Tussles over trade

Print edition : December 11, 1999

WHEN news emerged late in the night of December 3 that talks at the World Trade Organisation conference had failed, the protesters on the streets of Seattle let out cheers and greeted one another with "high-five" handshakes. Even though the talks collaps ed primarily owing to serious differences between the United States and the European Union over the issue of agricultural subsidies, the protesters, who had faced rubber bullets and batons for four days, felt all the satisfaction of having won a hard-fou ght battle.

The clash between the WTO and its critics that exploded in Seattle had been brewing for almost a year. Activists and non-governmental organisations, emboldened by their success in scuttling the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) at the meeting of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1998, moved quickly when they heard of the WTO meeting in Seattle and of the possibility that the investment treaty could resurface there under new aegis.

In this age of "Internet activism", organisers across the U.S. set up Web sites, newsgroups and e-mail list-serves to connect activists and participants throughout the world. Web sites such as www.seattle99.org and www.wtoseattle.org have been operating for months, providing directions, background information, schedule of events, accommodation outlets and even safety guidelines to those planning to attend. Some mischievous e-activists set up fake Web sites such as www.gatt.org that look otherwise identi cal to the official WTO site, but whose links lead to articles that lambast the organisation.

While the Clinton administration tried to justify its agenda of introducing labour and environmental standards into the WTO saying that it was merely responding to public sentiment, the reality was more complex. At least 10 different organisations, repre senting a wide variety of concerns, came together in Seattle. They included trade unions, environmentalists such as the Rainforest Action Network, grassroots groups such as Direction Action Network, and even animal-rights groups such as the Humane Societ y.

THE common cause that unites many of these groups is not labour and environmental standards - something that India and the other developing countries sharply reject. Rather, it is a deep concern that the rules of the WTO permit multinational corporations to subvert the democratic will expressed by national electorates. The Rainforest Action Network, for example, is fighting the WTO because the latter puts trade provisions ahead of the laws of nations, so that power is shifted "away from local communitie s and given to corporations". People for Fair Trade, which organised many parallel events in Seattle, says that "the WTO speaks only for corporations and has become a global coup against democracy. It is the dismantling of democracy disguised as a trade pact." For example, the U.S. was forced by the WTO in 1996 to repeal sections of a 1990 pollution control law that were found to discriminate against imports from less-sophisticated Venezuelan refineries. Similarly, European regulations against the impor t of hormone-treated U.S. beef were ruled illegal despite the fact that European consumers are overwhelmingly in favour of tight restrictions on hormone-treated and genetically modified foods.

A number of NGOs have focussed on the fact that the benefits of free trade are often unequally distributed, and have damaging consequences for the most marginal segments of society. In a workshop presentation, veteran activist Walden Bello placed the WTO within a larger paradigm of economic development linked to the neo-liberal approach of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is deeply flawed, he said, because it dogmatically imposes a single model of economic development on all countries and negates the economic and social consequences of growth and trade.

Bello, along with Miloon Kothari, a Delhi-based NGO activist with the Habitat International Coalition, is among those who advocate a fundamental restructuring or dismantling of the WTO. Kothari was in Seattle as part of an alliance of NGOs that are conce rned that the newly devised trade rules of the WTO will cause governments to compromise on or roll back earlier commitments on human rights, such as the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. "Trade has become an end in itself," he said. "We think trade should be a means by which people can achieve human rights objectives that countries have agreed to in the past."

Martin Khor, director of Third World Network, the Malaysia-based non-governmental organisation, addresses the NGO Symposium in Seattle on November 29. Most of the NGOs that came together in Seattle shared the concern that WTO regulations would permit multinational corporations to subvert the democratic will of national electorates.-STEPHAN SAVOIA/AP

There was some disappointment over the last-minute cancellation of Cuban President Fidel Castro's visit to Seattle. Meanwhile, the debate between Jagdish Bhagwati and Vandana Shiva offered some moments of excitement. In a public debate between the propon ents and opponents of globalisation, U.S. consumer activist Ralph Nader joined Vandana Shiva to square off against David Aaron, the U.S. Under-Secretary of Trade, and Bhagwati, a Columbia University Professor and an expert on trade. The acrimonious two-h our debate was high on sound-bites but low on substance as the two sides argued past each other to occasional applause from the packed audience. Bhagwati, polite and professorial, appeared confused in the debate, and occasionally scored points for his op ponents by contradicting and disagreeing with Aaron. In the end, Ralph Nader and Vandana Shiva had outgunned their opponents with their rhetorical skills and thundering accusations that left Aaron looking hapless.

BUT the rancour and tension at the debate was nothing compared to what took place at the ministerial meeting itself. It is not clear if the fiery demonstrations on the first day shook the delegates' nerves, but the official deliberations remained without resolution after four days of tense and protracted negotiations. Delegates arrived in Seattle steeled for battle. Many, like those from India, came prepared with carefully worked out positions backed by strong political will and powerful domestic consti tuencies. But if much of the first day was lost in the protests, the proceedings on the second, third and fourth days were deadlocked in virtually every committee. The last two days saw non-stop negotiations as delegates struggled to make progress, and t he final day's session was even extended by a few hours.

Many of the smaller developing countries complained bitterly that they were sidelined at the talks. But the dynamics of the WTO are such that it is inevitably dominated by the U.S., the E.U. and Japan that together control three-quarters of world trade, and consequently wield considerable influence over it. These three found enough stumbling blocks among themselves, from anti-dumping laws to export subsidies, to cause the entire proceedings to crash.

With protests outside and failure inside, the Seattle ministerial will go down as a major ignominy both for Clinton and the WTO. Many negotiators felt the talks would be re-ignited within six months, but the failure to launch a new round of trade liberal isation talks will leave a psychological burden of frustration and weariness that will take some time to overcome.

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