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Taking on the Big Bully at the WTO

Remember that great story you learnt at Sunday School, about the little guy with the slingshot who took down the big bully with a single stone to a part of his anatomy where it really hurts? Well, its happening right here in the Caribbean.

In the 21st century Caribbean version of the timeless Biblical story, the little guy is Antigua and Barbuda; the big bully is the United States; the slingshot is the World Trade Organisation and the stone is international trade law.

And the place that really hurts could be the multi-billion dollar US music and film industry.

On January 28 the WTO  Disputes Settlement Body agreed to a petition from Antigua and Barbuda to suspend application of US Intellectual Property laws in retaliation for the failure of the United States to comply with WTO rulings on the illegality of US prohibitions of Internet gambling (see following story).

The US actions have devastated what used to be a thriving offshore gaming industry that earned Antigua and Barbuda thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in government revenues.

“The irony is rich, rich, rich”, Ms. Lori Wallach, a leading consumer rights advocate in the United States, is quoted as saying by the New York Times.

How so? Well back in 1994, when the WTO was being set up, it was the United States who insisted on the inclusion of the cross-retaliation provision that Antigua and Barbuda is now using against it.

The effect of this provision is that countries that are found to be in violation of WTO rules, and which refuse to comply with the rulings of the WTO DSB, can be punished by the aggrieved country with trade sanctions in another area of their commercial relations.

Its like telling a student that is found to be cheating in his Chemistry exam that he can’t play on the school football team, even if he is the star player—and the only thing that football and Chemistry examinations have in common is that they are both governed by school rules.

As the world’s largest economy, the United States was uniquely positioned to impose punitive trade sanctions on other WTO members, secure in the knowledge that the ability of other nations to hurt it in return was moderated by the realities of asymmetrical trade power.

The US successfully used cross-retaliation against the EU, for instance, to force  the latter to comply with WTO rulings on bananas; rulings that pretty much destroyed the banana industries in the Eastern Caribbean—so that US multinationals could get access to the EU market.

Who would have thought that the tiny nation of Antigua and Barbuda, with one of the world’s smallest economies, could hurt the economy of the United States?

After all, its economy is 1/13409th the size of the US’s. (Its easier to say that the US economy is 13,409 times that of Antigua and Barbuda’s).

But Antigua and Barbuda have found a way of hitting back. Copyright industries is one of the biggest earners for the US economy. The Internet is ubiquitous, and its power grows, exponentially, every single day. Enforcement of US copyright law by foreign countries is a major issue for the US—remember that “Warning Notice” at the beginning of the last DVD movie that you watched, threatening you with fines and imprisonment?

US officials are warning of all kinds of dire consequences. But Antigua and Barbuda officials believe that they have right—and international trade law—on their side. They are planning to use the latest DSB ruling to pressure the US into serious negotiations.

David has found the right slingshot and a stone that, if not lethal, has the potential to cause serious haemorrhage. And he is winding it up; looking Goliath square in the face; and saying he is prepared to use it, if Goliath doesn’t play by the rules.

And Goliath is fuming. But the fact is, the slingshot and the stone have been approved by the referees—and the rules were Goliath’s own idea.

Norman Girvan is a Professor Emeritus at UWI (Trinidad). He can be reached through his website.

This article originally appeared on 1804 Caribvoices.

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