Thursday, December 01, 2005

Culture and WTO in Hong Kong

International Network for Cultural Diversity


There is a major risk that culture activists who fought so hard to secure the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on cultural diversity may believe they can relax and that the imminent WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong from 13-18 December poses no real risk to culture.

The Convention provides no guaranteed protection from trade agreements and the impact of free trade rules on the rights of governments to adopt policies that promote local culture and genuine cultural diversity.

Indeed, there is mounting pressure on all WTO members to make new commitments on a range of services, including in the audio-visual sector. One serious attack has been deflected, for now. What was called "quantitative benchmarks" would have required "developed" countries to commit a minimum of 139 of the 163 services sub-sectors (85%) to the rules of the GATS, while "developing" countries would have had to commit 93 subsectors (57%).

That would almost inevitably have impacted on services related to culture. After massive pressure from Third World governments and activists that proposal has been dropped from the text of what governments are supposed to agreed on. But the European Union is insisting that it should be back on the agenda in Hong Kong.

It is vitally important to maintain pressure on all governments not to accept this restriction on the sovereign rights of governments to decide their own policies.

A second point of attack now appears more threatening. It is called the
"plurilateral" approach. Basically, a group of countries will draw up their ideal set of commitments on a particular service by February 2006 and require all other governments to respond to their demands.

These clusters of countries are known as the "friends" groups. One of the most notorious is the "friends of audio-visual services", led by the US. But there are also groups on telecoms, education, computer services, postal services, distribution and more.

Under the latest proposal these "friends" groups would collectively present their demands to some or all other WTO governments and those governments would have to enter into negotiations about those requests. That removes the right of governments at present to ignore such requests. It is not hard to imagine the pressure that will come on poorer, small or vulnerable countries to give in especially if they are told that is the price of concessions in an area of importance to them, such as cotton or sugar.

To spell this out the US and its allies could demand that all governments that are signatories to the UNESCO Convention enter into negotiations to open up their audio-visual services. True, they could negotiate and still say no. But we know how hard that can be. The same could happen with telecommunications and computer-related services, where First World transnational corporations want to gain control of the digital platforms. Or in distribution services, where Wal-Mart or Video-Ezy aim to control what videos, music or books are on sale to

This proposal is currently contained in the text that Trade Ministers will discuss at the WTO meeting in Hong Kong in December. It is urgent and essential to put pressure on culture ministers, trade ministers and political leaders to oppose this threat to services. If it is allowed to proceed, all the fine words of the UNESCO Convention will mean very little.

Technorati Tags: , ,, , , , , Anti Globalization, and .