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Over 200 Organizations From 67 Countries Say: “Fundamentally Transform the WTO: The WTO’s Own Policies Have Caused Its Existential Crisis, Which the COVID-19 Crisis Only Amplified”

April 28, 2021

Dear Heads of State:

In nations around the world, the regime of hyper-globalized trade, investment and supply chains that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has championed and implemented during its 25 years of existence is on the verge of collapse. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how the WTO model exacerbates insecurity, inequality and instability. Legitimate global commercial rules should facilitate the improvement of the livelihoods, health and wellbeing of all people around the world and the long-term survival of the planet. The WTO system has not met these goals: It was never fit for purpose and certainly is not now.

This reckoning comes at a time when the WTO faces an existential crisis because, not only has it failed to make people’s lives better, but in many countries it has done significant damage by empowering pharmaceutical, agribusiness, financial and other corporate interests in high-income countries to dominate economies to the detriment of workers in both high- and low-income countries. Its negotiating and enforcement functions are paralysed, and the divisions were spotlighted by the former WTO Director-General’s early departure.

We, the undersigned labour, environmental, consumer and other organizations, call for the transformation of the WTO into a completely new framework for international trade that is fit for the 21st century – which means it puts people and the planet first.

This demand is not new. As we predicted back in 1995, the WTO has functioned to establish rules for the world economy that mainly benefit large transnational corporations at the expense of national and local economies, workers, farmers and indigenous peoples, our health and safety, and the environment. Without a labour protection floor, a race to the bottom has repressed wage growth and increased precarious work. The climate, biodiversity, and poverty crises have been ignored, the needed solutions constrained by “trade” rules. So has the documented rise in inequality within and between nations, as governments have been stripped of essential tools to pursue the wellbeing of their peoples and address the negative impacts of hyper-globalization.

Now, the deeply integrated, brittle supply chains created by WTO rules over the past several decades have undermined numerous countries’ fights against the global COVID-19 pandemic. Around the world, countries cannot make or obtain masks, test kits, ventilators, medicines and other necessary equipment. That is because decades of WTO rules have prioritized large corporations’ demands to concentrate global production to maximize their profits and banned countries’ use of policy tools to ensure local production capacity and diversity of import suppliers. WTO intellectual property rules that are designed to maximize pharmaceutical corporations’ profits instead of public health have driven up prices for medicines that are essential to combat COVID-19 in scores of countries and could become a barrier to equitable and universal access to vaccine and treatment supplies.

The WTO itself is fracturing. The former Director-General abruptly departed. The WTO’s dispute settlement system, whose tribunals have often ruled that governments must change legitimate public policies meant to promote public health, encourage development, protect the environment and fight climate crisis, or face potentially crippling trade sanctions, was derailed at the end of 2019. The body’s negotiating function has been on the ropes since the first failed attempt to launch a new round at the 1999 Seattle WTO Ministerial meeting. Developing country consensus demands were ignored, but attempts by rich countries to bully through an agenda opposed by most nations also failed. Then a so-called Doha “Development” Round was launched in 2001, invoking the need for unity in the face of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Developing countries were promised that their need to use trade for development would be central, but in the intervening 19 years, the same WTO expansion agenda that most countries have always opposed has been prioritized and the development agenda sidelined.

In light of the WTO’s dysfunction, rich and powerful states have resorted to plurilateral negotiations of new rules that prioritize corporate rights and profits. Those rules are facing stiff opposition whether promoted at the WTO or elsewhere, and their failures provide further evidence of a paradigm that has no legitimacy. The Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) collapsed altogether; the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could not win a U.S. congressional majority for the year after it was signed and the U.S. stayed out of that pact; and India withdrew from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), just to name a few examples.

Instead of learning from these mistakes, or acknowledging the chasm between promised positive WTO outcomes and reality, powerful interests at the WTO are doubling down to push more of the same. In what would seem like a parody of the parable that when one only sees nails, the answer is always a hammer, the WTO answer for COVID-19 is to maintain and expand the same failed liberalization policies, including an entirely counterproductive, new tariff-zeroing pact for COVID-19-related goods. Right through the pandemic, negotiations have continued on limiting domestic regulation of the service sector, even as the concentration of services firms is posing a major impediment to timely and cost-effective procurement and distribution of essential goods. Negotiations to limit regulation and vetting of foreign investors continue, despite a clear need for production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medicines to be diversified. Negotiations that would give Big Tech more control over peoples’ data and the digital economy that WTO member countries explicitly rejected are continuing at a time when most people and governments are clamouring for serious checks on Big Tech and their unaccountable control of data.

This failure can no longer be ignored. The original global trade body – the International Trade Organization that was envisioned in the Havana Charter of 1948 in response to the horrors and chaos of World War II – focused on full employment, limiting corporate concentration, fair competition, protections for workers and standards to ensure currency and other related policies did not distort trade. That very different vision for a rules-based global trading system – updated to recognise the climate crisis, systemic inequality, and the unaccountable power of Big Tech – remains attainable, but only if countries agree that global trade rules are supposed to work for people around the world, not the world’s largest corporations.

The choice is not between the status quo or no trade. That is a straw man hawked by those who want nothing to change. Change is happening. The question is what multilateral framework can be inclusive, promote real sustainability, human rights and prosperity for all, and deliver the benefits of expanded trade to most people, while also providing our elected representatives the policy space to promote the public interest. One example is the Geneva principles for a global Green New Deal.

We call on governments to grasp this opportunity for transformational change.

Regional and International Organizations

1 ActionAid International
2 Africa Development Interchange Network (ADIN)
3 Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)
4 Americas Program/MX
5 Amigos de la Tierra América Latina y el Caribe ATALC
6 Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND)
7 Association des femmes Educatrices pour la promotion des droits HUMAINS
8 Caribbean Policy Development Center (CPDC)
9 Center for International Environmental Law
10 Centre du Commerce International Pour le Développement (CECIDE)
11 Compassion in World Farming
12 Council of Africa - Conseil de l'Afrique
13 CRASH (Coalition for Research and Action for Social Justice and Human Dignity)
14 DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era)
15 Education Intrnational
16 Foodwatch international
17 Friends of the Earth International
18 Greenpeace
19 Gret
20 IndustriALL Global Union
21 International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF)
24 Observatorio de la riqueza padre Pedro Arrupe
25 Ong MEC
26 Ong-Lutte Contre la Migration Clandestine
27 Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG)
29 Public Services International (PSI)
30 Réseau Foi & Justice Afrique Europe antenne France
31 SOL (Alternatives agroécologiques et solidaires)
32 Stop TiSA - Genève
33 Tchad Agir Pour l'Environnement (TCHAPE)
34 The United Methodist Church - General Board of Chu
35 Third Word Network-Africa (TWN-Africa)
36 Trade Collective
38 Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll)

National Organizations

39 Amigos de la Tierra Argentina Argentina
40 CTA Autónoma Argentina
41 Instituto del Mundo del Trabajo Australia
42 ActionAid Australia Australia
43 Australian Arts Trust / Music Trust Australia
44 Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Australia
45 Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network Australia
46 Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace Australia
47 Community and Public Sector Union (SPSF) Australia
48 GeneEthics Australia
49 New South Wales Retired Teachers' Association Australia
50 NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association Australia
51 NSW Teachers Federation Australia
52 Public Health Association of Australia Australia
53 SEARCH Foundation Australia
54 South Coast Labour Council Australia
55 Sutherland Shire Environment Centre Australia
56 Anders Handeln Austria Austria
57 Arbeiterkammer Österreich Austria
58 Austrian Trade Union Federation Austria
59 PRO-GE Austria
60 Bahrain Transparency Society Bahrain
61 Bangladesh Krishok Federation Bangladesh
62 COAST Trust Bangladesh
63 11.11.11, Belgium Belgium
65 ACV Puls Belgium
66 Centre national de coopération au développement (CNCD-11.11.11) Belgium
67 CNE Belgium
68 Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens Belgium
69 Mouvement DEMAIN Belgium
70 Fundación Bolivia
71 Gestos (soropositividade, comunicação, gênero) Brazil
72 Jubileu Sul Brasil Brazil
73 RESOCIDE Burkina Faso
74 Syndicat autonome des infirmiers infirmières du Burkina (SAIB) Burkina Faso
75 Confédération des Syndicats Autonomes du Cameroun (CSAC) Cameroon
76 SYNATEEC Cameroon
77 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Canada
78 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Canada
79 Common Frontiers Canada
80 Council of Canadians - Le Conseil des Canadiens Canada
81 Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec-FIQ Canada
82 Group of 78 Canada
83 HIV Legal Network Canada
84 Réseau québécois sur l'intégration continentale (RQIC) Canada
85 Trade Justice Network Canada
86 Trade Justice Prince Edward Island Canada
87 Observatorio de victimas Colombia
88 Sintracuavalle Colombia
89 ARDPC Cote d'Ivoire
90 Plateforme Nationale des organisations professionnelles du secteur public de Côte d’Ivoire Cote d'Ivoire
91 Ekumenická akademie (Ecumenical Academy) Czech Republic
92 Centro de Documentación en Derechos Humanos "Segundo Montes Mozo SJ" (CSMM) Ecuador
93 FEDAEPS Ecuador
94 Jubileo 2000 Red Ecuador Ecuador
95 CESTA Amigos de la Tierra El Salvador El Salvador
96 Ethiopian Society for Consumer Protection - ETHIOSCOP Ethiopia
97 ActionAid France France
98 Bio consom'acteurs France
99 Comité Français pour la Solidarité Internationale (CFSI) France
100 Femme pour l éducation la santé et l’environnement France
102 Fédération Libre des Agents des Collectivités Locales du Gabon (FAL) Gabon
103 Kirchliche Arbeitsstelle Südliches Afrika (KASA)-Germany Germany
104 Consumer Association the Quality of LIfe-EKPIZO Greece
105 PAPDA Haïti
106 ATTAC Hungary Association Hungary
107 All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) India
108 IT For Change India
109 Indonesia for Global Justice Indonesia
110 Galway One World Centre Ireland
111 Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL) Italy
112 Fairwatch Italy
113 Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers Jamaica
114 Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions Jamaica
115 Pacific Asia Resource Center (PARC) Japan
116 Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union (KPTU) Korea
117 Policy Analysis and Research Institute of Lesotho Lesotho
118 National Health Workers' Union of Liberia (NAHWUL) Liberia
119 EMPOWER Malaysia (Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor) Malaysia
120 Positive Malaysian Treatment Access & Advocacy Group (MTAAG+) Malaysia
121 Federation des syndicats du secteur public /ISP Mali
123 Marshall Islands Council of Non-Governmental Organizations (MICNGOS), PIANGO, FELA, FLMMA Marshall Islands
124 3 CM Mauritania
126 Association des Retraités (ARGEND) Mauritania
127 Association Mauritanienne pour le bien etre de la femme et de l'enfant Mauritania
128 Center for Alternative Research and Studies (CARES) Mauritius
129 Federation of Democratic Labour Unions (FDLU) Mauritius
130 Federation of Local Govt and Other Labour Unions (FLGOLU) Mauritius
131 Mauritius Trade Union Congress Mauritius
132 Migration and Sustainable Development Alliance (MSDA) Mauritius
133 State Employees Federation Mauritius
134 Bia´lii, Asesoría e Investigación, A.C Mexico
135 Nauru Island Association of NGOs Nauru
136 GEFONT Nepal
137 FNV National Trade Union Netherlands
138 Handel Anders! coaltie Netherlands
139 Platform Aarde Boer Consument Netherlands
140 StoereVrouwen Netherlands
141 TTIP, CETA and agriculture coalition Netherlands
142 WILPF NL Netherlands
143 FIRST Union New Zealand
144 It's Our Future NZ New Zealand
145 New Zealand Alternative New Zealand
146 Red Nicaragüense de Comercio Comunitario RENICC Nicaragua
147 Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ Nigeria
148 Attac Norway Norway
149 Handelskampanjen Norway
150 Spire Norway
151 NOOR PAKISTAN Pakistan
152 Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT) Pakistan
153 Roots for Equity Pakistan
154 FENASEP Panamá
155 Project Sepik Papua New Guinea
157 IBON Foundation Philippines
158 Ladlad Caraga Incorporated Philippines
159 Institute of Global Responsibility (IGO) Poland
160 Ole Siosiomaga Society Incorporated (OLSSI) Samoa
161 Confédération des Syndicats Autonomes du Sénégal Senegal
162 Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) South Africa
163 Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) South Africa
164 Institute for Economic Justice South Africa
165 National Public Service Workers Union (NPSWU) South Africa
166 South Durban Community Environmental Alliance South Africa
167 Support for Peace and Education Developmnt Program (SPEDP) South Sudan
169 Association for Proper Internet Governance Switzerland
170 Bread for all Switzerland
171 Coalition suisse de la diversité culturelle Switzerland
172 FIAN Switzerland Switzerland
173 Public Eye Switzerland
174 HakiMadini Tanzania
175 Tanzania Organization for Agricultural Development (TOfAD) Tanzania
176 La'o Hamutuk Timor-Leste
177 ICT4D Uganda Uganda
178 Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute Uganda
179 Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute Uganda
180 Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI)-Uganda Uganda
181 Women’s Probono Initiative (WPI) Uganda
182 Global Justice Now United Kingdom
183 War on Want United Kingdom
184 AFL-CIO United States
185 Campaign for America's Future United States
186 Citizens Trade Campaign United States
187 Democratic Socialists of America, International Committee, Economics and Trade United States
188 Fair World Project United States
189 Food & Water Watch United States
190 International Center for Technology Assessment United States
191 National Family Farm Coalition United States
192 NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice United States
193 Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness United States
194 Public Citizen United States
195 Sierra Club United States
196 United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) United States
197 Win Without War United States
198 Amigos de la Tierra (FoE) Uruguay Uruguay
199 Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition ( VHRC) Vanuatu
200 Coalición de Tendencia Clasista (CTC-VZLA) Venezuela
201 SCODE Vietnam
202 Zimbabwe Urban Councils Workers Union Zimbabwe