PANNA: Collapse of WTO Talks in Cancún


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Collapse of WTO Talks in Cancún
29, 2003

The Fifth Ministerial session of the World Trade Organization (WTO), held in mid September in Cancún, Mexico, ended in near-complete failure, signaling a new era of Third World and popular resistance to the developing neoliberal international economic and political order. The talks were derailed by new dynamics among nations of the global South, with NGOs and grassroots protest actions playing a highly visible role.

The inability to reach any substantive agreement revolved primarily around issues developed during the 1996 WTO Ministerial in Singapore. These include negotiations on rules for investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation — areas in which businesses from advanced and recently industrialized economies stand to gain a great deal, but benefits to poorer economies are at best questionable. Many developing countries demanded further clarification of these issues before reaching the consensus required to begin their negotiation. Proponents of the Singapore issues, principally the E.U. and the U.S., failed to broker a deal in which investment and competition would be dropped from the draft agreement text, leading to a walkout led by Kenya.

Issues surrounding agriculture were also contentious, with the U.S. and E.U. on one side and the newly aligned “G21+” group of developing countries led by Brazil and India on the other. Among other concerns, poorer countries object to double standards in which the richer agricultural countries maintain high levels of subsidies to their agricultural producers, allowing them to export goods often below the cost of production — destroying the livelihoods of millions of farmers in the global South. For example, the U.S. provides its cotton farmers with US$4 billion in subsidies for producing $3 billion worth of cotton. Insistence on the Singapore issues stymied discussion on agriculture, despite many proposals on farm issues from developing countries.

Also controversial were exclusionary WTO decision-making processes. Once again a “Green Room” procedure was used throughout the summit in which only small numbers of negotiators were allowed to participate. In one crucial meeting on the Singapore issues, only nine negotiators (from the U.S., E.U., Mexico, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Kenya and South Africa) were convened by the Ministerial chairman, Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez. Likewise, revisions of the draft Ministerial declaration repeatedly failed to reflect Third World positions. “Here we are with 70 or more developing countries speaking up clearly in the consultations, having a consensus document with language on the Singapore issues, clearly expressed, and the revised text just ignores their position,” said a Caribbean Minister. “What kind of organization is this? Who does it belong to? Who does the drafting? Who appointed them?” he said.

Overall, this time the poorer countries were better prepared through their own regional and national processes to engage in substantive debates. Complementing these new dynamics, NGOs held alternative forums and provided analyses, informational resources and consultations, and thousands took part in forceful and creative protest actions in the streets of Cancún.

Organized by the Mexican campesino organization UNORCA (National Union of Autonomous Regional Farming Organizations) and the global farmer movement Via Campesina, thousands of Mexican farmers held an alternative two-day forum and marched to the barricades separating the city of Cancún from the hotel district where the Ministerial was held. Joined by a farmers’ delegation from South Korea, and more than a thousand activists from Mexico, the United States and other countries, the barricade was torn down, although protestors were unable to advance into the hotel zone. Lee Kyung-hae, a leader of the Korean Federation of Advanced Farmers Association, took his own life in an extraordinary act of sacrifice on top of the barricade, resulting in many moving vigils and a protest encampment, and projecting his message that “The WTO kills farmers” around the world. For several days, protestors marched to and disassembled the barricade, with other large demonstrations taking place within the city and smaller but spirited protests occurring in the hotel zone itself. Hundreds of protests also took place in other countries.

The protests, which PANNA staff helped to organize, once again contributed to the public critique of the impacts of the far-reaching WTO trade and investment regime and reportedly helped embolden Third World delegations. They severely hampered access to and prompted extreme security measures throughout the hotel zone, making clear the powerful level of opposition to the WTO mounted by peoples’ organizations around the world. The protest actions also raised the significant costs of hosting the unpopular WTO summits.

The breakdown in Cancún created a new playing field in the struggle over the neoliberal, hyper market-oriented vision of global economic relations promoted by many of the rich nations and the corporate interests they reflect. In the post-Cancún stage, poorer countries are finding new alliances to advance their interests and the reenergized anti-globalization movement continues to develop effective forms of cross-cultural collaboration and creative resistance. Meanwhile, the U.S. has suggested that it will now emphasize a more bi-lateral and regional approach, focusing on agreements such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Middle East Free Trade Area, taking note, as Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said, “of those nations that played a constructive role in Cancún, and those nations that didn’t.”

Sources: First-hand accounts by PANNA staff in Cancún; “Behind the Collapse of the Cancún Ministerial,” Third World Network, 14 Sept 2003,; “The Meaning of Cancún,” Food First, 19 September 2003,

Update: Our request for funds in the August 25th PANUPS, “Help Mexican Farmers Stand Up to WTO in Cancun” netted $750, all of which has gone to UNORCA, the Mexican campesino organization. Many thanks to all who contributed.

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