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High-Production Horror

The World Trade Organization: Democracy for Sale
By: Benjamin White and Adam M. Roberts, AWI

Nov. 15, 1999

In the 1800s, the term "free trader" not only referred to one who advocates the unencumbered flow of goods between nations, but also to a smuggler or a vessel used to smuggle products. Today, global free trade pacts and the mysterious bureaucrats who implement them are smuggling away democratically determined laws with little input or attention from the citizens who fought to have them enacted.

Masquerading as a harmless trade treaty, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a binding agreement between 134 countries that eviscerates sovereign governments' ability to pass and enforce laws to protect animals, the environment, workers, and human health and safety. Approved by Congress on January 1, 1995, the WTO mandates that any law interpreted as a barrier to free trade can be challenged by a country wanting weaker standards and greater market access. If the challenge is upheld (by a dispute panel comprised of unelected, unaccountable trade officials in Geneva ), the offending law must be scrapped or the losing nation may be fined or sanctioned. For those working on animal protection issues, the political playing field has become a minefield.

The WTO has already dealt two major blows to marine animals. After Congress banned the sale of tuna obtained by the use of encircling nets that stressed and drowned dolphins, Mexico and other nations challenged the law, claiming that it unfairly restricted access to the American tuna market. The trade panels under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the WTO's predecessor) ruled against the United States, and in 1997 the resulting "International Dolphin Conservation Program Act" (dubbed the "Dolphin Death Act" by conservationists) approved by Congress not only revoked the embargo on foreign "dolphin-deadly" tuna, it also mandated that tuna obtained by cruel methods could still wear the "dolphin-safe" label.

Similar legislation designed to save sea turtles by requiring Turtle Excluder Devices on domestic and foreign shrimp boats was also scuttled. Last April, the WTO dispute settlement panel ruled that the implementation of the law was arbitrary and unjustifiably discriminates against other WTO member countries ( India , Pakistan , Thailand , and Malaysia ) that refuse to require the devices.

But the United States also uses the WTO to sabotage regulations designed to protect animals. In 1991 the European Union (EU) passed a Regulation prohibiting the use of steel-jaw leghold traps by EU nations, and banned the importation of furs from countries that had not either banned the traps or adopted "internationally agreed humane trapping standards." In 1997, under threat of a WTO challenge by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (prompted by pressure from a small group of U.S. senators and the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies), the EU severely weakened and delayed implementation of its import ban.

According to Compassion In World Farming (CIWF), there is concern that the EU Cosmetics Directive, which would prohibit animal-tested cosmetic products from being marketed in the EU, will be replaced by a much weaker measure owing to fears of WTO inconsistency. CIWF has similar worries that the WTO would rule against a nation trying to ban the import of meat or eggs derived from animals reared in cruel systems such as battery cages or veal crates. In another case, the European Union banned the use of artificial growth hormones in beef, both in local production and imports. The United States promptly challenged the ban, claiming it put U.S. beef producers at a disadvantage. The WTO, citing a lack of scientific certainty about the health risks of ingesting such meat products, ruled that the EU must either drop its ban or pay huge beef producers more than $100 million a year in compensation for lost profits.

And so it continues. On July 9, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman responded to a new EU ban on genetically modified (GM) organisms. He declared the United States would "not tolerate the segregation of genetically modified crops and will go to the WTO to prevent it." But Europe is sticking to its ban.

WTO members currently are negotiating an agreement that would further endanger the world's forests. All restrictions on the sale of forest products would be forbidden, including measures requiring the labeling of sustainably produced wood.

Any number of democratically enacted animal protection and wildlife conservation laws could be at risk if powerful industry representatives and the politicians beholden to them decide to bring suit under the auspices of WTO trade rules. Even the mere consideration of new legislation now includes discussions of whether such laws would conform to the WTO. This has an indisputably chilling impact on the ability of democratic governments to enact laws representing the will of the people.