BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
THE BISHOPS of England and Wales have issued a statement on international trade agreements, which they describe as "deeply unjust" to the poorer nations of the world.
Trade and Solidarity was launched jointly with Cafod at the bishops' conference last Wednesday. The document precedes a national lobby of MPs by the Trade and Justice Movement scheduled for later this month.
Speaking on behalf of the bishops Fr Frank Turner said the decision to speak out on trade was a "natural progression" from the Church's highly visible and successful campaign for the remission of international debt signalled by John Paul 11's apostolic letter Terri° Millennio Adveniente.
Issues of fair trade, he said, begin at a personal level, and he urged Catholics to participate in fair trade schemes which help to redress the balance, linking "our own power as consumers with the world debate".
"The issues are complex, highly contentious and disputed at almost every level," he said.
The bishops claim that the existence of trade rules is no guarantee of parity in world trade as the bargaining power of countries is not equal.
They are critical of the European Union, which dumps agricultural surpluses on world markets, undermining the livelihoods of farmers who cannot compete. Europe subsides a European cow by two dollars a day, a sum equal to the daily income of half the world's population.
Fr Turner said the World Trade Organisation was "crucial, otherwise the law of the jungle prevails" but it must be a "just system". He said equality in trade was anchored in basic principles of Catholic social thought and social teaching and the Church's rationale is rooted in the "universal destination of the goods of creation". Rights to property and to wealth were not absolutes but qualified by other rights, and the Church must look at the wider perspective.
"Thomas Aquinas described the right of the hungry to steal so as not to starve," he said.
In a recent article for The Guardian newspaper, the former Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers said it was "wrong and misguided" for the Government to persuade poorer nations to open their markets to international competition and then expect them to compete on an equal footing. An increase in Africa's trading capability of just one percent would generate £43 million, more than the combined aid budget for the continent.
But Fr Turner denied that the Blair administration had reneged on commitments to help the poor. "It's essential to get trade right. In the trading relationship there isn't a benefactor and receiver. It's a relationship of partners, a nonpaternalistic way of responding to inequality and injustice."
George Gelber head of public policy at Cared said that compared to the Jubilee debt campaign, the campaign on trade was in "the mid-90s" and at least five years away from producing concrete results, "but we are making a beginning".
He said the British government "could try harder" and criticised the recent G8 summit in Evian, France, which failed to reach agreement on tackling trade inequality.
"The credibility of their rhetoric is hanging by a thread," he said.