This week Seattle will be host to an event of global importance. Members of the World Trade Organization will convene to discuss issues ranging from tariffs to appropriate trade regulations for the protection of endangered species. Along with trade ministers from scores of countries, tens of thousands of demonstrators will journey to the city to speak out against the WTO’s gigantic amount of international power.
The WTO has unprecedented influence over the affairs and laws of independent sovereign countries. The United Nations does not come close to having the amount of power over international events that the WTO has. The organization’s structure has given the group the power to override individual countries’ laws if they stand in opposition to the WTO’s regulations.
Membership in the WTO is beneficial in many ways. A member country is guaranteed access to dozens of international markets free of tariffs or trade barriers, which can mean a large and profitable increase in exports. However, at the same time, membership requires nations to eliminate their own barriers and allow other countries equal access to their own market. This can have disastrous consequences for a country’s industries. Supporters suggest this is simply the way a free market works, claiming that a country unsuccessful with one product should just find another that it is better at producing.
Perhaps more troubling is the WTO’s ability to strike down laws intended to protect human rights or the environment. In one WTO ruling, a United States law was struck down as unfairly restricting trade because it banned imports of shrimp from countries using nets unsafe to endangered sea turtles. Theoretically, a nation that decided to ban products produced by child labor would be forced to overturn the law because it would violate free trade standards.
These issues, among others, are bringing tens of thousands of individuals to Seattle. The group is amazingly diverse. Environmentalists will be standing next to union members, while organizations supporting Third World industry will be joined by people opposed to all capitalist enterprise. While the protesters might have an incredibly broad range of concerns, they are all linked in opposition to the WTO’s stranglehold on trade regulations. Some protesters support a total elimination of the WTO, while others would be satisfied with radical restructuring.
It is highly unlikely the protesters will destroy the WTO — it is supported by too many countries and is too enmeshed in the world’s trade structure. However, the protesters might have a major impact on the direction future trade rulings take. While in general free trade is a goal to be supported, laws that serve to protect our environment and the rights of human beings are much more important than those reducing tariffs. Those protesting the WTO should take heart in the immense number of individuals who have chosen to travel to Seattle and stand against the organization’s domination of trade law. The decision-makers of the WTO should seriously consider the wisdom of continuing to strike down laws that benefit all of humanity.