WTO Has Power to Override Civil Rights
The short five year history of the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that the WTO is most interested in building a new global economic order of free trade unfettered by environmental, and labor regulations which protect people over corporate interests. It is clear that the WTO has consistently settled trade disputes in favor of corporate interests. The WTO has ruled against environmental restrictions in every case that has come before it and has frequently deemed labor regulations as "non-tariff trade barriers." It's less apparent, however, that the WTO also poses a threat to civil rights.
It is without question that people with disabilities (PWDs) live on the economic margins in every country in the world. We are the least employed, the most impoverished, the least likely to advance beyond subsistence. By far the majority of the 500 million mobility impaired, blind, deaf, and other PWDs around the world still lack access to basic human rights such as shelter, food, health care, and medicine. The process of impoverishment has grown during the NAFTA/GATT/WTO dominion over trade policies. Elite plans to further negotiations that expand the scope and power of the WTO into health services through the General Agreement on Trade in Services will place PWDs at greater risk as privatization dismantles what remains of public health care system in many nations.
Getting an education and a job remain even further out of reach. PWDs are thwarted from full participation in the social and economic life in their native countries. Powerful social, economic, and cultural forces and institutions prevent PWDs from full and free development, in part, by failure to provide fundamental access. PWDs cannot get into many office buildings, schools, and even medical facilities in their communities but physical barriers also prevent many from access to government institutions such as the courts, the legislatures, and public meeting halls where policies get developed. The American experience teaches that civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are necessary to require that institutions build ramps as an alternative to steps, inscribe Braille on elevator panels, and provide sign language interpreters (to name a few) at meetings - to ensure the participation of PWDs in the democratic process. Universal access is a right unique to disability civil rights law.
In recognition of the world-wide discrimination and economic marginalization of PWDs, the United Nations drew up a document titled "Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities." This paper serves as the formal groundwork to educate UN member states about the need for government policies that are disability-specific. In particular the document emphasizes the importance of accessibility in the process of equalizing opportunities. But as one international body progresses disability access, another - the WTO - has the potential to override the ADA's access regulations in the name of "free trade" - as it already has done to national environmental and worker safety regulations.
Here is how that can happen. The WTO limits governments' ability to use their purchasing dollars for human, environmental, and worker rights, i.e., non-commercial purposes. WTO rules assert that governments can make purchases based only on quality and cost considerations, they do not have to adhere to democratically imposed social obligations. Further, the WTO does not allow countries to place restrictions on how products get made. Disability civil rights require products be designed in ways that comply with universal access rules of the ADA which impose specifications on products such as public buses, toilets, commuter-rails, door handles, elevator panels, and other products the public uses every day. For example, buses must be made accessible to wheelchair users, elevator panels must include Braille symbols to designate numbers, public toilet stalls and toilets must be constructed in a manner that all persons, disabled and nondisabled can manage.
When the United States federal, state, county, or city governments contract for large-scale purchases, they solicit bids from all over the world. Because the WTO agreement allows a corporation that believes itself to be disadvantaged by a particular law to look for a government to bring a challenge against it, any competing company in any nation could challenge the ADA's universal access standard as obstructing trade. The objecting nation could bring a complaint against the US calling for it to bring its national law into line with the lower international standard or be subjected to perpetual fines or trade sanctions.
If a corporation were to pursue their interest in the WTO court, there would be a panel of three "experts" comprised of trade lawyers making the decision on the commercial worthiness of universal access. Since the WTO courts have no mandate to gather alternative perspectives, amicus curaie briefs from the public could be omitted from the hearings. Further, since all documents are kept secret, corporations could be asked to submit amicus questioning the trade merit of universal design from the business perspective and citizens with disabilities would not know that had been a part of the decision-making process. And since open public hearings are not a part of the WTO process, citizens would have no say in the final determination about universal design.
Given that business - in the form of the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Banking Association, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses - opposed the ADA from the beginning and that the WTO functions like an international Chamber of Commerce, it is highly possible that the WTO court would label the ADA a "trade barrier." The WTO court acting in the interests of just one business could render the ADA moot internationally and diminish the prospect of advancing disability civil rights law in other nations as well.
It is not, however, my intent to promote reform of the WTO so that it will accommodate disability rights. Rather it seems that we need to dismantle the corporate controlled WTO and create an alternative international forum where democratic goals can be properly met.