by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Seattle, 2 Dec 99 -- US President Bill Clinton used the street demonstrations and protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization to push for trade-linked labour standards at the WTO.

At an address to Trade Ministers, over a US government-hosted luncheon by the Chair of the 3rd Ministerial, Mrs. Charlene Barshefsky, Clinton urged the ministers to agree to a WTO working group on trade and labour standards.

He told the ministers that he understood the concerns of developing nations about the labour standards issue being made into a protectionist tool but argued that "we can write rules" to prevent it or from it's being misused.

But judged by the conversations of the ministers from developing countries, Mr. Clinton won no ground.

In a conference run from the start by the host country, and the ministerial chair, and parts of the WTO secretariat, in a partisan and manipulative way, the US seems likely to be pushing and pressuring countries to bring the issue before the trade body in one form or another.

Ironically, the site of Mr. Clinton's address and the luncheon was the "Four Seasons Hotel", one of the two five-star botels in Seattle that are "union free", which means that there is no union, and the management can hire and fire workers at will. A telephone inquiry to the hotel confirmed that there was no union at the hotel.

It seemed that the US delegation knew of this and hence, its delegation was located at another hotel.

And though trade officials too were aware of this, the WTO head, whose CV starts with his strong union credentials in New Zealand as an organiser of a union, was also the chief guest at the luncheon.

While the AFL-CIO and its steelworkers, with the US government and Seattle's blessings,  had organized one of the street demonstrations, there were no protests from them at the official luncheon, at a "union free" hotel. The other "union free" hotel, trade officials privately said, was the Seattle Sheraton, where several of the delegations and the WTO officials have been put up - the last arranged and paid for by the host committee.

With great flourish, Mr. Clinton also announced at the luncheon (according to an official text of the "remarks" of Clinton put out by the White House Press office) that while IPR protection was important, "when HIV and AIDS epidemics were involved, and like serious health care crises, the US will henceforth implement its health care and trade policies in a manner that ensures that people in poorest countries won't have to go without medicine they so desparately need."

"I hope this will help South Africa and many other countries that we are committed to support in this regard," Clinton added, according to the text.

The Clinton-Gore administration has been the target of attack over its policies on the availability of cheap drugs to combat HIV/AIDS in the developing world.

But reading the fine print of the official text of the loosely worded oral remarks of Clinton, showed that the concession announced was less than made out.

At a US press briefing by the USTR Mrs. Barshefsky, it appeared that what the US would be doing, on a case-by-case basis where it would judge the "health care crisis" of other countries, is that it would refrain from using the threat of its 'special 301' trade law to launch investigations and impose sanctions.

The sanctions are illegal any way under the WTO, but the clever flourishing of the threat so far to pressure countries to change their IPR laws, but stopping short of action that could be challenged, the US has avoided a ruling. Mrs Barshefsky at the same press briefing made clear that the US would not agree to any 'blanket' extension of the transition periods for TRIPS, TRIMs and other WTO agreements (obligations that kick in for developing countries on 1 January 2000, but that the US would consider relief on a case-by-case basis to countries.)

Mr. Clinton also used the protests outside, even as he condemned the violence of a 'minority', to ask the trade ministers to be more open about the WTO.

At the press briefing, Mrs Barshefsky made it clear that the US only wanted NGOs to be able to file amicus curae briefs before dispute panels, and observe their proceedings, and have easier access to WTO information and documents.

"Negotiations at the WTO is between and among governments, and it should remain so," she made clear.

While some northern NGOs have been asking for a role for them before panels, most of the leading NGOs from the South and their allies from the North have rejected this. They have made clear that for them 'transparency' means:

* transparency of the WTO and its decision-making to their own governments who are kept out of the real negotiations,

* prior information some weeks in advance of the meetings and agendas and proposals to be discussed so that they could influence their own governments and parliaments in their capitals,

* publication within days of the meetings, minutes of the discussions, and the countries present so that they could hold their own governments accountable for acquiesence by silence and not withholding consensus by staying away.

Under the new DG, Mike Moore, who received lavish praise from Clinton and Barshefsky at the luncheon, the decision-making has become more secretive through the revival of the "green room" process.

Clinton acknowledged controversies within the WTO on the US proposals for 'transparency' to civil society, but said that the sooner this was done, the sooner would there be fewer demonstrations in the streets.

The US itself has ratified only one of the seven core labour standard conventions, but trots out its explanation that its Constitution protects these rights.

However, by not ratifying them, the US avoids multilateral scrutiny at the ILO before its committee of experts.

And for a country that has so far not accepted to carry out the obligations (which have kicked in) of the reductions of greenhouse gas emissions unless major developing countries did so too, Mr. Clinton suggested that countries like India and China could adopt cleaner technologies and grow as fast.

But the US in the WTO TRIPS Council, in the General Council preparations for the Seattle Ministerial draft, has been resisting proposals for easier access to environmentally friendly technologies. And some of the US demands under the "market access for non-agricultural products" is for tariff-free regimes to enable its corporations to export environmentally friendly technologies to the developing world. It is difficult to beat such cynicism. (SUNS4565)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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