The problem is not free trade, but too little democracy

John Madeley ("There's a food fight in Seattle", 22 November) compares resistance to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with the campaign against apartheid, but there are more alarming parallels. The creators of apartheid often used similar language as opponents of trade negotiations today. In 1941, the Volkshandel wrote that "every sober-minded, thinking Afrikaner is fed up to the top of his throat with so-called laissez-faire capitalism, with its soul-destroying materialism". Legal apartheid also began with demonstrations against free-market competition and domination by foreign-owned big business.

Today's demonstrators are not racist and are often allied with people in the majority world. The issues Madeley describes are critical, and I support his conclusions. But it is important not to get caught on the same side of the barricades as right-wing protectionists. If we close the WTO, it will not be replaced by an international agency for sustainable development, but by multinational corporations doing their own thing and the big powers enforcing their rules. Many of the world's poor have been in the jaws of global markets since the conquistadors, and the WTO is the first effective forum where their governments have an equal vote.

The central issue in the current talks is not trade but democratic global governance: who decides the rules of the world economy, and in whose interests? The WTO is part of a deliberate system of divide and rule in international decision-making. Issues such as environment, finance, health, human rights, labour relations and security are dealt with in separate compartments such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, the Human Rights Commission, the International Labour Organisation and the UN Security Council. Each has its own chief, secretariat and governing body, nominally representing the world's people. But only rich countries and big companies can afford to participate fully, and they also use exclusive power structures in the G7, the OECD and the EU to prepare. The most powerful world bodies are also openly based on minority rule. Western powers have a majority of votes in the IMF and the World Bank, while 60 per cent of the permanent members of the Security Council are European and 80 per cent are white.

At least in the WTO all countries have an equal vote and the disputes mechanism has the power to enforce the rules against powerful blocks such as the EU and the US. But so long as the majority are excluded from participating on equal terms and the rules governing trade, finance, labour relations, human rights and the environment are kept separate, there will be enormous problems. National boycotts of South Africa under apartheid would have been illegal under the WTO rules, for example.

The Charter for Global Democracy (Charter 99) is a worldwide movement to reform international decision-making on the basis of accountability, equality and environmental sustainability. Only in the context of democratic reform of all institutions of global governance can we hope for a fairer system of international trade.

Titus Alexander
Chair, Charter 99 (www.charter99.org)

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery