Representatives from the 135 nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meet in the U.S. city of Seattle this week to discuss the agenda for a new round of talks on international trade. But RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports that the chances of any agreement are dimmed by differences between developed and developing countries on several key issues.
Seattle, 29 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The World Trade Organization meeting of ministers opens tomorrow (Tuesday) in an atmosphere of fervent protest.
Labor, environmental and human rights organizations -- known as "non-governmental organizations," or NGOs -- have come to Seattle in force. They are demanding that the WTO impose strict rules on working conditions, environmental protection and even basic human rights in member countries.
The NGOs have pooled their resources skillfully to present a united front at this week's meetings, which ends Friday. And they have earned a reputation for getting what they want.
Only last year, for instance, a similar coalition of NGOs fought -- and defeated -- an agreement on investment at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. These groups hope to have similar success with the WTO.
The WTO was founded in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT. It sets the rules for international commerce and provides a forum for member countries to air trade grievances. This meeting is intended to bring together trade ministers to launch a new round of trade negotiations, which could last for years.
Many international business leaders support the trade talks. Bill Gates, chairman of the Seattle-based software giant Microsoft, wrote a commentary in today's "New York Times" in support of free trade. "Fair and open international trade is good not only for companies that depend on exports," Gates wrote, "it is good [also] for the global economy and for opening up lines of communication and progress throughout the world."
But not everyone agrees. One of the NGOs' main complaints about the WTO is that some member countries allow children to work full-time. One of the NGOs lobbying the meeting is the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of American labor unions. It says child labor is a human rights violation. AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Feldman tells RFE/RL he believes WTO rules show that the organization's priorities are backwards.
"Under current international law, it's easier to take action against a company that's violating corporate patent laws than it is against a nation that forces its children to work."
But what is viewed as exploitation of children in one society is seen as an acceptable -- and even essential -- economic reality in others.
Gary Burtless is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. He tells RFE/RL that the WTO must be careful in imposing child-labor standards universally.
"The fact of the matter is, in poor countries, it is normal for people who are 14 or 15 years old to be regular workers."
The NGO protests are not merely sideshows in Seattle this week. That is because many of the issues being pushed by the activists are also at the heart of debates among member states.
In many cases, governments of developed countries hold positions similar to the NGOs, not only on labor rights but also on environmental concerns. But many developing countries oppose efforts to include such issues in a new round of talks.
They argue their economies should be allowed to develop -- and find export markets -- without being held to environmental and labor standards pushed by richer developed nations.
Representatives of WTO members have been meeting for more than a year at the organization's headquarters in Geneva, trying to draft an agenda for negotiations before tomorrow's meeting. But last Tuesday, the WTO's new director-general, Michael Moore, announced that the talks had broken down. Now it will be up to the negotiators' superiors, the trade ministers themselves, to come up with the agenda in Seattle.
Moore said he believes the ministers will succeed where the lower-level negotiators could not. In his words, "It's now up to our political bosses to make this a success."
U.S. President Bill Clinton has been trying to do just that. He urged the leaders of the European Union, Brazil and Japan -- with which the U.S. has major trade differences -- to attend the WTO meetings with him in an effort to resolve their differences at the highest level. But his invitations were declined.
If differences cannot be resolved at this week's meetings, the WTO may have to wait three more years before it can begin a new round of trade negotiations.
Disagreements within the WTO do not occur only between developed and developing nations. The developed countries themselves are embroiled in a thorny disagreement over export subsidies.
On one side is the EU, backed by Japan, South Korea, Norway and Switzerland. This group opposes the drive to end subsidies. It contends that farmers in smaller countries need subsidies to put them on a par with their producers in countries that are agriculturally richer.
On the other side is the so-called "Cairn Group" -- 15 agricultural exporting states, including the United States and Australia. They argue that the smaller countries give their farmers an unfair price advantage by subsidizing them.
Barry Bosworth, an economist with the Brookings Institution, says the members of the Cairn Group -- all wealthy agricultural states -- believe the subsidies deprive them of customers for their goods.
"The United States, Australia and other countries get particularly angry about that because now you're taking away third markets."
With so many disagreements among member states, the crafting of an agenda for a new round of talks will be difficult. But at similar moments in the past, member states hammered out a consensus approach -- largely because of the widely held view that reducing barriers to trade was in their common interest.
This week's meetings in Seattle will help reveal whether that basic consensus still holds.