Cancún: Historic win for developing countries
by Anna Pha Prior to the World Trade Organisation's 5th ministerial conference in Cancún, Mexico, Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorin said there was the impression that the fight for social justice had taken place outside the hall. Now, he said, the fight for social justice is also going on inside the WTO. And, inside the hall at Cancún, an historic battle was waged and won. It is historic not just because it blocked the agenda of the rich industrialised nations, but for the heightened understanding, unity and determination of the developing countries. Amorin was speaking at a press conference organised by the Group of 21 (G21) developing countries. The 21 countries represent more than 50 per cent of the world's population, and more than 60 per cent of the world's rural population. They were led by Brazil, India, China and include Cuba, South Africa, Indonesia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico, Egypt, Peru, Guatemala, Philippines and Thailand. It is a coalition of the poor who were determined to fight to the end against discriminatory subsidies paid to the farmers of the rich, developed countries. And that is what they did. From the start, the ministerial meeting (September 10-14) was doomed to fail. The draft text pushed the agenda of the industrialised nations and ignored the demands of the developing countries. It was to be business as usual, with the undemocratic, secretive processes of the WTO in full swing — right down to the personal cajoling phone calls from George Bush to heads of governments. The US, the European Union, Canada and Japan, known as the "Quad", were the prime operators, trying to enforce their agenda with the help of WTO officials. For the G21 and many other poorer countries, agriculture is a matter of "life or death". In the streets outside of the meeting thousands of farmers and Indigenous people demonstrated. A Korean farmer took his own life outside the hall — so intense is the opposition of the people of the developing countries. Thousands of others took part in conferences, street actions and other protests in the lead-up to and during the meeting in Cancún and around the world. Huge subsidies The G21 pointed to the failure of the WTO to act on the more than US$300 billion in subsidies paid every year to the world's wealthiest farmers which undermine the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers around the world. The EU and the US steadfastly refuse to remove these subsidies and open up their markets to imports at the same time as expecting developing countries to make huge reductions in tariffs on their imports. Four of Africa's poorest countries sought a reduction in subsidies paid to US and European cotton farmers that have ruined African farmers. They demanded that they be paid US$300 million in compensation because of this unfair competition. They got nowhere. While developing countries were seeking justice over agriculture and market access for their products in the developed countries, the Quad were pushing a new agenda — for what are known as the "Singapore issues" or "new issues". These issues are competition policy, investment, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation. The aim of these policies is to subject the economies of the developing countries to the complete control of the developed (imperialist) countries. Their implementation of these policies would place developing countries at a greater disadvantage, setting back their trade and development by decades. They would restrict the ability of governments to regulate foreign investment or to take measures to develop local enterprises. They would open up the economies of the developing countries to the advantage of the big corporations from the US, EU, Japan, Canada, Australia in particular. The developing countries reluctantly agreed to discuss the scope ("modalities") of these issues at a Singapore ministerial in 1996 in exchange for promises on other issues of concern to them. It was agreed that there would be no negotiations on these issues before consensus had been reached at the discussion phase. Consensus is far from being achieved, but that did not stop the Quad trying to force the pace of negotiations against the will of over 70 developing countries. The European Union insisted that any concessions on agriculture be conditional on the acceptance of new rules on foreign investment. This form of blackmail is not new. Previous promises made by the "Quad" in return for discussion of the Singapore issues and other significant trade-offs have, without exception, not been honoured. This time developing countries said, enough is enough. Their message was: Carry out previous decisions and fix up problems with existing agreements before looking at agreements in new areas. Walk-out The actual trigger for the breakdown of the talks and the mass walkout of the representatives of the developing countries was the question of investment — and walkout they did! The developing countries still have a long way to go towards achieving their goals, of seeing a genuine development round of negotiations in which their needs receive recognition by the rich countries. The Quad have received a far more serious setback than at Seattle but have not given up their aims. They are pushing their agenda on many fronts. They are using the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in outright blackmail. They are also pursuing bilateral agreements such as the proposed US Free Trade Agreement with Australia. Where all else fails they will use their military might to recolonise countries as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The drive for corporate global domination by the US, the EU and the transnational corporations of other countries will continue. But, "The developing countries have come into their own", as the Malaysian International Trade and Investment Minister Rafidah Aziz said. "This has made it clear that developing countries cannot be dictated to by anybody". Or, as Ecuador's Foreign Trade Minister, Ivonne Baki said, "It's not the end. It's the beginning".