Dueling in Doha

The success of an emerging coalition of activist groups and developing nations was the single major event of the recent WTO meetings in Qatar.

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Take trade ministers from 142 countries, add a few hundred journalists, observers and business lobbyists, surround them all with tens of thousands of police and military for security, and you have the makings of one of the most surreal events in recent diplomatic history — the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, with the disastrous 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle as a backdrop, the assembled ministers set about to agree on a declaration that would chart a path for the future development of international trade.

The ministers arrived in Doha faced with serious ongoing disagreements between Southern and Northern governments and between the United States and Europe. As in Seattle, US and European negotiators used nearly every known form of coercion to stifle proposals from developing nations while providing the appearance of consensus. In Seattle, that approach led to gridlock and collapse. In Doha, with the help of a one-day extension, the mix of deal-making and arm-twisting led to agreement and a declaration on future talks.

While the Doha meeting in particular and the WTO in general are presented as part of a new globalist agenda, much of it is parochial politics played out on a global stage. The political pressures of upcoming elections in Brazil, France, and the United States were key factors in a number of public battles and behind-the-scenes compromises. In the end, the 10-page declaration will allow every negotiator to claim victory — or at least an avoidance of defeat.

Still, the reign of ambiguity in Doha was not absolute. The combined forces of activist groups and ministers from developing nations scored a significant victory on the issue of drug patents. Goaded by a backlash against pharmaceutical companies that have limited access to affordable AIDS treatment drugs, the organization agreed to drop WTO rules on intellectual property rights, including patents, when those rules undercut public health objectives.

The patents agreement, arrived at despite the objections of the US, Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain, represents the first clear victory for the coalition of developing nations and civil society activists. In fact, the most important development of the Doha meeting was the emergence of this new “public interest coalition” as a significant negotiating bloc within the WTO. Drawing on the successes of similar collaborative efforts on land mines, global warming, and biological diversity protection, this new trade coalition is in a position to play an increasingly influential role during the coming decade.

The issues this emergent coalition will need to grapple with are complex and politically volatile. In Doha, US and European trade officials put a number of new items on the WTO agenda, including policies on investment, government purchasing, and competition. A coalition of developing countries, led by India, blocked action on the new topics by ensuring that no negotiation could take place without the agreement of every member country. Indian officials believe this tactic will prevent such topics from ever being seriously negotiated, but it remains uncertain if southern-hemisphere countries will be able to withstand increasing pressure from the US and Europe.

The ministers face another emerging challenge in attempting to determine how the WTO can and should relate to a new generation of multilateral environmental agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Biosafety Agreement. The WTO — led by the US — has consistently taken the view that trade rules should trump environmental rules. The US is attempting to enforce this view through a preemptive strike, proposing new rules that would allow trade agreements to ignore the authority of the environmental agreements. There is growing concern that this effort would expand WTO rule-making authority into new areas, such as drinking water and public services. Activists see ample reason to monitor these attempts closely — and intervene quickly if necessary.

In the end, there were no clear winners or losers at Doha — except for the drug companies, who definitely lost. Every faction can claim to have survived to fight another day. What is important is that the lines of the fight are more clearly drawn, with activist groups and developing nations lining up as an increasingly powerful coalition against rich countries and multinational corporations.

The next full WTO meeting, set for 2003 in Mexico, will present this evolving coalition with an opportunity to move beyond the single victory on drug patents to a wider range of new issues. If that happens, the Mexico meeting could be the beginning of a New World Order very different from that envisioned by recenty retired US presidents.

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