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The World Trade Organization

Why We Protest

by Francis Wong

Many children carrying a huge balloon that looks like an ugly monster.
Migrant workers enact a play at the WTO ministerial conference. The balloon represents the World Trade Organization monster.
Image by: Francis Wong
Source: New World Outlook
top - many people  sitting on the ground - some holding signs; Center: many people marching on a street holding a sign and flags; Bottom: several people hold a sign behind two men holding crosses above their heads.
Top and center: Korean farmers and local Christians rallied and protested the WTO's trade decisions. (Photos by Kung Kao Po) Bottom: Korean Presbyterians gathered in Hong Kong to protest WTO decisions. (Photo by Francis Wong)
Image by: New World Outlook

New World Outlook, March/April 2006

A globalized economy should draw people together to share the benefits of its economic activities. but the World Trade Organization, with its ideology of globalization, was de-scribed by church leaders meeting in Hong Kong as the “Tower of Babel” that divides people.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) held its sixth Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong, December 13 to 18, 2005. Its main task was to settle a range of issues related to the final agreement of the Doha Development Agenda, which was issued in 2001 at the conference held in Doha, Qatar. The WTO generally names its agendas and agreements after the places where they are decided. The most recent agreement, reached December 18, 2005, is called the Hong Kong Declaration.

According to the World Bank, the successful completion of the final agreement of the Doha Development Agenda would generate US $300 billion every year in the next decade and help 140 million people in poverty improve their standards of living.

Therefore, in his closing statement to the Hong Kong Conference on December 18, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said of the Hong Kong Declaration: “There has been a rebalancing in favor of developing countries, whose interests have now been placed at the heart of the negotiations.”

Ideologies of the WTO
Lamy’s comment, however, has not been echoed by many of the Christian leaders monitoring the WTO. One of the most frequently quoted “successful” results from Hong Kong is “by 2013, there should be no more payments supporting agricultural exports from rich-country governments to their farmers and food companies.”

But Christian Aid’s Dr. Claire Melamed said: “This is a step forward, but one that is more symbolic than real, as the actual cuts in subsidies that will result are tiny—less than 5 percent of the total amount that the European Union and others pay to their farmers.”

For some, the WTO deserves condemnation rather than praise. Tony Waworuntu, Executive Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), denounced what he called “the attempts of the superpowers of world trade to impose world-market integration on the developing countries, while they refuse to remove their own trade barriers in areas where they may be the losers.”

CCA is an ecumenical organization in the Asia Pacific region comprising a number of Christian denominations, including the Methodist and United Methodist churches in New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan.

“Forced liberalization through the WTO threatens to drag people and their economies into the global commodity chains and to deepen the international commercialization of all aspects of life,” continued Waworuntu. Together with representatives from a number of ecumenical bodies, including Gunnel Axelsson Nycander of the Church of Sweden and Guillaume Legaut of CIDSE (an alliance of 15 Catholic development organizations in Europe and North America), Waworuntu commented on the results of the WTO Hong Kong Conference.

They considered the conference a failure because agreement could not be reached on anything substantial from the original development agenda laid out in Doha. Decisions in the WTO must be made by consensus among all the nations, so points that cause contention are often not acted on but set aside for consideration at the next meeting. The Christian leaders said the failure could be contributed to one-sided, unbalanced, and unfair market manipulation by developed countries. They suggested that self-determination of peoples, the concerns of development, and the integrity of cultural diversity need to be considered above all else in the process.

“The failure to derive a consensus on substantial steps forward has demonstrated that the WTO is in deep crisis,” Waworuntu said. “We conclude that the WTO has revealed itself as ‘the Tower of Babel.’ God has prevented humankind from building this monument of idolatry by destroying consensus and understanding among them.”

What Is the World Trade  Organization?

The World Trade Organization (WTO), founded in 1995, is a membership organization, the only international organization in the world that deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Before 1995, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) governed the multilateral trading system around the world. The WTO meets every two years for a ministerial conference.

The WTO was created through a series of trade negotiations, called rounds.  The 2005 Ministerial Conference held in Hong Kong was tying up issues from the 2003 Conference in Cancun and the 2001 Conference in Doha, Qatar, which considered a wide range of issues that concerned developing countries. Three-quarters of the WTO members are developing countries.

Decisions are reached by the consensus of WTO members. A member nation can opt out of an agreement. At times, nations have voted together as a block to prevent consensus and therefore stall or prevent trade agreements. It is important to note that, in the case of the Korean farmers in this article, South Korea agreed to the terms of the agreement that ended the farm subsidies. The WTO cannot force compliance. However, trading partners in the developed nations may offer special deals and concessions to a member nation in order to win its vote for an agreement.

The WTO claims that protectionism is expensive and that its global systems work to lower trade barriers (causing “free trade”) through negotiations to reduce the costs of production and the price of finished goods. Therefore, it works to remove tariffs that countries place on imports from other countries and to reduce subsidies countries pay to their own producers and growers that give their products a major competitive edge over products from other countries.

For more information, you can go to the WTO website:

Trouble for Korean Farmers
The negative effects of globalization and the decisions of the WTO in its present form are not just a matter of ideology. South Korean farmers have witnessed the effects firsthand. They were the largest group of protesters arriving in Hong Kong for the WTO conference.

“The attempt to globalize local markets under the WTO is wrong and unjust,” said the Rev. Han Kyung Ho, president of the Korean Rural Mission. One of the keynote speakers at the Globalized Economic Justice Conference in Hong Kong, Rev. Han talked about his experience of the effects of globalization and that of Korean rural churches. The Globalized Economic Justice Conference met a few days before the WTO’s Hong Kong Conference.

In late November 2005, the National Assembly in South Korea ratified a set of rice-import deals that triggered suicides by a few farmers in South Korea. Thousands of farmers demonstrated and many rural pastors protested the decision.

Rev. Han believes that the decision, recommended by the WTO, caused negative effects for the whole country in the areas of food sovereignty and local livelihood.

“Korean farmers were faced with a more difficult situation in the 1990s after the Uruguay-round negotiation, which established the World Trade Organization in 1995. Rice imports were permitted at a minimum market access on the condition that tariffs would be delayed for 10 years. [Now those tariffs are applied.] The [Korean] government also promised to decrease the subsidy to farmers by US $80 million every year,” Rev. Han said.

“Farm debt saw a fourfold increase. The average debt per household is about US $30,000, a sum that farmers cannot pay back. They buy the farm machines with a loan, install large equipment such as window greenhouses, with a loan, and even send their children to school by taking out loans. Many farmers, out of frustration, choose to invest in speculative crops and livestock, but most of them do not succeed in those businesses. It is a tragedy.”

The Korean ministry of agriculture estimates that the ratio of people who are self-sufficient in foodstuffs has decreased dramatically from 56 percent in 1980 to 43.1 percent in 1990, 29.7 percent in 2000, and 25.3 percent in 2004.

“If a country depends upon other countries for food, the sovereignty of the whole nation becomes threatened,” Rev. Han said. “Food is a strong weapon to control another country.”

The livelihood of Korean farmers was substantially affected by the WTO-led decision, and many of them became unemployed. Rev. Han said the percentage of farmers in South Korea dropped from 11.6 percent (5,167,000 people) in 1995 to 7.1 percent (3,415,000 people) in 2004. The average age of farmers is now 60 years.

The income gap between citizens and farmers has widened. The average farmer’s income was just 76.2 percent of the average citizen’s in 2003, compared to 99.4 percent in 1994. The income of wealthier farmers (the top 20 percent of the farmer population) is 12 times more than that of their poorer counterparts (the bottom 20 percent), while it was just 7.2 times more in 1998.

In spite of difficult times, Asian Christian farmers play an important role in justice, life-giving, and community movements, Rev. Han said. A few examples are the associations of rural pastors in Korea, Catholic farmer associations, and consumer cooperatives.

Workers in China
Rural farmers in Korea are not the only workers to feel the repercussions of decisions made by the WTO. Factory workers in urban areas of China are also affected. “From Seattle to Hong Kong, the WTO cannot continue to ignore the demands of fairness, which means creating decent jobs in safe workplaces. Changing the rules of world trade would give developing countries a chance to create sustainable livelihoods,” said Sharan Burrow, the president of the International Confederation of Free trade Unions (ICFTU), at the Rally and March Against the WTO in Hong Kong.

“Fairness means that rich countries stop pressuring developing countries to sign agreements that could hurt their people and their public services,” said Burrow.

The report summarized: “China is trading its way to the top of the ranks of the world’s exporters but along the way is trading the progress of its people, a majority of whom stand to lose from further trade liberalization. More than three-quarters of rural households, which still make up the majority of Chinese, are predicted to lose real income by 2007.”

Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ICFTU, said that the report revealed how China’s success was predominantly based on the exploitation of its vast number of workers. Many nongovernmental organizations complained that the WTO did not safeguard labor rights sufficiently.

A Sin to Accept the Status Quo
In a global economy, the situations mentioned above seem to be unavoidable, at least to some people. But some Christian leaders insist that economies should turn on “trade for people, not people for trade.”

Dr. Prawate Khid-arn, the general secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia, said the WTO had failed to fulfill its original goals. “When the WTO was established in 1995, its preamble stated that its purpose was to bring
about greater prosperity, increase employment, [and] reduce poverty. ten years later it is clear that the WTO has not delivered on these goals but has had exactly the opposite results,” he said.

“We have a system in which livelihoods are being destroyed and local economies are being undermined, with workers, peasants, family farmers, and indigenous peoples especially being disadvantaged and exploited,” the ecumenical leader lamented at the opening address of the Globalized Economic Conference of December 9, 2005.

The Rev. Hans Lutz, senior representative from the Hong Kong Christian Council, declared that accepting the present form of economic globalization, which was oppressing the poor, could be considered “a sin.”

Rev. Lutz, a Swiss missionary (from the Basel Mission) who has worked in Hong Kong’s labor ministry for 30 years, shared his view at a prayer meeting before a large-scale protest rally December 11, 2005. He said it was a sin to accept that there are no alternatives to globalization in the present form of market fundamentalism.

“Economic globalization promoted by the WTO destroys the economic basis of communities in many parts of the world and causes irreversible damage to the natural resources of our world,” Rev. Lutz said. “Faith communities must say an unequivocal ‘No’ to neoliberalism and the WTO.”

Francis Wong is a Catholic journalist in Hong Kong and a longtime supporter of the Student Christian Movement.

See Also...
Topic: Advocacy Civil rights Communities Environment Globalization Human rights International affairs
Geographic Region: Hong Kong
Source: New World Outlook

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Date posted: Mar 07, 2006