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Fixing or nixing the WTO

by Susan George

Translated by Barbara Wilson

After the WTO fiasco at Seattle, many neoliberal commentators set about rewriting history. They said, somewhat improbably, that the US had emerged victorious and Europe and the countries of the South had lost out, Europe because it had not managed to table new rules and the South because it had failed to get more markets opened in the North. In fact, despite suitable noises from President Clinton, the failure of the trade talks shows the limits of Washington's power in the WTO, where for the first time delegates from the South turned the consensus rule to their advantage. As for the Fifteen and the European Commission, it is true that they had wanted to extend the agenda, but only in order to deregulate more areas for the benefit of their own multinationals. The true victors at Seattle are the citizens' movements. They have struck a blow against the proposal to use trade as a means of general deconstruction of all collectives and governments of the South, of whatever persuasion, that have now staked a claim to full partnership in the future. This is the birth of world public opinion. What we need now is national and international recognition of the peoples' elected representatives. --B. C.

The civic movement's success in Seattle is a mystery only to those who had no part in it. Throughout 1999, thanks primarily to the Internet, tens of thousands of people opposed to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) united in a great national and international effort of organisation. Anyone could have a front seat, anyone could take part in the advance on Seattle. All you needed was a computer and a rough knowledge of English.

The main rallying point was the StopWTORound distribution list. This put people in touch with the whole movement and enabled them to get their names on other more specialised lists. Among the most useful were those of the Corporate European Observatory in Amsterdam -- unbeatable on the links between lobbies of transnational firms and United States or European trade negotiators -- and the Third World Network and its director, Martin Khor, with its detailed information on the positions of Southern governments and everything that was brewing at the WTO's Geneva headquarters. A number of institutions published regular information bulletins: the International Centre for Sustainable Trade and Development (ICSTD) in Geneva, the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis, and Focus on the Global South in Bangkok. Many enthusiasts from various countries, like retired Canadian trucker Bob Olson, located and circulated vital items of information from all over the web.

Add to this the frequent Internet updates on national anti-WTO movements in Europe, Australia, Canada, the US and India, and the slightly less frequent updates from Africa, Latin America and Asia, and you begin to have some idea of the volume of information available and the work of thousands of militants-turned-experts -- conferences, symposiums and seminars, leaflets and articles, interviews and press releases.

Army of equals

In France outstanding work was done by the Association pour la taxation des transactions financières pour l'aide aux citoyens (Attac), whose international meetings in June 1999 -- including a high-profile WTO element -- were attended by delegations from 80 countries[1], and by Coordination pour le contrôle citoyen de l'OMC (CCC-OMC), which covers 95 organisations including the Confédération paysanne, Droits Devant!, the Fédération des finances CGT, and the FSU, and has the political support of the Greens, the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) and the Communist Party.

In the international division of work prior to Seattle, Friends of the Earth in London had undertaken to gather signatures from 1,500 organisations in 89 countries calling for a moratorium on the trade negotiations and a complete review of the operation of the WTO with full citizen participation. Mike Dolan of Public Citizen, an organisation founded by Ralph Nader in Washington DC, had been busy on the ground in Seattle since the spring of 1999, locating and booking the venues that would be needed to accommodate a huge number of meetings. In San Francisco, the International Forum on Globalisation was putting the finishing touches to its 26-27 November teach-in, at which speakers from all the continents took it in turns in turns to address an enthusiastic audience of 2,500 crammed into the Bennaroya Symphony Hall.

For months thousands of people had followed training courses in non-violent protest organised by the Direct Action Network (DAN) (a collective of environmental and political activists). In the run-up to the WTO meeting, the Dan repository at 420 East Denny Avenue, Seattle, had become the focus for an army of equals. Separate teams had been formed to take charge in each of the 13 sectors surrounding the conference centre. Their members, all prepared to be arrested, were in place at 7 a.m. on the first day and blocked the opening session.

Artists had set to work well in advance on huge puppets and models that lent a festive air to an otherwise deeply political event. Students from dozens of universities, including nearby Washington State University, returned in force to the American political scene, concerned by the damage to the environment and the exploitation of third world workers and children (as a result inter alia of a campaign against sweat shops called Clean Clothes).

Even more surprising, in the light of recent US history, was the Sweeney-Greenie alliance named after John Sweeney, the leader of the powerful trade union group AFL-CIO, and the Greens. Ever since the Vietnam war, trade unionists and environmentalists had been on opposite sides of the political fence. For organised labour, ecology was synonymous with leftist policies and unemployment. They sank their differences, however, and made common cause against the WTO. For the first time pacifists and human rights campaigners, too, were disturbed by the harmful consequences of globalisation and joined in the anti-WTO movement. And Via Campesina, a network representing peasant movements in 65 countries, also had a date in Seattle. This coalition of the century was completed by many foreign delegations, the two largest being those from France and Canada.

In short, everyone was ready except the police, who looked like something out of Star Wars and acted in a way that was quite over the top. There is evidence, often backed up by photos or videos, of police provocation, coercion and collusion with "anarchist elements" that were in fact simply hooligans and wreckers.

Whole districts and blocks of buildings, old people and children, were attacked with pepper and other (as yet unidentified) gases. Five hundred and eighty people were arrested, and many of them were roughed up and kept in solitary confinement for more than 48 hours in defiance of the American constitution.

Millennium Round stillborn

Thanks to Washington's intransigence on agriculture and Europe's wish to add a raft of new items (investment, competition policy, environment, public contracts, etc) to the agenda; thanks to the revolt of representatives of the South, outraged at being excluded from the negotiations (see article by Agnès Sinai); and finally thanks to the protest movement, the Millennium Round was stillborn. However, the WTO still has a remit, under the decisions taken at the Marrakesh ministerial conference in 1994, to resume at any time discussions on agriculture and services, including health, education, and "environmental and cultural services", whatever that may mean. The Trips agreement on intellectual property is also to be reopened, including the patenting of living organisms (see article by Philippe Quéau).

The instant people got back from Seattle, they all had their two pennyworth to say on the theme "things will never be the same again". And it is true. It was a defining moment, a beginning, but we must build on it without delay because the forces of neoliberalism, humiliated and determined to get their own back, will lose no time in regrouping. In other words, the popular movement may have gained time and scored a fine victory, but it has not yet got the moratorium and review it was seeking. The European Commission is anxious to resume negotiations "between responsible people" who have not budged an inch on the principle of free trade and commerce in the service of the transnationals. They will meet again, if possible behind closed doors, and will make sure opponents of out and out globalisation do not get another media platform like Seattle.

The basic strategy vis-à-vis governments, the European Commission, the WTO itself and the transnationals must be to maintain vigilance, keep up the mobilisation and pressure, and mount an offensive of counter-proposals with the ultimate objective of building genuine international democracy. This will call for a sustained collective effort, for discussion and action. It cannot be planned in every detail at this time.

It should nevertheless be possible to agree on some principles at once. Trade must have no place in areas such as health, education and culture in the broadest sense of the term. The case of hormone-fed beef is a perfect illustration of the WTO's refusal to exercise due precaution. So, if there is any doubt as to the harmlessness of a product, the burden of proof must in future lie with the exporter. No living organism must be patentable and any country must be free to manufacture and distribute basic medicaments in its own territory. Food safety and the integrity of peasant communities are more important than trade.

The proceedings of the WTO body for the settlement of disputes must be subject to recognised principles of international law: human rights, multilateral agreements on the environment, the basic conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). There must be an end to the WTO's refusal to discriminate on the basis of processes and methods of production (PMPs): we must be free to give preference to products that have not been made by children or semi-slaves.

The question is how to break the sterile North-South deadlock on the social and environmental clauses? With a jealous eye to the only halfway effective bargaining counter they have -- low wages and cheap, pollution-generating production methods -- some Southern governments see the introduction of rules in these areas as a disguised form of protection. One idea worth exploring might be to devise a system for rewarding the countries that make the greatest efforts in the areas of labour and the environment, instead of penalising them as we do now. No-one is suggesting that the same wages should be paid everywhere or that Laos should be treated in the same way as Luxembourg.

Thanks to World Bank and United Nations Development Programme statistics, we know a great deal about levels of material and human development worldwide. Suppose the ILO and the United Nations Environment Programme were to classify all countries at a given level of development -- including the most advanced -- according to the respect they show for labour law and for nature. The best, at each level, would be granted tariff preferences or even exemption from customs duties, while the products of the others would be taxed according to their classification. Such a system would allow a review of the hallowed most-favoured-nation clause, which in fact favours nothing but a rush to the abyss.

Free marketeers, from The Economist to Alain Madelin, the French neoliberal deputy, generally accuse opponents of the WTO of being 1. ignorant; 2. unrepresentative; 3. against the poor; and 4. against rules and in favour of anarchy and the law of the jungle. In fact, it is precisely because they know what they are talking about that the NGOs and citizens' movements are against the WTO. Seattle has shown that the popular movement represents many things and many people. It is touching to see the sudden neoliberal concern with the fate of the poor in the South -- not always well represented by their governments -- but very few people have so far been discovered who enjoy working for a pittance in degrading conditions, who do not mind being unable to send their children to school or living in an environment that has been laid waste.

The popular movement is all for rules, but not the rules of the WTO in its present form. That is why, in the words of the militants, we shall have to "fix it or nix it".

Susan George is President of the Globalisation Observatory, Paris, vice-president of Attac and author of The Lugano Report, Pluto Press, London, 1999.

  1. See the Attac collection, "Contre la dictature des marchés", La Dispute/Syllepse/VO Editions, Paris, 1999, 158 pp., FF 35.

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