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."
In fact, that is already happening. In 1999, Japan announced that it would require more fuel-efficient midsize cars to cut greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto treaty. The E.U. and the United States, on behalf of Daimler-Chrysler and Ford, challenged Japan's new laws under the WTO's dispute-resolution process. The matter, which will be decided by a panel of three economists, is still pending. But the WTO has only one job: to reduce trade barriers. Of the more than 200 distinct trade challenges brought before the WTO, many of which involve domestic environmental legislation, only once has it ever ruled in favor of the green. So far, it has simply sidestepped any issue that involved international eco treaties.
So the WTO is about to test the limits of its power. Whom do you trust? Excuse the cynicism, but you know something stinks when U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick suddenly flops his long-held position and comes out in favor of these MEA-WTO negotiations. The United States has been terrified that the WTO might be burdened with a meaningful environmental-review process. After a background chat reiterating that it is the official U.S. position that getting rich (through liberalized trade) is best for the environment, spokesman Richard Mills says only, "We view these trade and environment improvements as mutually supportive."
Mark Ritchie, director of the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy, points out that's because the WTO left them a loophole: If you don't sign an MEA, and the United States rarely signs any of them, then you can go ahead and keep using the WTO as your cudgel. The WTO has very toothy sanction power, which MEAs do not.
"If your country was not a member of an MEA but was in the WTO," says Ritchie, "then you could use the WTO dispute mechanism to defend yourself against any trade sanctions that you might suffer. This will have the effect, I believe, of encouraging other countries to follow the U.S. example of thumbing our nose at global environmental treaties."
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That might explain why the U.N. secretariats have been enthusiastic about this proposed rule clarification at the WTO: The U.N. is already devoid of any real sanction power, and appears happy to simply be at the table with the big boys.
"In our view, [the Doha declaration] represents a significant step forward in the trade and environment arena," e-mails Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the U.N., which also administers the Cartagena Protocol on genetically modified organisms. "After seven years of discussion . . . WTO members now agreed to address the relationship between MEAs and WTO rules, thus agreeing that the globalization of trade and the reduction of trade barriers must take into account environmental issues and the development needs of poorer countries."
But that process, however closely coordinated with U.N. secretariats, is still technically unilateral. Only the 144 WTO-member trade missions will be involved in this "clarification." U.N. secretariat staffs who oversee the MEAs will be granted "observer" status. Though they will have good input into the process, in the end they have no vote. Metaphorically speaking, they'll be up in the peanut gallery, along with environmental ministers (already a compromise: Consider that our EPA chief is Christie Todd Whitman). Meddling eco-Luddites like, say, Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth will have to wait in the hall.
"That process is totally untransparent and nondemocratic in nature," says Danny Kennedy, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace. "As an international-governance issue, we don't want MEAs to fall prone to the WTO process, in particular to its dispute- resolution mechanism."