GATT

Imagine a governing scheme which even its proponents admit would limit the ability of federal, state and local governments to regulate consumer safety and environmental matters. Imagine that while its advocates claim it would dramatically improve the economy, they allow Congress only 90 days to vote up or down on its hundreds of dense pages with no amendments permitted.

Such a proposal would be — and is — a cause for alarm. The proposal is the latest edition of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), an elaborate agreement designed to advance free trade among the signatory nations, which include the United States.

Representatives of big global companies have swarmed over the GATT negotiators, now in Brussels, to strip nations of their internal sovereignty to make decisions that these companies believe will cramp their style — such as health and safety standards about products. A new global corporate world order is in the making, one in which standards in the United States and worldwide are to be driven down to lower common denominators — a process called “harmonization.”

For example, one of the central thrusts of the GATT negotiators in-the “harmonization” of food safety regulations. An early Bush administration proposal would have allowed the import of food such as bananas, potatoes, carrots and grapes containing 10 to 50 times the amount of DDT permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Consumer advocates and environmentalists stopped that recommendation, but the current proposal retains a long-term commitment to “harmonization.” In the meantime, it will require local, state and national governments to prove their consumer safety standards are based on what GATT framers call “sound science.” Restrictions on potentially harmful products deemed not to have been decisively proven dangerous, such as irradiated food or bovine growth hormone-treated dairy products, could be found to be “GATT-illegal.”

Stronger environmental standards in our country could also be interpreted as non-tariff trade barriers in violation of GATT. U.S. programs promoting soil conservation, reforestation and recycling, for example, could be undermined, with foreign countries arguing that government efforts to achieve these goals constitute an unfair subsidy of U.S. business.

The Third World faces the most devastating effects from GATT. New agreements covering intellectual property, services and investment threaten the sovereignty of developing countries. The Malaysia-based Third World Network appropriately labels GATT a means of “recolonization.”

The intellectual property provisions of GATT alone could foster a massive transfer of wealth from the developing to the industrialized countries. GATT aims to implement a uniform patent law worldwide. This would include the genetic resources embedded in seeds and the medicinal herbs native to developing countries. These resources would be patentable on a first-come, first-serve basis. Since Third World peasants and practicers of folk medicine do not have the resources of multinational food and pharmaceutical companies, most of the genetic resources of the developing world — one of its few economic resources at this point — would fall under the control of the industrialized countries.

By forcing Third World countries to adopt a U.S.-style patent system, GATT would also drive up their costs of food and medicines.

Trade liberalization as proposed in GATT will concentrate economic power in the hands of stateless multinational corporations and move control over producers away from localities, regions and nations — exactly the opposite of what is necessary to achieve environmentally and socially sustainable economic growth.

GATT’s corporate backers view it as a means to achieve deregulation on a global scale. Just as domestic deregulation in the eighties brought about the savings and loans scandal and helped despoil the environment, harm consumers and keep many workplaces unsafe, international deregulation threatens immense damage to the well-being of people across national borders.

People should immediately begin to alert members of Congress and ask them to take a stand against a GATT-induced erosion of living standards in the United States and around the world. Citizens should write to their representatives and especially senators and urge them to support Senator Kent Conrad’s resolution, which will allow Congress adequate time to evaluate the severe repercussions of the GATT agreement before either rejection or ratification.

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