Five years after the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established, consumer organizations worldwide say it has failed to deliver on its key promises. Consumers International, representing 247 consumer organizations in 111 countries, says it cannot support a new “Millennium Round” of trade negotiations, proposed for 2000, until crucial changes are made in how, and for whom, the WTO and the trade liberalisation agenda operates.
“After considerable debate, Consumers International supported the Uruguay Round which resulted in the establishment of the WTO, believing that the agreements would bring substantial benefits to consumers” said Julian Edwards, Director-General of Consumers International. “But promises have not been delivered, and this time we say “no more” until the many problems have been sorted out. Increasing world trade can bring important benefits to consumers, but we insist that they must be shared equitably.”
“Governments need to commit themselves to a very specific agenda of reviewing, problem-solving and fully implementing existing agreements. Equitable, sustainable development and the needs of the world’s poorest consumers must have top priority,” stated Mr Edwards.
A decision on the “Millennium Round” will be made when the world’s trade ministers meet in Seattle, USA, in November 1999. According to Consumers International’s newly released document Consumer Rights and the Multilateral Trading System: What needs to be done before a Millenium Round, preliminary evidence shows that consumer rights are being undermined by the system as it exists now.
For example, when multinationals have problems exporting because of a country’s consumer protection legislation, they use the threat of action through the WTO to intimidate governments to bypass or change their laws, according to Consumers International.
Consumers International’s recommendations on health to WTO members
“Public health, rather than commercial interests, in the implementation of WTO Agreements and in particular in the review of TRIPS must have primacy to safeguard access to essential drugs.
Flexibility allowed in the TRIPS Agreement should be upheld to allow access to essential drugs. The acceptability of parallel importing and compulsory licensing policies must be recognised and upheld, to counter the inappropriate use of trade pressures against developing countries over access to essential medicines.
WHO’s expertise must be called upon for disputes on health measures and TRIPS.
Provisions must be made to ensure that access to community medicines and local plants is maintained and protected. Community medicines are an alternative for many poorer consumers worldwide. Technical expertise should be provided so that communities can be granted patents for these drugs and benefit from their development and sale. The WTO should identify and support regional and national intellectual property offices. These offices could disseminate information about the patenting process and liaise with local communities to protect their access to alternative forms of medicine.”
Worldwide campaign on WTO
Consumers International has launched a global campaign to demand that WTO member states include consumer policy - the protection and promotion of consumer rights - in trade policy at national and international levels. The campaign aims to ensure that the views of consumers and the consumer movement are represented in trade policy-making.
Consumers International has submitted specific recommendations for WTO members to adopt within the Seattle Ministerial Declaration, which will set the agenda for future trade negotiations. The document recommends that the WTO set up formal mechanisms to protect consumers, particularly in the areas of food security, food and product safety, health, competition, services, investment and electronic commerce (see box for Consumers International’s recommendations concerning health).
To ensure that the WTO benefits all consumers, it must promote participation from both NGOs and from developing country representatives, Consumers International believes. This can be done, in part, by setting up an accreditation scheme for international NGOs and by providing improved assistance to developing countries.
Liberalisation should benefit all
Consumers International’s underlying concern is that under the current trade agreements, the distribution of wealth worldwide has become increasingly unequal. This suggests that the multilateral trading system and its management by the WTO is failing in its stated mandate to promote sustainable development and raise living standards throughout the world. There needs to be a new approach - so that trade liberalisation benefits not just a few multinational, but all consumers.
For example, in Africa, consumption per capita has actually decreased by 20% in the last 20 years. International trade agreements and rules have not reversed this decline, even though world trade in total has increased.
Several consumer leaders spoke at a Symposium on Trade and Competition Policy, jointly sponsored by the WTO, World Bank and UNCTAD, in September 1999, which explored the need to give consumer protection a high priority in developing efficient markets. The Symposium was part of a series by the WTO to increase consultations with civil society.
Copies of Consumer Rights and the Multilateral Trading System: What needs to be done before a Millennium Round are available, in English, French and Spanish, from: Consumers International, 24 Highbury Crescent, London N5 1RX, UK. Tel: +44 171 226 6663, fax: +44 171 354 0607, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: http://www.consumersinternational.org/trade