Do WTO rules and
dispute rulings menace the environment, health, and safety?
claims are often thrown at the WTO together, they will also be dealt with together here.
But they need to be disentangled.
look first at what really happened in a number of widely and sometimes inaccurately
reported WTO dispute cases, and then at what the rules say on the issues of environment,
health and safety. Lets consider also whether the WTO is the right or wrong place to
handle these burning issues.
In doing so,
we should also remember that well-publicized disputes between members make good headlines.
The vast majority of disputes are settled without fanfare, or public contention. Moreover,
only 1 per cent of trade between the United States and the European Union, for
example, has been the subject of disputes.
The WTO and the environment
separate dispute cases have been brought against the United States by developing countries
who felt they were being unfairly treated by the way in which US laws to protect the
environment were being applied against them. Each time, the developing countries concerned
won their case.
standards for gasoline (complaints by Venezuela and Brazil)
Under the US
Clean Air Act, the government set standards for gasoline, to reduce pollution. Venezuela
and Brazil complained to the WTO, and won, because the standards applied to gasoline
exported by them to the United States were more burdensome than the standards applied to
domestic refineries. In certain circumstances, even though a domestic refiner and a
foreign refiner refined gasoline with identical chemical composition, the foreign refiner
did not meet the standard whereas the US refiner did. No environmental
justification was provided for this.
judgement by the WTO Appellate Body specifically upheld the right of the United States to
adopt the highest possible standard to protect its air quality, provided it applied this
standard in a way that was not unjustifiably discriminatory or a disguised restriction on
tuna-dolphin case (complaint by Mexico)
This case was
brought and decided in 1991, under the rules and dispute procedures of the GATT. It arose
from an embargo imposed under the Marine Mammals Protection Act on US imports of tuna from
Mexico, because the technique used by Mexican fishing fleets to catch tuna was resulting
in the incidental death of a larger number of dolphins than the Act permitted.
complicating factor was an additional embargo on imports of tuna from other countries that
could not prove the tuna had not come from Mexico. Mexico won because the dispute panel
did not accept that in this case other GATT rules overrode a basic prohibition on import
problem was later resolved by cooperation between the United States and Mexico to improve
shrimp-turtle case (complaints by India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines)
similar to the tuna-dolphin case, this involved restrictions on imports of shrimp from the
complainant countries because the shrimp were caught by methods that incidentally caught
sea turtles, an endangered species.
the WTO Appellate Body stated that WTO members may take measures relating to the
conservation of exhaustible natural resources, including sea turtles. However, these
measures may not be applied in a way that is arbitrary or unjustifiable or constitutes a
disguised restriction on international trade.
In this case,
the US measure failed to meet these requirements because, in applying it, the United
States treated some WTO members less favourably than others, did not accept sea turtle
protection programmes of other members that were equivalent to the US programme, and
banned imports of shrimp, even if harvested in a way that complied with US regulations, if
the country of origin of the imports had not been certified under the US regulation.
Barshefsky, the United States Trade Representative, emphasized in a statement in October
1999 that the United States has not relaxed any environmental law or health or
safety law in order to comply with any WTO ruling. She explained that where changes
have been made, this was to equalize treatment of US and foreign companies.
Article XX of
the GATT specifically allows member governments to act to protect human, animal or plant
life or health, and to conserve exhaustible natural resources. Under other WTO agreements,
subsidies are permitted for environmental protection, and environmental objectives are
recognized in agreements dealing with product standards, food safety and intellectual
property protection. The dispute cases just discussed arose because the protection
measures treated foreign suppliers less favourably than domestic suppliers, or
discriminated among foreign suppliers.
issues remain controversial in the WTO, basically for two reasons. The first is that some
developing countries fear that environmental measures may be used, deliberately or not, to
create barriers to their exports. They also argue that they need economic growth to raise
their own environmental standards. The second is that work in the WTO, in its Committee on
Trade and Environment, does suggest some risk that conflict could arise between provisions
in multilateral environmental agreements permitting trade measures and WTO rules. No such
conflict has yet happened. The discussion will certainly be carried forward in Seattle.
the argument that trade itself damages the environment? Any economic activity can damage
the environment when environmental resources are undervalued. Whether trade is damaging,
or actually helps the environment, will depend on such factors as the production
technology used. Sweeping generalizations, positive or negative, are wrong. Some points:
- Most pollution
arises from production processes, not trade (although some can be associated with the
transport of goods).
- Poverty is a
major enemy of the environment. Without trade, developing countries will find it difficult
to achieve the economic growth and higher living standards that will generate the
necessary resources for and promote interest in the defence of the environment.
contribution of an open, equitable, non-discriminatory and predictable multilateral
trading system to achieving the objectives of sustainable development was recognized at
the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
- There is
little evidence for the claim that polluting industries tend to migrate from developed to
developing countries to reduce environmental compliance costs.
agreements to cut subsidies to fishing and agriculture could be powerful instruments to
reduce over-fishing, excessive use of fertilizers and farming on marginal or ecologically
- Tariff cuts on
imports of processed wood products by developed countries could encourage better forest
Countries that now fell forests indiscriminately to export logs in bulk, or to use the
land for farming, would see value in sustainable forestry if they could earn more by
selling wood-based products like plywood and furniture.
Freer trade in environmental goods and services would reduce costs of investing in clean
production technologies and environmental management systems.
The WTO and health and
agreements reached by the member governments during the Uruguay Round negotiations deal
directly with these issues.
on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) sets out some basic rules
for standard-setting for food safety, animal and plant health.
on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) deals with other standards, for instance those which
lay down safety requirements for automobiles and electrical equipment, as well as
recognize that governments have the sovereign right to set standards as high as they think
necessary. Their central objective is to prevent governments from using standards as
disguised protection, by setting standards in ways that favour domestic producers, or
discriminate against foreign goods and services.
agreement, unlike the TBT agreement, has proved somewhat controversial in its application,
as is evident from the reactions to the dispute between the United States and the EU on
the use of growth hormones in beef.
Agreement deals with matters about which people naturally care deeply. While the agreement
leaves it to governments to decide what level of health risk it considers acceptable, it
includes provisions designed to prevent action that is arbitrary, or disproportionate to
food standards established by Codex Alimentarius, a joint body of two UN specialized
agencies (WHO and FAO) as reference standards. It also requires SPS measures to be based
on an appropriate assessment of risks, taking into account available scientific
evidence and such relevant factors as inspection and testing methods, and potential damage
from the spread of a pest or disease.
of these issues, reference is often made to the precautionary principle,
sometimes paraphrased as better safe than sorry. The reasoning behind it is
that when information is incomplete, regulators should act in the face of suspected
serious risks. Such action should, however, be based on what is known, and be
proportionate to the suspected risks.
agreement allows for this: it specifically allows a government, in the absence of
sufficient scientific evidence on which to base a measure, to take a provisional measure
on the basis of the information it has. If such a measure is taken, the government
must seek further information and review the measure in its light. No member has attempted
to use WTO rules, for example, to challenge the restrictions imposed on imports of meat
products from animals exposed to BSE, or mad cow disease.
controversy about the SPS agreement mainly concerns three points:
- The first is
the belief that the agreement, along with the TBT agreement, sets health and safety
protection at particular levels, and prevents or discourages governments from giving
This is simply wrong. Both agreements support international standards, as a means of
preventing unnecessary obstacles to trade. This does not imply, as is sometimes suggested,
a race to the bottom: international standards are generally based on best
practice in developed countries. But the agreements leave individual governments free to
set higher standards.
- The second
concerns one well-known dispute, the US/Canadian complaint against the European
Unions ban on imports of beef from cattle raised on growth hormones. The EU lost the
case because it could not cite convincing scientific evidence to support the ban. (It did
not argue that the ban was provisional.) Some EU governments, and many commentators, have
suggested that the case shows that the SPS rules may themselves need review.
- The third
point concerns biotechnology, and particularly genetically-modified foods and other
organisms (GMOs). This issue has yet to reach the WTO, except for some discussion of
labelling of GM foods. But the widespread alarm about possible risks from application of
biotechnology, particularly in Europe, point to potential difficulties ahead.
agreement on trade aspects of intellectual property protection (TRIPS) also arouses
controversy, notably because of its rules on patent protection for pharmaceuticals.
argument for patent protection is that, by rewarding inventors, it gives them the
incentive to make discoveries from which the community benefits. The costs of developing
new pharmaceutical products and bringing them to market, in terms of the research,
development, testing and certification required, are colossal expenditure of
hundreds of millions of dollars is now quite normal before any sales are made.
balance has to be struck between encouraging the development of new medicines and ensuring
that they are available widely and at reasonable cost to the people who need them. The
TRIPS agreement tries to strike that balance, by requiring 20-year patent protection, but
also leaving it to individual governments to decide whether some kinds of inventions (for
instance, medical treatment methods) should be patentable, and allowing compulsory
licensing, especially to counteract anti-competitive practices.
obligations of the TRIPS Agreement do not stand in the way of price controls and similar
types of measures for pharmaceuticals.
Agreement explicitly states that if a country allows parallel imports that is,
imports of goods already put on the market in another country with the right holders
authorization those practices cannot be challenged under the Agreement. In
bilateral discussions between governments on this subject, countries often invoke the
TRIPS Agreement when they want to resist requests from trading partners to limit the use
of these various forms of flexibility.
Is the WTO the place to
discuss these issues?
such controversial issues as the shrimp/turtle case, and the ruling on EU imports of US
beef, sometimes seem confused.
On one hand,
WTO dispute settlement panels are accused of being irresponsible faceless bureaucrats, and
the organization itself of trampling on national sovereignty and placing trade concerns
over other important economic and humanitarian objectives.
On the other,
the perceived strength of the WTO dispute procedures leads to suggestions that WTO dispute
panels should rule on non-trade concerns.
cant be right. In fact, neither is.
faceless bureaucrats on dispute panels are government trade officials or
outside experts chosen for their knowledge of the trade rules and their impartiality.
evidence and then make rulings that are restricted to the question of whether the action
complained against broke rules in one or more of the WTO agreements. They do not consider
other issues, because they are not asked or qualified to do so.
Body, which is usually requested by the losing party to review the conclusions reached,
consists of a small number of highly distinguished legal professionals. Its sole task is
to review, and if necessary correct, the legal reasoning in panel reports. However, it has
sometimes as in the shrimp/turtle case also underlined the limited reach of
The idea that
panels should take it on themselves to judge, for instance, whether food products involve
unacceptable levels of risk for the environment is equally wrong.
international organizations have to be based on whether or not specific rules and
commitments have been broken. If the aim is to have tribunals pass judgement on
environmental issues, you first need agreed environmental rules, and agreed mechanisms for
handling disputes about them.
well be a case for establishing multilateral rules and mechanisms to deal with
environmental issues similar to those which the WTO provides for trade. There is no
compelling case for giving the job to the WTO rather than to a more specialized agency.
the responsibility comes back to governments. It is they that must recognize when new
developments and concerns raise problems in international relations. It is they that must,
when appropriate, seek new agreements. When trade and non-trade objectives conflict, it is
they that should find agreed solutions among themselves.
With so much at
stake, the WTO must respond to its critics
must and not all our critics are wrong. The system can be improved. What system created by
people cannot be improved?
The days are
long gone when trade negotiators wrangled only over tariff cuts, and made secrecy a top
priority to prevent leaks of information from which speculators might profit. Even then,
governments had a responsibility to carry national public opinion with them in seeking to
cut trade barriers.
deal in the WTO with a much wider range of subjects, reaching even into areas previously
outside the scope of international trade agreements. WTO negotiations and rules touch
peoples lives, present and future, in fundamental ways.
Clinton said recently, such questions cannot be left to a private priesthood for
experts, particularly in an open world where anybody can get on the Internet
and say anything.
The WTO has
to reach out to its critics, demystify what it is doing, and provide civil society with
information it needs to reach informed views that can then be brought to bear on
This is not
quite as straightforward as it may appear. The WTO is a government-to-government
organization. Many members feel that they alone should bring direct influence to bear on
discussions in the WTO.
sovereign governments, they say, have a legitimacy that no non-governmental organization
can claim. They accept that national interests should be defined within each country by
debate in which everyone can participate, including nongovernmental organizations of all
kinds, from private corporations to defenders of consumers and the environment.
insist that those interests, once defined, can be represented in the WTO only by
consequence is that governments have repeatedly said that they themselves have the main
responsibility for enhancing public understanding of the WTO. Another is that there are
limits to how far many members are prepared to go in allowing non-governmental
organizations and individual private citizens into the workings of the WTO, for instance
by observing meetings and dispute proceedings.
In the latter
case, arguments about government responsibilities are not the only factor. Some members,
particularly the smaller ones, fear that if acknowledged WTO meetings are thrown open,
decisions affecting their interests will be taken in unacknowledged meetings to which they
are not invited.
The debate on
how far the WTO should open up is in full swing, and will no doubt continue at the Seattle
however, much has already been done:
- Public access
to WTO documentation proposals, discussions and decisions has been
enormously improved. Documents are no longer routinely kept confidential for long periods:
most are now issued without restriction, and posted to the WTOs Internet site
(www.wto.org) immediately. The texts of most proposals for the Seattle meeting, for
instance, can be consulted now by anyone, any time.
- Relations with
non-governmental organizations have been greatly strengthened. Some 750 of them will
be represented at the Seattle meeting, and will attend plenary sessions. On the eve of the
meeting, the WTO is organizing a large full-day symposium at which NGOs will debate with
government representatives on international trade issues for the next century. Similar
symposia have been held at WTO headquarters in Geneva, including two in March 1999 on
environmental and development issues.
- The press
service of the WTO has been strengthened to keep pace with a huge and continuing increase
in media interest.
Secretariat publishes a regular newsletter (WTO Focus) on activities,
as well as guides to the WTO agreements, reports, videos, and other publications of
which this is one to help understanding of the WTO. It maintains the WTO website as
a comprehensive source of up-to-date information on the WTO.
Director-General of the WTO, like his predecessors, uses frequent public statements and
meetings with parliamentarians, non-government organizations and the general public to
spread understanding of trade issues, and of what the WTO is doing about them.
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