WTO-Seattle and Human Rights
Global deals won't profit the poor: 
As we approach a new 'millennium round' of world-trade talks, there seems little support for principles that promote human rights

By Warren Allmand            The Globe and Mail, Monday, November 22, 1999

Warren 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.
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been replaced by an industrial park and that her family and neighbours had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

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

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

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.