Free trade vs democracy as the WTO starts in Nairobi

15 December 2015

There is an air of frustration and uncertainty around central Nairobi as the WTO prepares to meet later this afternoon and for the first time in Africa. Governments from the north and south are frustrated that the WTO is making little progress, but they remain divided about what should be progressing. The G90 has been consistently arguing for longstanding injustices in the trade of agricultural goods to be addressed. Rich countries, including the US and EU, want to see their priorities on the "new issues" of investment, procurement and competition, among others, on the agenda. No delegation is optimistic that they will get what they want.

The European Commission has been under pressure from millions of EU citizens to take controversial investment rules out of trade deals such as TTIP and CETA. Yet away from the public gaze, the EU is pushing for investment, and other "new issues", to be negotiated and brought in through the WTO. How loud must the European public shout to be heard in the corridors of the EU Commission?

The UK is also leading an initiative to open public services up to greater liberalisation and privatisation at the WTO, as part of the opaque and neoliberal Trade In Services Agreement. Like most of the world's countries, civil society groups from north and south are united in their opposition to negotiating any new issues. It remains to be seen if the US and EU will get their way.

Broad and strong movements for trade justice have been growing across the EU to stop TTIP. Yet here in Nairobi, there are peasants movements, trade unions and NGOs from many countries in the global south which have been campaigning on trade for decades. On the 20th anniversary of the WTO, it is important to ask what its role is. We can see that the WTO has not been a vehicle for increasing social and economic justice, will it continue to put the interests of big business ahead of the needs of people and the planet?

There is a real danger that an impasse at the WTO risks increasing mega-regional trade deals. Not only do these give the global south little influence, but they have often been negotiated without any democratic accountability or scrutiny. We must articulate what a trade system would look like if it put people before profits instead of the status quo - and then convince our governments that this must be the way forward. This is not a short term task, but it is an opportunity for TTIP campaigners across the UK to look at the global context on trade and call for more than an end to TTIP. We need a new trade system whose purpose is to increase social and economic justice, and reduce poverty and inequality around the world. The ALBA agreement between several Latin American countries is a great place to start.

Read our briefing: Food fight - the story of rich country hypocrisy at the WTO



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