by Danielle Knight

Seattle, 4 Dec 99 (IPS) -- Environmentalists cheered the collapse of international trade negotiations aimed at a new round of talks on reducing tariffs worldwide and joined the overwhelming call for reform of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Echoing non-governmental organisation (NGO) concerns over the democratic process of the 135-member international body, developing nations charged that they were excluded from key meetings and beat back ambitious US trade plans.

"A lack of democracy and transparency led to the demise of these talks," said Andrea Durbin, international programme director at Friends of the Earth. The WTO "has to open up, become more democratic and include full participation of civil society and developing countries."

Matthew Stilwell, managing attorney at the Geneva office of the Centre for International Environmental Law, added that the collapse of the trade talks marked a turning point in the WTO and global economic policy making. "No longer can trade insiders control decisions with implications of global importance," said Stilwell. "Governments of the world must now take into account the concerns of their citizens."

Over the past week, tens of thousands of representatives of civil society groups from as far away as Ghana and India poured into this city to protest what they saw as global trade rules that benefited multinational corporations at the expense of environmental, labour and health protections.

Standing side by side with labour organizers, church groups, farmers, human rights and humanitarian organisations, they demanded the institution open up its process to hear their concerns about economic globalisation.

In its five-year existence, they said, the WTO has ruled against domestic environmental protection and health laws through its dispute resolution panel whose decisions are legally binding while its proceedings are closed to NGOs, the media and general public.

US Clean Air and Endangered Species laws were weakened, they said, because these were ruled as barriers to trade. Guatemala also had weakened its implementation of the UN Children's Fund baby formula marketing code, according to Washington-based Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

France's law banning asbestos was among measures currently being challenged in closed-door WTO dispute panel proceedings. And the US has said that a new European proposal to ban certain heavy metals in electronic equipment could violate WTO rules.

"If it does not change, the WTO will continue to be viewed as an illegitimate institution by the vast majority of people and it will not be able to succeed," said Daniel Seligman, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Programme.

Many civil society groups based in developing countries took issue with US laws they saw as imposing home standards on other countries - such as the regulation requiring that all imported shrimp be caught with precautions taken for protecting endangered sea-turtles - but said that the WTO was not the proper forum to resolve such disputes.

"While there are problems with the US law, in no way should this discussion take place within the WTO," said Meena Raman of Consumers Association, an advocacy group in Penang, Malaysia. Forest protection activists, who had warned that plans to eliminate barriers to trade in paper and wood products would spur increased logging in environmental hot spots, cautiously celebrated the collapse of the WTO talks.

"No new round is a victory for forests - for now," said Paige Fischer, trade campaigner for the California-based Pacific Environment and Resources Centre.

Jim Jontz, executive director of American Lands Alliance, said the past week of protests against the elimination of tariffs in wood and paper products proved that the public does not want trade to lead to forest destruction. The collapse in trade negotiations, he said, "gives the WTO time to step back and truly assess its environmental impacts."

Environmentalists still worried that the agenda to liberalize trade in the forest products sector would be put on the table in future negotiations in Geneva. Environmentalists also worried that if a new round of trade talks had been launched, then the European Union (EU) could have caved in to US and Canadian proposals for a WTO Working Group on biotechnology.

NGOs said the WTO, heavily dominated by the United States and multinational corporations, also was the wrong place to address trade in genetically modified products. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the trade body should not "touch this issue until it is reformed to recognise precautionary approaches to risky new products." (SUNS4567)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS).