By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
REMEMBER THE FIRST "EARTH SUMMIT" IN RIO DE JANEIRO in 1992 and the almost giddy sense of promise that prevailed at the first truly global meeting of world activists and government officials under the auspices of the United Nations? Tens of thousands of Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) do-gooders flocked to the home of the thong to save the planet from ecotastrophe. Results were mixed: Bush Sr. sent only minor representatives, and the United States failed to sign almost all of the multinational accords initiated there, including, most famously, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Mostly it turned out to be NGOs and developing nations lining up to challenge the burgeoning corporate might of the postCold War United States. U.S. trade representatives paid attention only long enough to figure out that they didn't need to, then went back to the then-new business of globalizing the world economy.
Now, it appears that the globalizers have almost succeeded in making the U.N. "people's process" irrelevant. This Saturday, Earth Summit II kicks off in Johannesburg, South Africa. Called the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, or Rio Plus 10, this decade's summit focuses on the "interface between human society and the environment." Some 60,000 combatants are expected to be there, including presidents of 70 developing nations, NGOs, scientists and trade missions. The United States is sending Secretary of State Colin Powell. The goal is to create a binding multinational accord or accords committing all countries to sustainable development.
What that means is open to heated, indeed furious, debate. The fighting involves reducing the use of fossil fuels and other natural resources, increasing rights for exploited labor, exerting control over food production, water rights, patented genes and capital flows -- oh yeah, and also maybe dismantling global corporate capitalism.
Back in November 2001, however, while daisy-cutter bombs distracted most everyone else, all of the world's trade ministers were together finding new ways to limit these U.N. accords, or even undo them completely. In the protest-proof city of Doha, capital of the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, the World Trade Organization (WTO) quietly held the meeting that was supposed to happen in 1999 but instead devolved into the "Battle in Seattle." Not surprisingly, in Doha the trade ministers agreed to expand the WTO's governance role over world trade. They weren't holding back, either, but plunged right into the thick of one of the protest movement's biggest grievances. The WTO will now decide which takes precedence -- WTO trade rules or U.N.-monitored international environmental treaties.
This has become a nagging conflict in an increasingly linked world. Signatories to U.N. treaties often find themselves in conflict with the WTO's stringent trade rules. Both are legally binding, but in the absence of a meaningful world court, there has been no way to resolve the apparent overlap. So the WTO has simply taken the matter upon itself, and in the process declared itself the winner.
More precisely, the Trade and Environment section of the WTO's deceptively fluffy "Doha Declaration" endeavors to settle a nagging problem for transnational corporations: The pro-trade rules of the WTO are increasingly undercut by U.N.-administered Multilateral Environmental Agreements, or MEAs -- like the Kyoto Protocol. Both are binding international processes, but it seems that only one can have the final word. So, in an effort to be helpful, the WTO has agreed to iron this out once and for all. The fact that it will do this unilaterally has filled the environmental community with a mix of hope and horror.
"This was the absolute worst thing that could have happened in Doha," says Victor Menotti, trade campaigner with the International Forum on Globalization in San Francisco. "For anyone who believed that trade rules would never directly threaten the process of international environmental policymaking, Doha should not be read simply as a smoking gun, but a declaration of war."
THE NEWS HAS THROWN A STRANGE LIGHT OVER Johannesburg. Multilateral Environmental Agreements have been the only meaningful people's process for identifying development and environmental goals on a global scale. What would this process mean if the WTO decides that trade trumps trees? Could the vastly more democratic body at the Johannesburg summit simply force the WTO to cave in to popular pressure? Who would decide?
MEAs are politically popular, and their impact is immense. Messing with them in any way would be politically dangerous for the WTO. The 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, for example, reduced the ivory trade worldwide to a still-diminishing trickle. That convention, like most of the others, is run by a secretariat at the U.N. Environment Programme. The 1992 Earth Summit spun off a host of U.N. treaties, including the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals and the Cartagena Protocol on genetically modified organisms.
Rene Vosenaar, chief of the Trade, Environment and Development Section at the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, says this unresolved conflict is exactly why environmentalists have tried for years to get this rules clarification on the WTO agenda. "This is basically put on the agenda by environmentalists and the European Union. The E.U. has always said that it had a chilling effect on negotiations on MEAs that someone can go to the WTO and have the trade measure overruled."