The WTO is said to be concerned only with the promotion of free trade for our collective benefit. And, according to the WTO, the TBT was negotiated to achieve that very aim. In the words of the WTO:
Technical regulations and product standards may vary from country to country. Having many different regulations and standards makes life difficult for producers and exporters. If regulations are set arbitrarily, they could be used as an excuse for protectionism. The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade tries to ensure that regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures do not create unnecessary obstacles, while also providing members with the right to implement measures to achieve legitimate policy objectives, such as the protection of human health and safety, or the environment.
Sounds reasonable—well, the United States just lost two cases this past September in which foreign governments charged the United States with violating that agreement.
First case: a WTO panel ruled in Mexico’s favor against U.S. measures designed to protect dolphins. The United States allows tuna fishers that use dolphin-safe nets to label their tuna sold in the U.S with a dolphin-safe label. According to Mexico, this unfairly discriminates against those fishers that want to use different methods of production. The WTO agreed—the U.S. was being an unfair trader. No more labels.
Second case: a WTO panel ruled against U.S. measures designed to reduce teenage smoking. Among other things, the U.S. measures banned the sale of many flavored cigarettes–in particular clove cigarettes–which were seen as likely to hook young smokers. Indonesia is a major producer and exporter to the United States of clove cigarettes and it argued that the U.S. ban discriminated against its products. The WTO agreed—the U.S. was being an unfair trader.
It also looks likely that a WTO panel will find against U.S. consumer labeling laws that allow country of origin labeling for beef. If consumers knew where their beef came from it might influence their purchasing decisions. That could have a negative effect on sales of imported beef.
Free trade in the eyes of the WTO means maximum freedom for corporations to produce and sell products as they want. Said differently, it means a world in which governments are forbidden to take steps to protect the environment or the health of its citizens if doing so interferes with private profit making.
This is just one agreement. The WTO presides over many more that are equally, if not more, scandalous. You will be hard pressed to read about these decisions in the press. The reason: it might encourage people to question the free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama that the U.S. government is promoting, since they also include TBTs. My recently published analysis of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement can be read here.