CUTS’ Statement at the WTO High-level Meeting on Trade and Environment

March 15-16, 1999, Geneva, Switzerland

Trade and Environment is just one subset of the larger debate on trade and sustainable development. Even though the words “sustainable development” find a frequent mention beginning with the Preamble of the WTO, and in various other Agreements annexed to the GATT 1994, the steps being taken to abide by corresponding commitments have been very few.

Currently discussions in the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), pertaining to assessing the impact of multilateral trading system on sustainable development have been narrowed down to the domain of environment. Hence the other two important facets associated with sustainable development viz. economy and equity are being ignored. More so, the initiatives taken to break the “logjam” with respect to discussions in the CTE do not aim towards finding “win-win” solutions for enabling North to embark on the path of sustainable consumption (by reducing over-consumption) and the South to initiate measures towards eradicating poverty (by getting rid of under-consumption). In fact the agenda of the CTE, and the submissions by some countries portrays how big trading countries are trying to increase their capacity to access markets, and simultaneously protect their domestic industry from competition, using environment protection as a tool.

It is in this context that the big trading countries have to understand their role based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Importantly, these countries should also realise the potential of coming closer to the “win-win” situation (mentioned above) by engaging into dialogues with the civil society from developing and less developed countries within the framework of the CTE.

The recent decision of the appellate body of the dispute settlement system of the WTO on the ‘shrimp-turtle’ dispute shows that environmental concerns are making their impact felt in the decisions of the dispute settlement body. Hence, there does exist a possibility that environmental concerns would not be relegated to the background at the cost of preserving the multilateral trading system.

Another important issue that needs immediate attention is that WTO is becoming too legalistic for comfort. The open ended interpretation of ‘exhaustible natural resources’ under the ‘gasoline’ case (Venezuela v/s USA) or the ‘shrimp-turtle’ (USA v/s India) case has reduced the possibility of establishing meaning(s)/definition(s) through ‘consensus’ in the concerned committees or in the General Council.

This is going against the intent of negotiators representing developing and less developed countries who had actually visualised that interpretation of issues through ‘consensus’ would help maintain stability of the multilateral trading system.

The current trend of securing jurisprudence through the dispute settlement system of the WTO, especially on environmental issues, poses a substantial risk to the stability of the multilateral trading system as the party(ies) involved in the dispute may not agree to the interpretation of the concerned issue.

At this juncture it is also important to note some members of the civil society in the North interpret sustainable development as sustainable environment, thereby neglecting issues of poverty, debt, and employment, which are of crucial importance to developing and less developed countries.

With these disturbing trends as a backdrop, we find that this HLM provides a good opportunity for the international community to deliberate and find solutions on the vexed issues being discussed in the CTE that constrain the developing and less developing countries from embarking on the path of sustainable development, within the framework of the multilateral trading system.


Way Forward
  • Containing poverty in the South
The international community
must realise that unless the links between the chain of trade–market access–sustainable
development nexus are not strengthened and more so are not used to eradicate
poverty in the South, the goals of WTO will not be realised.
  • Multilateral coexistence: MEAs
    and WTO
The international community
must focus on the questions raised by UNEP during the July’ 98 meeting
of the CTE: 

  • What does CTE understand by
    the term “trade measures” in context of Multilateral Environment Agreements
  • What does the CTE view as measures
    in MEAs that are consistent with WTO rules?
  • What does the CTE view as sustainable
    trade policies and how can these policies strengthen MEAs?
  • Production and Process Methods
Realising the need for formulating
strategies that would help embark nations on the path of sustainable development,
the international community needs to appreciate that PPMs are endogenous
factors and vary according to local conditions. Therefore, 

  • The best course is to leave
    it for developing and less developed countries to incorporate advanced
    PPMs in accordance with their absorption capacity.

Till the ‘tuna-dolphin’ case,
the issues pertaining to PPMs were well within the negotiating intent of
the drafters. With the emergence of the WTO it may have been felt that
trade has to accommodate environment. While this linkage may exist, legalistic/jurisprudential
expansion of international community’s intent in setting trade rules is
now fraught with a threat to the multilateral trading system. 

Trade Related Intellectual Property
Rights (TRIPs) and environment
With respect to the access
and transfer of environmentally sound technologies and practices (EST&Ps)
and the possible hurdle that would be created by the TRIPs Agreement we
suggest the following: 

  • Creating of the Multilateral
    Technology Fund, which can provide subsidy to the IPR owner through its
    government for the transfer of EST&Ps.