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World

New World disorder

Clash in suites, not streets, killed WTO talks.

 

Published 12/8/1999

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SEATTLE — Demonstrators danced in the soggy streets of Seattle on Sunday, celebrating after a week of mostly peaceful protests hobbled the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting. But the Battle of Seattle that drew 40,000 activists paled in comparison to the quiet riot beyond the barricades.

Working from plush hotel suites nestled high above the clouds of tear gas, World Trade Organization Director General Mike Moore and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky were less troubled by the sea of protesters than by the trickle of outraged delegates angered over how the United States and European Union were monopolizing the agenda.

"This is absolutely the worst — the worst — organized international conference there has ever been," said Sir Shridath Ramphal, a veteran of more than 30 years of trade negotiations and head of a joint delegation of Caribbean nations. "Mrs. Barshefsky is intent on forcing the process and having a declaration at all costs, almost as if it doesn't matter what the rest of the countries think about it. Well, that is not going to happen. The WTO does not belong to the United States."

How WTO failed

The WTO was set up in 1995 to monitor trade agreements and resolve disputes. The Geneva-based group operates by consensus, which means that every member nation must agree to proceed with a new "round" of negotiations. In practice, WTO leaders summon small groups of delegates to a "green room" so named because the walls of the first room used for this purpose were green — where the agreement is hammered out. Once a few key delegates agree on a text, the other ministers are pressured to sign in exchange for concessions on other issues.

The fundamentally undemocratic process was among the complaints from protesters. It also proved to be the undoing of the ministerial meeting. Among the fatal flaws:

• The process provided no opportunity for interested parties to monitor negotiations. Neither the proposals, nor the debate, nor even the voting records were visible to the public. This led to comical results: News reporters and representatives from nongovernmental organizations turned to peering through peepholes and sifting through trash cans to discern what was going on behind the scenes.

• Most less-developed nations were also shut out. Delegates from economically powerless countries in Africa, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean spent most of the week wandering the halls, asking journalists and nongovernmental representatives what was happening.

The delegates — nearly all of whom are high-ranking officials in their home governments — became furious. "It's as if we do not exist," complained Namibian delegate Nokokure Murangi

And when many were finally presented with a draft agreement, they were simultaneously subjected to intense pressure to sign. None would discuss the specifics on the record, for fear of further reprisals. But Jamie Love of the Consumer Project on Technology, said the arm-twisting is frequently unrelated to trade. "It is this really ugly form of colonialism where everything happens behind the scenes." Love said that when Egypt was contemplating a pharmaceuticals policy that would hurt U.S. drug makers, for example, "They were told in plain terms that they would lose $500 million in U.S. aid if they challenged the U.S." Brent Blackwelder, head of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, agreed: "Delegates from the south are caving in to United States pressure. ... The violence you see outside cannot compare to the violence being done inside."

By late Friday night, it became clear that there was no way to reach consensus. "We could have stayed all night, maybe for five more days, it wouldn't have mattered," said a weary Barshefsky, who will likely face intense criticism in the months to come. "The WTO has outgrown the processes appropriate to an earlier time," she said, adding that, "We needed a process which had a greater degree of internal transparency and inclusion to accommodate a larger and more diverse membership."

What next?

The WTO plans to resume discussions early next year in Geneva. Moore and most of the humiliated trade negotiators believe that the WTO can be fixed — possibly through the creation of a parliamentary-style system — and resume pursuing its free-trade agenda.

But the labor, consumer, environment, human rights, and student groups who marched in Seattle are opposed to the core beliefs of the WTO, which they claim promotes not "free" trade but "corporate-managed" trade that threatens health, labor, the environment and basic human rights.

Both sides vow to fight again. The only thing certain is that it won't be in as comfortable a city as Seattle. When asked where he would schedule the next ministerial meeting, a former top U.S. trade negotiator suggested:

"Someplace like Iceland, in January."

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