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Global deals won't profit the poor

Globe & Mail, Comment

As we approach a new 'millennium round' of world-trade talks, there seems little support for principles that promote human rights

by Warren Allmand.

Monday, November 22, 1999

When Somboon Shrikamdokcaie lost her job in a Bangkok sweatshop, she returned to her village in northern Thailand only to discover that it had been replaced by an industrial park and that her family and neighbours had been forced off their agricultural land and into urban slums.

When the Embera Katio people of northwestern Colombia sought to protect their way of life from the effects of a hydroelectric project on their land, their efforts to organize opposition resulted in threats and intimidation from local businesses and landowners. Their culture and means of livelihood in peril, the Embera Katio continue their struggle for human rights.

While these situations may at first seem unconnected to each other and to Canadians, they are both the result of a combination of decisions and policies made far away in the institutions that govern the complex world of international trade, investment and finance. They are the trickle-down effects of globalization, a process of economic integration that pursues the impossible goal of "sustained growth" -- an oxymoron in a finite world.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report (1999), the most important policy area for managing globalization is the harmonization of free-market approaches with support for human rights. Sadly, the report also points out that, as global economic integration has progressed, the gap between the world's richest and poorest has increased along with it, more than doubling since 1960. The report recommends a fundamental rethinking of governance, integrated with a social policy, that places human rights at its centre. Yet, as we approach a new "millennium round" of World Trade Organization negotiations set to begin next week in Seattle, there appears to be little support for such a rethinking.

Last week, Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew released our government's position for the WTO negotiations. The report, Canada and the Future of the World Trade Organization, offers clear support for increasing the scope of trade liberalization. While refusing to address its failings, there is nothing to address the experiences of Somboon and the Embera Katio. The report says that "participation at Seattle and beyond will produce trade agreements that will improve export opportunities for Canadians, promote rules that will level the playing field, and help provide benefits to people from all walks of life and in all parts of the world."

Human-rights advocates argue that trade agreements on their own can never achieve these lofty goals. While governments often promote the theory that free and open societies will naturally emerge once minimum standards for economic growth and prosperity have been attained, history has shown that many additional measures have always been necessary to turn the market into a force that works for the benefit of the larger society. Those measures include human rights, social justice and equitable distribution of wealth. Therein lies the link between trade and human rights -- a link that results from the inherent objective of both regimes: increasing quality of life.

In a world of uneven development and growing disparity between rich and poor, the level playing field is not achievable unless it is built on a foundation of respect for the principles that form the basis of the international human-rights system. Human rights, which comprise civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, are not goals to be scored on a level playing field of common tariffs and free markets. Human rights are not aspirational in nature, they are not privileges and they should never be the "trickle-down" effect of international trade. Human rights are actual legal rights that nations are bound to support at home and promote internationally, over other interests.

In Canada, trade agreements are subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Coherence with other policy areas is ensured via the role of cabinet, interdepartmental collaboration, an elected Parliament and an independent media. At the international level, however, the WTO wields disproportionate power and pursues its singular objective of trade liberalization in isolation from other international institutions, which govern health, agriculture, development or human rights.

Moreover, despite being unaccountable to voters and unaccessible to public scrutiny, the WTO boasts an appointed three-judge panel that meets behind closed doors and has the power to overturn hard-won domestic regulations that protect our environment, safeguard water supplies, and administer social services. No other international organization, including the United Nations Committee for Human Rights and the International Labour Organization, has the power to judge disputes between its members and enforce decisions. No wonder, then, that vulnerable sectors of society and the world community of nations have raised their voices in a collective cry for a rethinking of international trade policy as interpreted and implemented by the WTO and its member states.

Mr. Pettigrew's negotiating position for Seattle promises that Canada "will encourage other WTO members to establish a forum to respond to public concerns about policy coherence among international institutions" and that "coherence among institutions at the international level is critical to . . . efforts to promote . . . human rights." While such a proposal opens interesting possibilities, there is little hope that another distant gathering of bureaucrats will improve the lives of Somboon Shrikamdokcaie and the Embera Katio, unless they translate this general rhetoric into effective policies.

The time has come to pause and re-evaluate priorities before moving on. History will judge our decisions, and our children the world over will have to live with their consequences.

A former Liberal Government MP, Mr. Allmand is president of the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, an independent and non-partisan Canadian institution. Mr. Allmand will be in Seattle at the end of November.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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