition at some level with private sector this is no protection at all.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) seek to reform the WTO by giving a greater say to the countries of the South. Others want to abolish the WTO and return to a looser GATT-type framework for negotiating trade flows, which would allow Third World countries greater scope for preserving domestic businesses through protectionism.

We agree with those NGOs that want to see the WTO scrapped and not simply reformed. The WTO has one sole aim: expanding corporate globalisation at the expense of the workers and small farmers of "North" and "South".

We are, however, wholly opposed to protectionism by the developed countries against the products of the global South. Here we are in favour of free trade. The answer to employers taking advantage of "cheap labour" in the less developed countries is not to exclude their goods by tariff barriers but to use trade union and democratic pressure to raise the wages and social conditions in these countries towards the levels of the OECD countries.

First and foremost this means defending the right to form trade unions and political parties to fight for these goals.

At the same time, however, we should oppose the prising open of the markets of the second and third worlds to the big banks and corporations of the first. We defend the right of such states to protect their economies. The best means to do so would be by a democratically organised state bureau of foreign trade.

Neither free trade nor protectionism can meet human needs and ensure development that is compatible with sustaining this planet. In contrast to any capitalist arrangements for global economic exchange we stand for planned social exchange instead of "free trade". Practically, this means that:

There must be no limit on the ability of governments and people to regulate in order to protect, health, safety, public services and the environment. End the drive to privatise social services where they are at present provided by the state. Defend and extend these services at the expense of the rich.

We must put an end to corporate patent protectionism. Seeds, medicine, the results of the study of plant, animal and human genetics should all serve human needs, not the profits of the multinationals. The patenting of life forms including micro organisms must be prohibited. Essential medicines and other goods, must be made available free to those in urgent need especially to people with AIDS.

All support for export oriented agribusinesses must be ended in Europe and North America. The dumping of their surplus products in Africa, Latin America and Asia must be halted.

The semi-colonial countries must be free to feed their people so as to maximise their own food production, maintain employment, and slow the tide of expropriated peasant farmers to the shantytowns of the ever growing mega cities. Only in this way can these countries achieve "food sovereignty and security", encourage small farmers' cooperatives and practice sustainable agriculture, which minimises environmental damage.

The WTO's Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) agreement must be junked. Third world countries must have the right to use locally produced goods to develop their own productive sectors.

There must be a 100 per cent write-off of Third World debts to the North's governments and banks. Instead, huge compensation funds for past exploitation must be levied from the big banks and corporations run under workers' inspection and control. With these funds under the control of third world workers and peasants' organisations to prevent corruption by the elites the problems of poverty eradication, development, health and education can begin to be tackled.

But an environmentally sustainable, socially just and democratically accountable trade system cannot be achieved under corporate capital's global rule.

Only social ownership of the means of production can lead to a genuinely democratic, planned exchange of goods and services across the world. But struggles to achieve some or all of these goals will expose to millions the neo-liberal free trade assault on the poor and train us to take over the world economy from the billionaires and the mega corporations.