US Should Say No to WTO's Antidemocratic Procedures

Proposed trade pact ignores human rights and labor protections

A LAME-DUCK Congress votes this week on whether the United States should become a member of a proposed World Trade Organization (WTO) along with more than 120 nations.

The first question Americans should ask about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is whether it damages our democracy. The answer is yes.

Should Congress approve it, the WTO pact will become federal law. The US will be bound by its provisions and mandates - ones that are completely alien to our democratic traditions. For example, WTO tribunals will judge cases brought by other nations against the US charging that its health, safety, and environmental laws restrict trade and should be judged WTO-illegal. If the US loses, either it will have to repeal these federal, state, or local laws, or taxpayers will have to pay perpetual trade fines to these prevailing nations. US food safety, food labeling, recycling, asbestos ban, fuel efficiency, and many other standards have already been targeted.

These tribunals operate in secrecy. They are closed to the media and all citizens. There is no public transcript. There is no independent appeal. All briefs and other documents can be kept secret. The burden of proof is on the defendant nation. Our own courts operate in just the opposite fashion.

On Sept. 14, 51 leaders of major news organizations and journalism groups sent a letter to President Clinton urging him to ``restore democratic openness to this crucial process. To do otherwise would break a sacred pact with the American people.''

Astonishingly, Mr. Clinton did not deign to reply. Instead, he had his trade representative, Mickey Kantor, send a boilerplate letter about the trade agreement which ignored the protesters' essential points.

The WTO's voting structure - based on one nation, one vote, and no veto - breaks with past policies of the US. Previously, the US has insisted either on weighted voting, as with the World Bank or International Monetary Fund membership, or on a veto, as in the United Nations Security Council. Under the WTO, the US can be outvoted by any two dictatorships. The 45,000 people of St. Kitts and Nevis have the same vote that the 260 million Americans do. The Bush administration, just before leaving office in December 1992, opposed the WTO for this reason.

Given these antidemocratic procedures, the WTO's mandate (subordination of all nontrade living standards - consumer, workplace, environmental - to the dictates of foreign trade) becomes more troubling. The US has to argue before three trade specialists, under no conflict of interest standards for concurrent business careers, that such people-protective laws are not trade restrictive.

One of the cruel things about these trade rules is that the US could not sustain a domestic law banning the importation of products made through brutal child labor practices. Such a law, now being proposed by 14 US senators, would be an unlawful ``process'' discrimination. Indeed, member nations that treat their citizens, workers, consumers, and environment too harshly do not violate the WTO's rules. Only countries such as ours, whose laws are usually more humane in these respects, can be hauled to the Geneva tribunals and charged with limiting trade.

There is no mention or regard for human rights, labor, consumer, or environmental protections - an omission that allows dictatorial regimes that repress their citizens to invite factories to their regions by holding down wages, benefits, and other industrial expenses and unfairly competing against US firms that play by the rules. This factory flight is under way already, but the WTO will accelerate it.

The Clinton administration continues to publicize estimated benefits and job gains from the WTO pact with figures that are not supportable and are contradicted by other pro-WTO institutions such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Institute for International Economics. Indeed, the IIE's projections come down to an alleged GNP average per capita benefit for Americans of $16.35 a year. Even if true, this is hardly worth the expected loss of more than 1 million textile and apparel jobs in the next 10 years.

Washington made similar promises of big job gains 15 years ago, when the current Tokyo Round of GATT was completed. Those promises disappeared in an ocean of US trade deficits, which this year alone will exceed $150 billion. Despite all the talk of our improving competitiveness, helped by a cheap American dollar, that record figure represents an export of nearly 3 million jobs. The manufacturing trade deficit also has worsened from $65.7 billion in 1992 to $91.5 billion in 1993, according to the Department of Commerce.

Congress should reject this trade pact and instruct the White House to go back to Geneva and renegotiate an agreement based on democratic processes, the proper interests of US workers, and respect for the fundamental rights of consumers and the environment.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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