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> Explanation in “Understanding the WTO”
> Dr De Schutter and Mr Lamy
debate the right to food
Accepting that trade can help promote human rights and
access to food, Dr De Schutter said this can only happen if certain conditions
are met, in particular if countries can protect their vulnerable populations
from surges of cheap imports. Failure to do that could mean small farmers and
food producers are wiped out because of the domination of a few large traders
and processors, he said.
His comments received a mixed reception from delegates, although all welcomed
the opportunity to exchange views. Some criticized his analysis as unbalanced,
selective in its choice of evidence, ignoring the benefits poorer populations
can gain from exporting, neglecting the harm caused by distortions with an
over-emphasis on the domination of big companies, and overlooking the amount of
flexibility for developing countries that is actually being negotiated in the
WTO. Others supported his views, and a few simply asked questions.
Dr De Schutter’s case
The special rapporteur was speaking in a 3-hour
information session organized by the WTO Secretariat. He said the world’s
ability to increase agricultural production is declining and therefore its
ability to tackle hunger and malnutrition is suffering. This is worsened by
liberalization that benefits a rich minority and hurts an impoverished majority,
He called for massive investment to “relocalize local production” so that
farmers depend less on volatile international markets and concentrate on
supplying domestic consumers. In order to achieve this, developing countries
need to be able to protect themselves against import surges, and not to open
their markets unless they have made the investment.
He described liberalization efforts as a means to increase total income but at
the cost of worsening inequality and a failure of a minority of winners to
provide for large numbers of losers. Countries that have depended on export
products such as coffee and cocoa have seen a decline in the share of the total
value that they have been able to enjoy, with an increasing share going to large
companies in the supply chain, and an increased vulnerability to price shocks,
Dr De Schutter said that countries that have strengthened their ability to
export, such as Brazil, India and China, did so through protection that allowed
He said he welcomed the shift from the “Washington consensus” (policy
prescriptions from the 1980s and 1990s for dealing with economic crises,
associated with Washington-based organizations such as the World Bank and IMF)
to the “Geneva consensus” (WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy’s term) in which
liberalization is no longer be seen as an end, but part of the means to
achieving better economic and social welfare. The WTO, he said, should continue
to play its role alongside other international organizations so that economic
policies for dealing with issues such as the food crisis are more consistent.
Most critical of Dr De Schutter’s argument were
Brazil, Uruguay, Australia, Paraguay, Pakistan, Argentina, the EU, Costa Rica,
South Africa and Mali. They commented both on his original report (link
above) and on his presentation which they said was somewhat different.
They said his comments create the false impression that trade should conflicts
with the right to food. They argued that the recommendation to allow countries
to protect against imports was too sweeping, ignored the benefits developing
countries can gain from exporting to each other, and overlooked how
protectionism can hamper improvements in productivity.
They said that the investment he is recommending for productivity,
infrastructure and diversification should accompany liberalization and should
not be an alternative to it. Some, such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Pakistan, said
they have used combinations of these policies to enable themselves to trade,
create wealth and provide social safety nets for their people. Costa Rica said
it has never considered liberalization as an end, but as a means to achieve
development. Mali said he should have consulted the four African countries
pressing for an end to cotton subsidies.
Instead of defending protectionist policies, Dr De Schutter should target the
distortions caused by high trade barriers and subsidies in rich countries,
several of them said. Australia asked how Dr De Schutter’s call for price
stabilization schemes would work when all past attempts have failed.
They also pointed out that his comments are misleading because they create the
impression that all countries are under pressure to liberalize. In the Doha
Round, least-developed countries do not have to make any reductions, other
groups such as the small and vulnerable economies are also allowed considerable
flexibility, and all developing countries will enjoy “special and differential
They urged him to listen to a broader range of opinions and experiences, and
incorporate that in future reports.
Supporting Dr De Schutter were Tanzania, Bolivia, Luxembourg, Cuba, India,
Mauritius. India welcomed what it described as the first opportunity to discuss
food security in the WTO.
Somewhere in the middle was Egypt, which asked what the next steps would be to
bring the right to food and the WTO together
Mr Clemens Boonekamp, director, WTO Agriculture Division
Dr De Schutter’s report, “Mission to the World
A/HRC/10/5/Add.2, 4 February 2009:
> Go to documents
list on the UN Human Rights High Commissioner website and click on the
language link on the right of the entry in the document list.
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