Trade might is not right

What's wrong with global negotiations today?

By Anju Sharma
Published: Tuesday 15 October 2002

-- Tucked away in the latest means of implementation draft is one line that has not yet generated much interest here in Jo'berg: "Eliminate unilateral trade sanctions used to reinforce the environmental agenda." Yet, the acceptance or rejection of this one line could indicate whether the world -- both governments and civil society -- is truly ready for global democracy, or whether we are here fighting for concepts that we don't really believe in. It is a line truly well worth fighting for, if we want to ensure a world where both rich and poor are accountable for environmentally unacceptable behaviour, and it is not just the poor who are at the receiving end of trade 'sticks'.

Why is this line important? One of the biggest challenges facing global negotiations today is how to make sure that nation states comply with their international commitments. So far, it is mostly rich countries who have forced compliance on developing countries, by using the threat of withdrawing aid, or using trade sanctions. For instance, the us invoked a national legislation, the Pelly Amendment, to force tiny Taiwan to meet its commitments under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (cites), and implement legislation to protect the tiger.

Sometimes, trade sanctions have been used not just to ensure that developing countries meet commitments they make at multilateral negotiations, but to even force them to comply with national environmental legislation or morally acceptable standards of the rich countries, which they have not subscribed to in any global fora. For instance, the us banned shrimp imports from several Asian countries because these countries did not use turtle excluder devices (teds) while catching shrimp. At no point had the affected countries committed to using teds. Yet, the us felt justified in forcing them to do so by using a trade lever.

All's fair in ensuring environmental compliance and protecting species, conservationist groups may say. But the extremely unfair nature of such one-sided tools becomes apparent when applied to the current compliance quandary faced by the world -- how do we make the us meet its commitments under the un Framework Convention on Climate Change (unfccc), or even make the us take moral responsibility for the disasters its behaviour will inflict on the rest of the world, particularly on the poor and vulnerable? What tools do poor countries that will be affected by global warming have to force the us to take action? To quote an example that we at the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) often give, can puny Bangladesh, which will be severely impacted by global warming, impose trade sanctions against well-padded Uncle Sam or threaten to withdraw aid? Consider the sheer ridiculousness of this suggestion, to understand the totally undemocratic nature of trade and aid compliance tools.

Yet, such tools have not come up for criticism from the global community, though several academics have studied the relative merits of using 'carrots' (usually promises of aid) and 'sticks' (usually trade sanctions) to ensure compliance with global environmental commitments. Few talk about the inherently undemocratic nature of such sticks.

The challenge of finding democratic compliance tools that are equally available to the rich and poor is a crucial requirement for good global governance. Until such tools are identified, rich countries have to restrain from using undemocratic means. They must not succumb to the relative ease of bullying poor countries to adopt environmentally acceptable behaviour.

If rich countries are indeed serious about practicing the 'good governance' that they keep thrusting on developing countries, then they should have absolutely no hesitation in removing the brackets on this one crucial line in the trade text. Otherwise, not only are they no better than the worst breed of bureaucrats who are too intoxicated by the levers of power that they control to give them up, but they are also hypocrites who are incapable of practising what they preach.

Anju Sharma is coordinator, global environmental governance unit, cse

Eco agreed to publish the first story, 'Trade Might is Not Right' in a spirit of openness and free exchange of ideas. Readers will not be surprised to know that the members of the Eco-Equity Coalition do not agree with several of the assertions in the story or with its conclusions. -- The Editor

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