Eco-labeling raises Indian hackles

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Updated: Oct 2 2004, 05:30am hrs
India and the European Union (EU) are set on a collision course when it comes to the role of civil society, particularly non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in the WTO round of trade negotiations. The WTO is a totally democratic organisation, where each country has an equal vote, Indias N N Vohra said at a seminar organised by the Brussels-based European Economic and Social Committee. The EESC represents European civil society, including employers and trade unions and, with its 317 members, is one of the key institutions that run the 25-nation EU.

India is opposed to the launch of any negotiations on eco-labeling, and also linkage of trade with environment, except to the extent agreed to by WTO trade ministers when they met in Doha, Mr Vohra told the two-day seminar, which was attended by civil society representatives from Africa and Latin America. Such linkages, he felt, can be used arbitrarily by the developed world for protectionist purposes.

Mr Vohra was equally blunt as regards labour issues. Let me state in the most unambiguous terms that most of the developing countries are strongly opposed to any linkage of trade with any social issues, including the observance of core labour standards, Mr Vohra declared. India, like most other developing countries, had serious apprehension that such a linkage would provide another handle to the developed world to use it arbitrarily for protectionist purposes, Mr Vohra declared. He reminded his audience that the 1996 WTO ministerial meeting had rejected the use of labour standards for protectionist purposes, and agreed that the comparative advantage of countries, particularly low wage developing countries, must in no way be put into question. However, EU chief trade negotiator Pascal Lamy had a very different message for the Euro-Mediterranean conference on the future of the textile and clothing industry. Trade liberalisation cannot be at the expense of working conditions, of the environment, Mr Lamy declared in Tunis, even while Mr Vohra was speaking in Brussels.

In our view the non-respect of social and environmental standards is not an element of a countrys comparative advantage, Lamy said. We wish to promote textile and clothing production methods which respect these standards, he went on, thus raising the question of the implementation of ILO conventions on fundamental social rights.

The WTO, despite its imperfections, is better than the law of the jungle. But the WTO should be given a parliamentary dimension, and aim for greater openness toward representatives of civil society
Peter Mandelson, former UK secretary of trade and industry, who will take over from Pascal Lamy in a months time, was equally firm. Trade and economic growth should not be at the expense of social justice, the environment, or of developing countries, he told the European Parliament, in his written answers to questions put to him by MEPs.

Mr Mandelson agreed with Mr Vohra on protectionism, however. We should never allow protectionism to advance under the banner of social justice, he wrote. Even so, he would continue to pursue the link between trade and social development, both in our bilateral relations and in the multilateral arena, including through reinforced cooperation with the International Labour Office (ILO).

Mr Vohras views are shared by European business. There is no job creation, no sustainable social protection, no viable environmental policy without economic growth, and there is no growth without competitiveness, the head of the Dutch employers organisation VVNO-NCW declared recently. For the Brussels-based European employers organisation, UNICE, economic growth is the indispensable basis for sustainable development and well-being.

Mr Vohras views provoked controversy at the seminar, especially when he pointed to Indias concerns on proposals aimed at throwing open the WTO meetings and the dispute settlement panel proceedings to the public and non-governmental organisations at large. NGOs, he felt, may be so focused on a single issue that they may not be able to accurately balance the public interest concerns.

Mr Vohra noted that inadequate financial resources often hamper developing countries in the WTOs dispute settlement process. As NGOs in developed countries are financially better endowed than NGOs in developing countries, this inadequacy will get further skewed if NGO participation is permitted in the dispute settlement process, he maintained.

Mr Vohra was addressing the EESC seminar on the contribution of civil society organisations to the work of the WTO as co-chairman of the EU-India Round Table, set up by former minister for external affairs Jaswant Singh and his EU counterpart commissioner Chris Patten. The Round Tables other co-chairman is the EESC President, Roger Briesch. Its members include Amit Mitra of FICCI and Tarun Das of the CII.

Mr Briesch, a French trade union leader, did not see eye-to-eye with his Indian co-chairman. Unlike Mr Vohra, he held, It is vital to enhance civil societys participation in various international organisations, including the WTO. He applauded Pascal Lamys moves to open the monitoring of trade negotiations to the scrutiny of European civil society organisations.

The EESC seminar concluded that the WTO, despite its imperfections, is better than the law of the jungle. It nevertheless felt that the WTO should be given a parliamentary dimension, and should aim for greater openness toward representatives of civil society. At the same time, consultation mechanisms should be strengthened, so that civil society can engage governments in a dialogue on economic and social issues.