Science in Society Archive

Rough Road from Doha to Johannesburg

WTO's new mandate raises a key question: Who will decide our common future?

The new mandate could intensify burning fossil fuels, logging native forests, depleting fisheries, use of toxic chemicals, and release of GMOs. Victor Menotti, Director of the International Forum on Globalisation Environment Program gives us a critical analysis.

Trade ministers from 140 nations gathered in Doha, Qatar last November to give the World Trade Organization (WTO) a historic new mandate to restrain governments from regulating global corporations, removing the last shreds of people's rights to self determination and access to resources at every level. It is the biggest threat to the agenda for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (Rio plus Ten).

The Doha agenda (Box 1) has empowered the WTO to increase corporate control over natural resources by allowing decisions on their use to be driven even more closely by the short-term demands of global financial markets. It intensifies export-based farming, forestry, fishing, as well as fossil fuel burning, mining, and exploitation of other natural resources including water. It eliminates more conservation and community development policies as unfair trade barriers. It determines who captures the remnants of the world's collapsing natural resources, starting with the planet's depleted fisheries, which has been placed on the WTO agenda by World Wildlife Fund. It subordinates multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs, Box 2) to the rights of corporations.

The Doha agenda was the result of an illegitimate, manipulative, untransparent and deceitful process. The result was to leave all the concerns and demands of the majority developing countries off the main agenda and relegated to an addendum text (see "Deceit and manipulation at Doha", Science in Society 13/14, February 2002).

Box 1

The Doha Agenda

New mandates were added to the final declaration:

Trade and environment - subordinates multilateral environmental agreements to trade.

Market Access - to free logging, fishing and mining.

Anti-Dumping - may allow cheap imports to kill local industries and livelihoods.

Subsidies for fisheries - may prevent protection of collapsing fisheries

The disputed mandates, the 'Singapore issues' were also included:

Investment - return of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, that effectively forbids governments to protect local investments against corporations.

Government procurement - effectively disables governments from controlling how the tax-dollars are spent.

Competition - breaks up publicly-owned enterprises, not global monopolies.

The MEAs include

Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Chemicals

Kyoto Protocol on Climate change

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

Basel Convention on Trade in Hazardous Waste

Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety

POPs Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants

The new mandates

In perhaps the WTO's most direct threat to sustainable development and the entire Rio/Johannesburg process, the final Doha declaration expands the WTO's mandate to unilaterally determine its relationship to the trade sanctions that enforce multilateral environmental agreements. The Doha mandate to 'clarify' the relationship between trade and environment can only be understood as a move to subordinate the MEAs to trade. Trade and not environment ministers are leading the negotiations, and the MEAs secretariats are given only observer status. Although it is stated that there shall be no 'prejudged outcomes', it is also stated that the outcomes "shall not add to or diminish the rights and obligations of Members under existing WTO agreement". This can only mean that no trade rules can be changed. The precautionary approach will go out of the window.

Market access will mean the expansion of exports and the elimination of legal protections that ensure sustainable use of natural resources. Particularly affected are forestry, fishing and farming. Negotiations are over the elimination of tariffs (import taxes) and so-called non-tariff measures.

Forest tariffs were an issue of great concern to protestors at Seattle. Popularly known as the global Free Logging Agreement, forest conservationists succeeded in getting the US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to publish the first, ever, environmental assessment of trade liberalisation, released just before the 1999 Ministerial. In the report, done by a timber-industry-funded group, trade officials buried the real findings: tariff reductions would result in increased logging in some of the world's most threatened original forests inhabited by indigenous peoples.

Cutting tariffs reduces wood prices for consumers, in turn stimulating more wasteful consumption, especially in the rich nations. The effects on cutting tariffs in fisheries are similar. Tariff cuts for minerals, fuels, chemicals and other non-agricultural products are also being discussed.

Non-tariff measurements are being defined as any measure that 'distorts' trade. These include harvesting restrictions, ban on destructive gear, embargoes on species suspected of disease, residency requirements, or even eco-labels, or labelling on GMOs.

It is no secret that the international trading system is currently seeing a proliferation of complaints about dumping, which is the practice of exporting a product at a price lower than it can be produced. As global recession deepens, nations are intensifying their promotion of exports to keep their economies afloat. In reaction, importing nations are imposing tariffs and quotas (so-called anti-dumping measures) to control the flood of cheap products that are driving domestic producers out of business. But WTO sets strict rules on what measures governments can take, and under what conditions, to stem the tide of damaging imports.

The Doha declaration set forth negotiations "aimed at clarifying and improving disciplines" under the WTO Agreements on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, aka, the Anti-Dumping Agreement. Although heavily pushed in Doha by developing nations who are frustrated with US attempts to block imports of steel and textiles, small producers in many nations (especially the poorest) will be the victims of stronger WTO rules that prevent nations from regulating imports.

From forestry to fisheries to farming, millions whose survival depends on direct access to natural resources are threatened by cheap imports. Anti-dumping agreements are key to protecting them.

The item 'subsidies for fisheries' may appear innocuous, but could turn out to be the thin end of the wedge for corporations to capture the remnants of the planet's collapsing resources. WTO has a well-documented history of cutting subsidies for the poor while giving further to the rich. Attempts by national networks of fisher peoples organisation to get to the table have been ignored, while the US trade association of importers, processors, and distributors (the National Fisheries Institute) has long been an official advisor to US trade negotiators. Few ngos wanted to give the WTO any opportunity to expand its powers over new areas of policy making. The world wildlife fund seemed to have played the leading role in putting fisheries subsidies on the WTO agenda, despite being warned repeatedly of the concerns of small fishermen's organisations.

The Doha text inserts the subject of fisheries subsidies under the section calling for strengthening the Agreements on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (Anti-Dumping). But it has no explicit conservation mandate, nor even an implied one. Indeed, its only specific directive is the "taking into account the importance of this sector to developing countries," which likely signals an orientation towards maximising exports of fish products from poor countries, where, not coincidentally, rich countries are increasingly investing in fisheries because they have over-fished their own territories.

The Singapore issues

Singapore was the place where rich nations first forced these issues onto the WTO agenda (1996 Ministerial in Singapore). If these issues are accepted onto the WTO agenda, it would mean the WTO could prevent citizens from using governments to regulate foreign investment, or to channel tax dollars towards poverty alleviation and conserving natural systems. Liberating global capital from serving the needs of people and nature would represent the ultimate triumph for the world trade body whose very mission is to exclude civil society from shaping economic systems.

Investment: Currently governments have the legal right to channel inward investment towards national development goals. These can include nurturing domestic industries, poverty alleviation programs, reinvesting profits domestically or long-term planning of natural resource management. WTO agreement is aimed at constraining these abilities of governments to control foreign capital. They are oriented towards satisfying the high expectations of unaccountable global investors.

Government procurement: The goods and services governments purchase are a key source of many nations' community empowerment programs, green purchasing guidelines, and labelling requirements. In some nations, government procurement can make up as much as two-thirds of GDP. The WTO talks are aimed at reducing the choice that citizens have over how their taxes are spent, such as purchasing recycled paper or natural gas vehicles, or contracting services with low-income communities. Policies for achieving ecologically sustainable, equitable development could become violations of WTO rules.

Competition: This targets public and private enterprises that limit foreign competition in domestic markets. It does not address the monopolistic practices of global corporations. Critics fear that WTO's effort will only result in global corporations' deeper penetration into local markets of developing nations, further concentrating global corporate control over economies.


The Doha deal may some day come to be known as a declaration of silent war against the rights of people and the planet. It threatens poor peoples' access to and control over the very resources upon which their survival depends, deepening the spiral of exclusion that drives so many into insecurity and desperation. There is talk in the WSSD preparatory process of striking a "Global Deal" in Johannesburg. Any meaningful deal would have to initiate a people-driven process to transform international economic institutions. Otherwise, decision taken under WSSD will be undermined by the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and the global corporations they serve.

While the cheerleaders of global free trade spin Doha's outcomes as a victory in the global war on poverty, and remain "convinced that trade and environment policies can and must be mutually supportive," the contradictions between the Doha and Johannesburg agendas become increasingly clear. With the very real prospect of global governance being usurped by transnational corporations via WTO, civil society must use the Johannesburg process as a vehicle to defy the Doha agenda and intensify challenges to today's global economic institutions. Regardless of the WSSD's official outcomes, the peoples' process, as in Seattle, will and must ultimately replace WTO with a truly democratic system that values life over money, and the rights of people over the rights of corporations.

Far from being finalised, global civil society's response to the Doha agenda has already been launched: grassroots organisations around the world will be using the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development as an organising vehicle to beat back the Doha agenda. The Johannesburg's "peoples' process" will be just one of a number of convergences required to replace WTO's bid for a corporate distopia with an international citizen's agenda that protects the poor and the planet. If not, Doha will be known as a pivotal point in history where global governance was truly usurped.

(This article was abbreviated and edited by the Mae-Wan Ho. For the complete version, visit International Forum for Globalisation website:

Article first published 20/03/02

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