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Demonstrators send WTO reeling in Seattle

SEATTLE – Some saw protestors, tear gas and broken windows. Others saw what democracy looks like.

Interpretations aside, a week of trade talks, demonstrations and informational workshops exposed the workings of a little known and sometimes misunderstood organization that has an impact on everyone’s lives.

Never again will people wonder what the World Trade Organization is. Some may not understand it. Others may not be able to explain its goals or purposes. But history will remember the WTO’s Third Ministerial as a time when Americans – from blue collar union workers to environmentalists to animal- and human-rights activists to family farmers – gave voice to their beliefs on the streets of downtown Seattle.

Opinions about whether the demonstrations were successful or the proper way to express viewpoints differ. But the aftermath of the WTO meeting in Seattle has sparked widespread debate about a world being made ever smaller by economic globalization.

Whether the perspective comes from the informality of the front man for the now-defunct punk band the Dead Kennedys or the formality of the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, globalization is on the world’s front burner.

“The best weapon the WTO had was that no one knew what it was,” the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra told a rally of 10,000 at Seattle’s Key Arena. “What we accomplished today is a first shot across the bow of a supertanker WTO, a shot heard around the world.”

“What we’re seeing on the streets of Seattle is an excellent example of global-phobia,” said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a collection … of many groups of people, some of whom are intensely idealistic, others who just want to defend a position they regard as besieged and others who are just very confused.”

WTO forerunner founded following World War II The WTO is a group of 135 nations whose governments represent 75 percent of the world’s population. An additional 36 countries, including China and Russia, participate as observers. Although only formally 5 years old, the shell of the WTO has existed in one form or another since 1948, when representatives from 50 countries attempted to create the International Trade Organization to complement the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as tools in a worldwide effort to rebuild Europe after World War II.

Today’s WTO grew out of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks, which ended in 1994 with agreements to eliminate trade barriers such as tariffs, standardize scientific measurements used to determine the safety of products and allow unrestricted trade among countries. The WTO is a permanent organization whose members are legally bound to follow its rules and regulations. Its purpose is to set an agenda for negotiating final trade agreements, oversee the negotiations, ensure those agreements are enforced and, as former WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero called it, to write “the constitution of a single, global economy.”

In downtown Seattle’s Washington State Convention and Trade Center and its five-star hotels, trade ministers and delegates gathered Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 to set a trade negotiation agenda for talks scheduled to begin early next year. Items that negotiators wanted to place on the agenda included agriculture subsidies; tariff reductions; services including health, education, communications, financial and transportation; anti-dumping rules; intellectual property rights; electronic commerce; and genetically modified organisms.

From homes and apartments turned into temporary hostels, outlying hotels, even tents and sleeping bags, more than 50,000 people gathered in downtown streets. The signs, peaceful actions, marches, costumed-performances, giant puppets, music and drum beats spoke with a unified voice against an organization that demonstrators believe forgets that people, their rights, their families, their cultures and their histories take precedence over capitalism’s primary objective – turning a profit.

News coverage portrayed the activities of the week as The Battle In Seattle, pitting trade negotiators against demonstrators. By those standards, quick jabs from demonstrators and a sudden but not unexpected uppercut from representatives of developing nations dazed the WTO.

The organization is not down for the count. But the largest domestic act of organized civil disobedience since the Vietnam War focused public attention on demonstrators and their concerns. And three-fourths of the WTO’s membership, which is comprised of developing nations and led by Morocco, India, Egypt, Brazil and the Philippines, refused to acquiesce to European Union, United States and Japanese demands that Third World negotiators believe harm developing countries.
Demonstrators, the vast majority of whom were peaceable, spent five days making their point even if they didn’t accomplish their goal of shutting down the WTO talks. Morning and early afternoon meetings on Nov. 30 – the day demonstrators had targeted to shut down the WTO ministerial – were cancelled because delegates found it nearly impossible to find their way to the convention center through a throng of more than 50,000 people jamming downtown streets. Even U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and other U.S. officials found that Secret Service agents wouldn’t let them leave their hotels.

By 3 p.m., a few delegates began meeting in the convention center after passing through exhaustive security checks at each building entry. As the effects of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets began to disperse demonstrators, in trickled more and more delegates.

Clearing unauthorized people – defined as anyone without a WTO-issued ID card, even Seattle residents and downtown workers – from downtown’s secure zone became a high priority once Clinton administration officials indicated to city officials that failure to disperse the crowds might result in the WTO packing up and heading back to Switzerland.

Yet peaceful demonstrations continued throughout the week – even in the no-protest zone that Seattle police and National Guard troops cordoned off in a 25-square block area of downtown. And trade negotiators for developing countries, who felt excluded from serious discussion by WTO process and policy, found themselves working through a scheduled address from President Clinton and other planned social activities. It didn’t take long for those WTO delegates to question the veracity of the U.S. government’s position because of continual protests.

So trade negotiators flocked to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport without accomplishing what they’ve been trying to do for the last 12 months – lay the groundwork for negotiations during the next three years that will impact every aspect of our everyday lives.

Pascal Lamy, the European Union’s trade commissioner and a member of France’s socialist party, summed it up even before the first WTO delegate caught a cab to the airport. The problem may have been that the United States and the EU – even WTO leaders themselves – weren’t listening.

“Our friends in developing countries are, in general, worried,” Lamy said during his opening remarks Nov. 30. “They have raised a number of issues concerning implementation. We should listen to them and we should take their concerns into account.”

Acknowledging that 50,000-plus people weren’t gathered in the streets of downtown Seattle by chance, Lamy said the week of trade negotiations might be easier for some if the demonstrators weren’t there. “We could then carry on in our usual way, concocting lengthy texts in incomprehensible jargon amongst ourselves.”

And despite the tendency of some trade negotiators to compare the interests of non-governmental organizations in trade matters to an invasion of locusts that ought to devour some other field, “the fact is that these rallies have a legitimate right to demonstrate and we should listen to them,” Lamy said.

“The demonstrators are there because what we are doing this week is important. They are worried about where the train is going and we should do the same. We should discuss the issues with them.”

Trade talks will open in Geneva, Switzerland, come January. They are mandated by the agreement established five years ago in Uruguay. WTO Director-General Michael Moore said proposals placed on the table in Seattle cannot be withdrawn, allowing potential negotiation progress in such areas as agriculture. But issues that aren’t part of the pre-established agenda, such as extending a moratorium on keeping electronic commerce duty free, will be more difficult to negotiate.
The WTO’s Third Ministerial was supposed to begin the Millenium Round of trade talks, the ninth attempt since the creation of GATT in 1948 to enact international trade rules that require participating nations to either accept those rules or pay monetary penalties for failing to comply.

But events in Seattle – on the streets and inside the WTO’s meeting rooms – showed that a corporate-led transition to economic globalization just might have to act on – not just listen to – the concerns of the citizens and the disadvantages developing countries face.