Back to the Scene of the Crime: The WTO after Hong Kong

Hidayat Greenfield*

Most TV murder mysteries end with the arrest (or elaborately justified killing) of the perpetrators of the crime. The criminals are caught. The truth is revealed. And justice (revised, modified, and adapted for commercial viewing) prevails. There's always a neat ending to every terrible (yet entertaining) crime spree. But what if the criminal always gets away? What if the perpetrators depart the scene of the crime in first-class comfort, while the people trying to stop them are arrested? And what if these crimes are real inflicted daily on millions of people? This particular criminal organization has already escaped justice for more than a decade. Truth was an early victim and hope is missing, presumed dead. So where does that leave us? We're all witnesses to these crimes. We saw it happen. And we saw them leave the scene of the crime again and again. So how do we stop them? How do change the ending?

Post-Hong Kong Autopsy

The most recent crime scene: the Sixth WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong. For five days members of the WTO triad (technocrats, government negotiators and big business) strike a series of deals, while covering their tracks in false promises and blatant lies. Then they make their escape under the full glare of the media, flying first class. They're free. Meanwhile, after a week of police violence to break up street protests, dozens of arrested protestors are released, but criminal charges are filed against 14 protestors, mostly Korean farmers. What was their crime? They were attempting to stop the WTO triad from making trade deals that threaten the livelihoods of farmers and their communities, deepen global inequality and poverty, and wreak more havoc on our ravaged and fragile planet. In other words, they were arrested for trying to stop crimes committed in the name of corporate profit (a.k.a. global capitalism). So the police intervened to protect the criminals and helped them get away. Again.

In the weeks leading up to the Sixth Ministerial there was hope that the WTO having suffered a near-fatal blow in Cancun two years earlier would be DOA (dead on arrival) in Hong Kong. But the WTO had recovered and was pursuing the neoliberal agenda with renewed aggression. WTO officials, government negotiators and their corporate bosses were determined to engineer "major breakthroughs" in Hong Kong, securing a "consensus" among 149 governments through backroom deals and trade-offs. Food sovereignty sacrificed for financial services, water rights for more Wal-Marts, and the right to access to essential treatment dropped in return for more economic aid (a.k.a. bribery and debt). As always, the details are quietly sorted out later, in a series of "mini-ministerials" and bilateral meetings. Meanwhile the nationalist and Third Worldist rhetoric of governments from the global South vanishes in the face of these side-deals and counter-offers. Concern for small farmers and rural communities, protecting scarce natural resources, and noises about reducing poverty nothing but casino chips cast down on the table and gambled away. Result: the populist nationalism threatening to deadlock the WTO talks emerges as little more than a bargaining chip for securing better deals for the capitalists back home. And so the deal's done and yet another crime is committed.

Corporate Crime Wave

What crimes are we talking about? There's evidence of everything from criminal negligence, theft, fraud and breaking and entering, to treason and second-degree murder. The evidence of criminal negligence is abundant. One of the goals of the WTO triad is to force open agricultural export markets, expanding the global trade in agricultural products. But this doesn't mean alleviating hunger or fulfilling the right to adequate, nutritious and safe food. It means commercializing staple food crops (the basis of life) or replacing them with cash crops for exports. It means targeting growth in the US$545 billion annual trade in agricultural products while a fifth of the world's population lives in hunger including the farmers and agricultural workers who produce the food that feeds the world. During the five days that the WTO triad met in Hong Kong an estimated 120,000 people died of hunger and hunger-related illness around the world. Criminal neglect is also evident in the protracted discussions on the primacy of pharmaceutical conglomerates' property rights over the right to essential treatment. Despite the extreme urgency of the global humanitarian crisis we're facing, the WTO triad fine-tunes its proposals and plans, letting people die in their tens of thousands until a commercially viable (that is, profitable) compromise is reached.

There are similar examples concerning public health, water and the environment, all involving criminal neglect. But the WTO triad not only fails to address these problems, it systematically prevents governments from taking appropriate action. In the case of hunger, for example, governments in the poorest countries are banned from subsidizing local food production to achieve food self-sufficiency. Instead, food shortages can only be met through government-financed food imports - purchasing "surplus" food on the global market. In other words, governments are restricted to buying food that's produced, processed and transported by transnational food conglomerates like Cargill (whose executives' fingerprints are all over the WTO Agreement on Agriculture). Doesn't that sound like a criminal racket? It's just one of numerous schemes that exploit people's vulnerability and insecurity to generate corporate profit.

Alongside these cases of criminal neglect there's evidence that the WTO triad is creating a global trade and investment regime that exacerbates the most serious social and environmental crises we face today. That means conscious decisions are made decisions by powerful people placing corporate profit above human life, with full knowledge that people will die in their tens of thousands as a result. Simply put, that's second-degree murder.

It's also clear that virtually all of the government delegations attending the Hong Kong Ministerial should have been arrested on returning to their home countries. Why? For aiding and abetting the crimes perpetuated by the WTO regime. For conspiracy to expand the power and reach of transnational capital by overseeing far-reaching changes to national laws and regulations that threaten to undermine the collective social, economic and cultural rights of the people and inflict irreparable ecological damage. In several countries there may be a real legal basis for charging government delegations with violating provisions in the Constitution, for bypassing elected parliaments, breaking laws on public disclosure, or acting against the public interest. If condemning a large part of the population to perpetual poverty and insecurity isn't a crime or isn't a violation of the Constitution, then it should be.

Legalizing Corporate Crime

The reality is that a continuous series of crimes are committed everyday by politicians and government officials in the name of the WTO. This involves changes to national and sub-national laws and regulations to achieve compliance with WTO rules, even if they are blatantly incompatible with the government's responsibility towards the public. Every day hundreds of existing laws and regulations are reviewed and modified to attain WTO compatibility, while newly drafted laws and policies are subjected to a "risk assessment" review to ensure that there's no risk of violating WTO commitments.

Take food safety laws, for example. These regulations are quietly revised to allow higher levels of dioxin in milk (higher than WHO recommended levels), imported apples are no longer inspected thoroughly (exposing local varieties to imported diseases), restrictions on genetically-modified organisms are lifted, food labeling requirements are weakened, and measures to protect biodiversity undergo technical revisions that make them both WTO compatible and utterly useless.

At the same time labeling requirements for electronic home appliances containing radioactive material are relaxed, commercial contracts are tendered on public water distribution services, local content policies designed to generate local jobs are quietly withdrawn, and literally hundreds of other regulatory changes are quietly introduced. Visit the WTO website and you'll see hundreds of notifications that are not even disputed in high-profile trade conflicts. They are quietly incorporated into national and sub-national laws and policies, every single day. In less than a decade there have been well over 1,500 changes to national laws to permit greater freedom for foreign capital. Each one of those changes involves a criminal act a conscious decision to violate the social, economic and cultural rights of the people in the name of transnational corporate profit.

It's also critical to understand that these crimes have become institutionalized. Legal changes imposed through WTO commitments are designed to outlive current governments, locking into place any government that follows. So while corporate power is transnational, the commitment of governments to protect this power becomes trans-generational. Moreover, the changes in national and international laws imposed under the WTO regime serve to de-criminalize corporate crimes and grant these criminals perpetual immunity.

Stopping the WTO Crime Spree

Put down the phone. Don't call the cops. This is clearly one problem that can't be outsourced. It needs direct action - organized, sustained and collective. It needs, for example, mass "citizen's arrests" of delegations returning from WTO negotiations. It needs "arrest warrants" to be issued for all government officials and corporate executives involved in these trade deals, with charges of criminal negligence, aiding and abetting or murder filed against each and every one of them. They must be put on trial in community-organized "corporate crimes" tribunals or people's courts. Evidence should be presented, witnesses called. Together with the WTO Ministerial Declaration, all official documents issued by governments in support of the WTO must be stamped "Illegal" and collected and displayed in "Evidence" bags. All laws and regulations changed in the name of WTO compliance must undergo forensic examination to see if a crime has been committed, and if so then the "fingerprints" of government officials and their corporate bosses need to be documented and made public.

This isn't about imposing law and order or a new kind of community policing. It's about raising public awareness of the criminality of what is being done in the name of profit. It's about justice in its true sense freedom from exploitation and oppression. It's about stopping those who are violating this freedom. It's about giving up the role of passive witness or victim, and taking action. It's about changing how this story ends.

6 June 2006

* Hidayat Greenfield is a labour research activist and union organizer working in East and Southeast Asia.