Civil Society Letter to Roberto Azevêdo, Director General, WTO

By CSOs | Letter | February 9, 2017

This letter is addressed to you as DG, WTO on the occasion of your visit to India. This is being sent collectively from civil society groups, including farmers, workers, people living with cancer, HIV and HCV, health groups, retailers, and grass-root constituencies in India who are calling on you for a change in approach in the WTO negotiations, by advancing its development mandate rather than pursuing a trade agenda essentially for increasing the stranglehold of the dominant corporations.

Since its inception, the WTO has not addressed the legitimate developmental concerns even when it was mandated to do so. In the past two decades during which WTO has implemented the Uruguay Round Agreements, there has been an unacceptable level of increase in the inequalities between the rich and poor both across and within countries, because the trade rules have ensured benefits for a few at the cost of millions of people world-wide.

Development Round

The recent deliberations in the WTO raise grave concerns about further worsening of conditions of the people across the global south. Though the Doha Development Round (DDR) is far from perfect in terms of its conceptualisation, ambitions and achievements, the push for the “new issues’, even before the minimalist mandate of the DDR has been met, is a major cause for concern.

New Issues

In particular, the push for multilateral agreements covering e-commerce and investment, both in their ambition and approach, will be extremely damaging for the interests of large constituencies in India; including farmers and small producers, workers, patients, small traders and many others. These will also have detrimental impact on our government’s ability to regulate in public interest and to implement social protection measures.


Prohibiting custom duty on e-commerce, for example, will force our government to forego much needed tariff revenues that could have been used for key social services such as health & education, and advancing development objectives including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Incentives for the growth of ecommerce by allowing physical import of goods into our country will threaten the livelihoods of small traders, as well as the small and medium enterprises, which are the backbone of India’s manufacturing sector. Further, it can compromise India’s security considerations. Cross-border transfer of information through e-commerce subordinates privacy to profits and could override privacy laws and permit corporations to challenge such laws under ISDS. We are shocked to learn that the framework of the WTO talks on e-commerce goes even beyond that of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the TISA, and sneaks in TRIPS plus provisions as well as those related to the Singapore Issues. We would like to emphasise that a binding agreement on e-commerce could hurt not only countries like India but all the poorer members of the WTO.

Investment Provisions

Globally there is a growing questioning of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) in the light of evidence that corporations are abusing the ISDS mechanism to undermine the rights of sovereign states to regulate key areas including agriculture, environment and health even as they are proving not sufficient to attract foreign investment. They pose enormous threat to government’s ability to regulate, change and implement policies in public interest, public health & environment, and uphold human rights. A large number of countries, which includes South Africa, Indonesia and India, are terminating their current BITs. India has terminated 57 of its BITs and is currently engaged in amending the text of remaining 25 treaties to introduce safeguards against abuse. At a time when there is a growing public opinion and apprehension among policy makers that the existing investment treaty regime undermines the efforts being made by sovereign states to address emerging social, economic, environmental and developmental challenges, no attempts should be made to revive the long-rejected principles of multilateral agreement on investment for launching negotiations for an investment agreement under the WTO framework.

Farm & Food Security

We are deeply worried to learn that while these new issues are being pushed under your leadership, key issues on agriculture such as the permanent solution on the food security proposal and the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM) are being pushed to the background. In fact, issue of the disproportionately large domestic subsidies maintained by several OECD members has not received serious consideration in the four years of your leadership. We want to draw your attention to the immense importance of agriculture, food production and farmers’ livelihoods in a country such as India and to tell you what a travesty it is that the huge developed country agricultural subsidies continue unabated while minimum subsidies given to poor farmers in India are coming under close scrutiny at the WTO. We also want to add that we cannot support any move on fisheries subsidies without ensuring special & differential treatment, which will help to protect poor and small fisher-folk in India.

Future Course

We would urge you to re-orient the WTO, which will enable the organization to fulfil its development mandate. The WTO was set up to help developing countries catch up. It needs to fulfil that mandate to justify its sheer existence. We call upon you to respect the spirit of multilateralism in the negotiations, and not resort to processes that push decisions by a few rich members while leaving out the voices of the poorer members and the vast majority of their people in these processes. Globalisation including on WTO’s terms, is leaving large numbers of countries and people behind while it enriches a privileged few worldwide. Unless institutions like the WTO takes the voices of this vast majority seriously, its existence will justifiably be in jeopardy.

February 9, 2016

The letter is endorsed by over 80 organizations (including Madhyam) from India.