June 28, 2000

The WTO: A New World Government Dedicated to the Principle That Property Interests Are More Sacred Than Human Rights

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What brought more than 50,000 trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights and social justice activists from all over the world into the streets of Seattle in late November and early December of last year to protest the World Trade Organization? They all understood: “Economic globalization is the number one threat to the survival of the natural world.” The global transfer of economic and political power from national governments to multinational corporations is a disaster for human rights, the environment, social welfare, agriculture, food safety, workers’ rights, national sovereignty and democracy.

This article analyzes the role and function of the World Trade Organization, which is dedicated to ‘free trade’ for trans-national corporations. It seeks to unveil the WTO’s myth that everyone’s interests will be protected if trade is allowed to flourish unfettered. In contrast to the National Lawyers Guild’s unifying principle – that human rights are more sacred than property interests – the WTO’s raison d’etre is the elevation of property interests above the protection of human rights.


In a 1999 human development report, the United Nations found that even though globalization has resulted in skyrocketing net capital flows in countries such as Indonesia, prosperity has not trickled down. The gap between rich and poor has increased geometrically because of the global trading system.

As a result of globalization, wages of low-income workers in the United States have dropped, while corporate profits have soared to record heights. The affected workers include large numbers of women and people of color. In developing countries, poverty has increased as governments have slashed funding for food and social programs in order to promote export-oriented agriculture.

In the six years since the enactment of NAFTA, poverty in Mexico has increased as wages have dropped. The United States trade deficit with Mexico has mushroomed. Most NAFTA-related job losses have occurred in the apparel and electronics industries, prime employers of women and people of color. A study by the International Labor Organization reported a “widening earnings gap between TCF [textile, clothing and footwear] workers in higher and lower-income countries.”


Globalization has been a boon to the multinational corporations – at the expense of of us all. Ironically, the states that have joined the WTO have ceded it the power to prevent them from protecting their own people because they are economically beholden to the multinational corporations.

Who runs the WTO? A self-anointed group of security-cleared trade advisors to the WTO, it is a veritable “Who’s Who” of representatives of global corporations and industrial interests, including several Fortune 500 corporations. Further, representatives of the 135 WTO member countries meet in secret, excluding non-governmental organizations representing labor, environmental, human rights and social justice interests.

Any WTO member country can challenge rules or laws of another country as “trade barriers.” Moreover, the WTO has the power to levy huge fines against offenders. Its enforcement mechanism emanates from a structure encompassing all three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – and aspiring to wield more power than the United Nations. Indeed, the U.S. has committed itself to abide by WTO rulings while it has routinely ignored UN resolutions opposing its actions. In a 1994 speech promoting United States approval of the WTO, GATT Director General Peter Sutherland said, “Governments should interfere in the conduct of trade as little as possible.” Not surprisingly, WTO rulings have upheld the interests of trans-national corporations in every instance that an environmental, labor, health and safety, or human rights protection has been challenged as a ‘trade barrier.”


The WTO contains no specific agreement on the protection of the environment. Articles I, III, XI and XX, which are derived from GATT, actually militate against protecting the environment.

Article I – Most Favored Nation Treatment – prohibits governments and citizens from setting standards that favor goods produced under more environmentally sustainable conditions. For example, the WTO ruled in 1998 that a country cannot place restrictions on the importation of products such as shrimp, based on the way they are produced. In that case, the restriction was aimed at protecting endangered sea turtles.

Article III – National Treatment – restricts nations from giving more favorable treatment to domestic goods that may be produced in a safer, more humane or environmentally friendly manner. A pre-WTO GATT ruling struck down a United States law that banned the importation of tuna caught in nets lethal to dolphins. The Acourt said that no distinction could be made between the process and the product. In other words, the end justified the means.

Article XI – Elimination of Import and Export Controls – specifies that WTO members cannot limit imports or exports of resources or produce across their borders, effectively eliminating a nation=s right to allocate its own natural resources. This provision nullifies the prohibition against trade in endangered species. Hundreds of species are becoming endangered each year, drastically upsetting the balance of nature.

Article XX – General Exceptions – provides that nothing in the WTO agreement shall prevent measures necessary to protect human, animal or plant life, or health or natural resources. WTO apologists frequently cite this article as evidence that human and environmental concerns are protected. But whenever it has been invoked, a trade dispute panel found a rationalization to avoid its application. Thus far, the WTO study group on trade and the environment has focused more on avoiding environmental impediments to trade than on protecting the environment. The WTO struck down an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule requiring gasoline refineries to produce cleaner gas in order to reduce air pollution. As a result, the EPA, which administers the Clean Air Act, was forced to lower its standards to allow dirtier gasoline.

In each and every environmental case that has come before it, the WTO has ruled against protecting the environment and in favor of protecting the interests of big business.


The World Health Organization reported in 1996 that the globalization of the food supply was a growing cause of illness worldwide. Under its rules, countries are not required to maintain minimum health and safety standards, but can be penalized for setting higher standards than those set by the WTO. The WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures restricts what governments can do to regulate food and agriculture for the protection of the environment, human, animal and plant health and the food supply.

Many countries base their health and food safety regulations on the Aprecautionary principle, where the substance stays off the market until proven safe. Two WTO rulings turn the precautionary principle on its head. In one case, the European Union banned the non-therapeutic use of artificial beef hormones, citing several studies showing that these hormones could cause cancer. The United States successfully challenged Canada and the European Union. The ruling demanded a showing of scientific certainty that hormones cause cancer and thereby voided the ban. The European Union refused to cave in to U.S. pressure and was hit with $115 million in WTO-authorized trade sanctions.

The United States also successfully challenged Japan=s health-related pesticide residue testing regulations for agricultural imports. Because Japan=s standards exceeded those of the WTO, Japanese people must now accept produce with higher levels of toxic pesticides than their own government deems safe.

The WTO threatens the health and safety of everyone but the global corporations.


In Burma (Myanmar), Asoldiers committed serious human rights abuses, including extra judicial killing and rape, according to a U.S. State Department report. The Special Rapporteur to the UN Commission on Human Rights reported Aextrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced disappearances, torture, abuse of women and children by government agents.@ Violations of the rights of women – particularly Aforced labor, sexual violence and exploitation, including rape@ – were also documented. The International Labor Organization found that the civilian population, especially women and children, was being used for forced labor.

In 1966, Massachusetts enacted a law barring companies that do business with Burma from bidding on large public contracts in the state. But the European Union and Japan challenged the Massachusetts law as unfair Ato the trade and investment community. They cited the WTO 1994 Agreement on Government Procurement, which prohibits consideration of non-commercial factors, such as human rights, in governmental purchasing decisions.

A U.S. district court in Massachusetts ruled in 1998 that municipalities and states cannot interfere in foreign policy when there is a “great potential for disruption and embarrassment.” That ruling was upheld by a federal appellate court in 1999. The case is currently pending in the United States Supreme Court, so the WTO challenge is on hold.

China will soon join the WTO. Human rights violations by China created controversy within the United States Congress before it granted China Amost-favored nation trading status. The contradiction was aptly described by Lhadon Tethong, a Canadian-born Tibetan who represents Students For A Free Tibet:
The idea that the world trade organization can supersede sovereign countries laws is really terrifying when you think of it from the aspect of human rights.

We are insisting that China take some responsibility and deal with the worsening situation in Tibet, in Inner Mongolia, in E. Turkestan, in China itself.

Ideally, we would like to work toward some economic sanctions, like the divestment campaigns that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa.

But once China gets into the WTO – which looks imminent – it can challenge any economic leverage we have and argue that it is a barrier to free trade.

We have a duty and an obligation to press for the idea that yes, trade is not a bad thing, but let=s play at a fair level, a level where trade does not undermine a people=s right to self-determination.

The WTO has consistently chosen the protection of property over the sanctity of human rights.


The WTO has delegated jurisdiction over labor matters to the International Labor Organization (ILO). But the ILO, unlike the WTO, has no enforcement power when it finds violations of labor rights. The United States has ratified only 11 of the 182 conventions of the ILO. Most of the conventions ratified by the U.S. deal with maritime labor. Only two of them deal with fundamental human rights – the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.
According to the ILO, more than 250 million children between the ages 5 of 15 work full-time or part-time around the world. Although the 1995 Fourth International Conference on Women in Beijing ensured the protection of the Agirl child,@ many millions of girls still work as prostitutes. Children are bonded laborers, welders or rubbish pickers. The only labor protection currently written into WTO rules is that countries may restrict imports of goods produced with prison labor. If a country wished to ban imports on goods produced with child labor or apply a trade sanction on a country that was violently repressing an independent labor union, the WTO could strike it down as a Atrade barrier.

Not coincidentally, the day after the Seattle protesters shut down the WTO, President Bill Clinton suggested that labor rights be enforceable by trade sanctions. But this noble gesture would take decades to implement.


Although the economic trading rights of WTO countries trump environmental protections, labor rights, health and safety precautions, and human rights, intellectual property rights are indelibly enshrined in the WTO agreements.

The WTO Multilateral Agreements contain Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property. ‘TRIPS’ is a bad trip. For centuries, indigenous peoples in many countries have developed herbs, seeds and plants for use as food and medicine. ‘TRIPS’ gives foreign corporations the right to take traditional indigenous seed varieties developed by small farmers, ‘improve’ them with slight genetic alteration and patent them. In order to use them, the people who originally developed them must buy them back at exorbitant rates.

Some countries call it biopiracy. India has seen mass demonstrations protesting this practice. New hybrids that have displaced native seeds are vulnerable to pest attacks. Farmers are forced to buy costly pesticides, which often puts them out of business. There has been an epidemic of farmer suicides in parts of India that used to be prosperous agricultural regions before the Aecological and social disaster caused by biopiracy.

But protection of Aintellectual property goes beyond merely bankrupting farmers. It can be deadly. When Thai companies made AIDS drugs available at a cost well below that of United States drug companies, the U.S. – on behalf of the drug companies – threatened a WTO TRIPS challenge for patent infringement. Thailand, which depends on the U.S. for 25% of its exports, was effectively blackmailed into stopping the manufacture of cheaper AIDS drugs.

According to UNICEF, 1.5 million infants die every year, primarily from fatal infant diarrhea caused by the replacement of breast feeding with artificial formulas.

Gerber Food claimed on its packages that its infant formula would insure healthy babies, and bolstered the claim with photographs of fat, healthy babies. Guatemala enacted a law, modeled after the World Health Organization Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, to protect infant health. It required that formula producers clearly state the superiority of breast feeding on their labels. All of Guatemala=s domestic and foreign suppliers of formula changed their packaging to comply. The country=s infant mortality rates dropped dramatically. Gerber, however, induced the United States State Department to threaten a WTO challenge based on the company’s intellectual property claim to its labeling. In response, Guatemala amended its law to exempt imported baby food products.

Intellectual property rights are well protected by the WTO – at the expense of human beings.


Both the Charter of the United Nations and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) memorialize human rights and fundamental freedoms that must be respected by state parties. Treaties ratified by the United States become part of the supreme law of the land under the U.S. Constitution and are thus binding domestic law.

The UN Charter was ratified by the United States in 1945. By signing and ratifying the Charter, the U.S. and other UN member countries pledge to respect the principles of “equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” and agree to promote “higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development.”

Further, the ICCPR, which the U.S. ratified in 1992, guarantees to all people the right to freedom of association, including the right to form and join trade unions. Also ensured under the ICCPR is the right to self-determination of all peoples, to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and for their own ends, to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.

The Charter on Economic Rights and Duties of States, passed by the UN General Assembly in 1974, recognizes the political sovereignty of nation states to protect their public interest by regulating foreign investment. Member nations are granted the authority to supervise the operations of trans-national corporations within their jurisdictions, by establishing performance requirements to ensure foreign investments serve the economic and social and priorities of national development.

Trans-national corporations have social obligations, since the formation of capital is a social process which depends on the labor of others. The Charter on Economic Rights and Duties of States requires all developed countries to cooperate with developing countries – establishing, strengthening and developing their scientific and technological infrastructures and scientific research and technological activities – in order to help expand and transform the economies of the developing countries. Under the Charter, every state has the duty to cooperate in promoting the steady and increasing expansion and liberalization of world trade. However, the Charter creates the corresponding duty of states to cooperate in improving the welfare and living standards of all peoples, particularly those of the developing countries.

The WTO – which serves the interests of trans-national corporations, including many U.S. corporations – systematically violates these international laws. WTO’s defenders advocate ‘free trade’ but, in practice, free trade does not result in fair trade. Free trade theorists claim that the rising tide of trade will ‘lift all boats,’ providing economic benefits to all sectors of society. The only boats, however, that have been lifted so far are yachts. Former Canadian agricultural minister Eugene Whelan observed, AThese deals aren=t about free trade. They’re about the right of these guys [corporate agribusinesses] to do business the way they want, wherever they want.

As detailed above, the UN Charter establishes the primacy of human rights and equality for all nations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to form and join trade unions as well as the right of all peoples to self-determination. Finally, the Charter on Economic Rights and Duties of States obligates developed countries to help developing countries transform their economies and improve their welfare and standards of living.

In stark contrast, under the WTO, any national, state or municipal law that may protect labor, the environment, health and safety or human rights, may be struck down if considered a barrier to trade by the faceless bureaucrats and corporate hustlers who are now empowered to decide these matters.


The anti-WTO demonstration in Seattle followed a tradition of protest in the United States. A century ago, working people organized sit down strikes aimed at the bosses who exploited their labor. In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists marched and demonstrated against the pernicious system of racism in the U.S. And close on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, masses of people from all walks of life joined together to stop the War in Southeast Asia. In each instance, these struggles for justice and dignity have resulted in social change. Because they fought and died for labor rights, workers gained the 8-hour day and the minimum wage. Because masses of people marched on Washington and Memphis, and because of sacrifices of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Act was born. Because hundreds of thousands of students at campuses across the country demonstrated, and masses of GI’s refused their orders, the killing in Southeast Asia was stopped. And because people demonstrated in Seattle, the delegates to the secret meeting of the World Trade Organization were forced to consider labor, environmental, health and human rights protections as more than simply “trade barriers .” Because people were in the streets, the media was forced to broadcast their demands for “Fair Trade, Not Free Trade.”

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Seattle protests was the international diversity of the demonstrators. People from all over the world – many from countries where struggles for human rights and freedoms have persisted for centuries – joined together for common humanitarian goals. They were saying that it must be the people, not the WTO, who control our lives.
The WTO establishes the primacy of property interests over human rights. It also threatens the peace and security of the world, in direct violation of the UN Charter. There is no limitation placed by the WTO on trade in weapons, which may pose a major threat to international peace and security. The survival of our global community is at stake.

Since 1937, members of the National Lawyers Guild have been instrumental in providing legal support for those struggling for human rights and fundamental freedoms. That tradition continued with our legal defense for the protesters in Seattle and Washington D.C. In keeping with our motto that human rights shall be more sacred than property interests, “the Guild will continue to work Ain the service of the people.”