Green barriers on the horizon
TRADE, environment and labour standards hold centrestage as the countdown begins for the formal signing ceremony of the Uruguay Round of GATT at Marrakesh, Morocco, on April 15. Under pressure from the industrialised nations, the 118-member nations are planning to take the first step towards a "green GATT" by setting up a committee on trade, environment and sustainable development. "This will perhaps be the only significant event taking place in an otherwise routine conference," says A V Ganesan, avid GATT watcher and former secretary in the Union ministry of commerce.
The main purpose of the committee will be to set guidelines for the use of trade restrictions for environmental protection. According to the official statement passed at the recent Geneva meet, the committee "will promote the need to preserve the open trading system and avoid unilateralism while ensuring the responsiveness of the trading system to environmental objectives".
The setting up of the committee, which is to operate under the GATT secretariat, acquires a special significance in view of the fact that the secretariat will soon be converted into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The WTO will wield much wider authority, as the service industry that accounts for 60 per cent of the world economy and the Intellectual Property Rights are being included in multilateral trading system.
The developing nations are viewing the proposed committee warily because they fear that the West may surreptitiously introduce non-tariff trade barriers in the name of environmental protection. They insist that the members should stop at "creating the committee" and not make an attempt to develop a full-fledged work programme. The committee should be allowed to decide its own agenda in its own time.
However, Northern environmental groups are convinced that this would only lead to further delay and are putting pressure on their governments to formalise the agenda at Marrakesh. Opines Ganesan, "There might be a clash of opinions. But it will be disastrous to view the issue of environmental protection merely as an instrument to widen the North-South divide."
The Third World is also vexed about the attempt by the US to link "internationally recognised" labour standards to trade, which entails that the GATT signatories close their markets to goods imported from countries that refuse to recognise the standards. This move is allegedly targeted against the Third World, which will be forced to raise labour wages, now far lower than those offered in industrialised countries. It is felt that the US is motivated by its selfish desire to dull the competitive edge of Third World traders and not by any overwhelming concern for labourers.