I was just reading an Ars Technica article on using the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) to force China to loosen its Internet censorship. The basic argument is that when the Great Firewall of China blocks Google, or iTunes in order to prevent certain political speech, it is violating its free trade agreements. So, the article goes, maybe we could drag China before the World Trade Organization (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) and force them to loosen their censorship. How is that for free-trade in the service of democracy? I for one am quite skeptical.
First, the WTO can only hear grievances by members of the WTO. And no, just because France and the USA are members does not mean that you or I or even your Senator or Congressman can go before the WTO Secretariat and file a complaint. This is an act of foreign policy which is generally the prerogative of the Executive. When it comes to such an important act of foreign policy, nobody short of Obama for you or Sarkozy for me will dare to bring up the issue.
Second, let's assume that some head of state somewhere decides it's time to take on China and that they win in front of the DSB Panel. (A panel of experts appointed by the WTO Secretariat arbitrate the dispute) The result is a report telling China to reduce its censorship and granting the plaintiff authorization to take "retaliatory measures" if China does not comply. Effectively, whatever country is now allowed to impose tariffs and other restrictions on Chinese imports.
Why does this sound like economic sanctions being applied against another state such as Iran or North Korea? Because it's the same thing. In the end, what it really comes down to, is some country powerful enough to be willing to lean on China. Has the US appeared willing to impose sanctions on China? No. Has the EU appeared willing to impose sanctions on China? (The EU now negotiates as a single country with the WTO) No. Is there any other country or group of countries in the world which has the power, influence and willingness to impose sanctions on China? No.
Things such as the WTO DSB are a pleasant dream of countries being held accountable and responsible to an impartial tribunal the same way your and I are required to abide by laws in our countries. But no matter how pleasant a dream is, it is not reality. If I refuse to abide by the decision of a court of law, I might get away with it for a while but eventually, law enforcement will catch up with me. On the other hand, if a country refuses to abide by a ruling or treaty or anything really, there is no impartial law enforcer who can force them. The only entities that can do anything are other more powerful countries that themselves have their own agendas and interests which may not include caring about what international law says.
16 hours ago