by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Seattle, 1 Dec 99 -- Tens of thousands of street protestors, many with contradictory aims, blocked the roads to "shut down the WTO", forcing the abandonment of opening ceremonies and disrupting the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the WTO on 30 November.

Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on demonstrators blocking access roads, and enabled delegates (official, non-governmental, and media) access to the conference centre where the 3rd Ministerial was being held. Rioting, looting and arson, by an admittedly small group (in masks and hoods) who engaged in hit-and-run tactics, and evaded arrests, ultimately resulted in a declaration of civil emergency, street curfew, and the calling out of the National Guard.

The conference finally met in the afternoon, combining the opening and the plenary session, where it heard some ministerial statements, and established five working groups to "negotiate" the text of a ministerial declaration.

The protestors, in thousands, and including those from ICFTU and its US 'affiliate', the AFL-CIO (which has just endorsed Vice-President Al Gore for the 2000 Democratic primary and US presidential elections) and many more from NGOs protesting "globalization" and the WTO, often for contradictory aims and reasons, and a handful of organized "anarchists" managed to disrupt the WTO.

And in a hilly city, with rain and inclement weather, taxi-cabs were off the streets and the curfew closed down restaurants and eating places around the conference centre and hotels. With delegates having to walk long detours, and the utter confusion in arrangements inside the conference, the minimal normal facilities needed were just not there and tempers were on the edge.

Wearing WTO badges prominently to enable police to identify and help them through crowds at the barricades, the delegates, at other times, have had to hide them lest they attract the attention of demonstrators.

The minister from Colombia was not so lucky, and was assaulted on the road, and had to go to hospital, where her injuries, fortunately, proved not too serious.

And in a country where everything has been privatized, visitors needing medical attention over the long Thanksgiving weekend have had no access (even for payment) to easy medical attention, short of going to the hospital and its emergency services!

It is difficult to believe that such a rich country vaunting its efficiency and trying to export its "model" to the rest of the world, did not and could not anticipate the protests and its scale (when the Internet, which official US agencies monitor, have been full of it for months), nor the funds to provide the facilities inside the conference.

While each by itself could be dismissed as a 'failing', the accumulation of 'failings' in the run-up to and at the conference makes it difficult to disregard the view that the "Super-power" just does not care, even if its own diplomats and representatives to other countries demand such facilities from host countries.

In statements inside and outside, the US hosts and the WTO head deplored and condemned the violence by a minority of protestors exercising their "First Amendment" (in the US Constitution) rights of free speech and demonstration to prevent 135 member nations from exercising theirs at the conference.

However, President Clinton in comments on his way to Seattle (where he is due to arrive Tuesday and meet, separately, with delegations, labour unions, some NGOs and media), used the protests and complaints of protestors, to press their agendas and issues on the WTO members - and in particular, developing nations - to agree to take on board and address in the new round to be launched here, trade and labour standards and trade and environment standards and some Northern NGO demands for access to dispute panels. The USTR Mrs. Charlene Barshefsky, who is chairing the ministerial conference, and the EU and a few other industrial nations have been expressing the same sentiments.

Though few spoke on record or attributively, developing countries were angry with the tactics, with several privately wondering in the corridors as to how much of the protests had been orchestrated, whether the street violence, by the few described by the media and television as "anarchists" ,was unanticipated or by agent provocateurs of official agencies, to pressure for the inclusion of so-called labour and environment issues.

And the official conference line, by WTO DG Mike Moore, the US, and others, was that the conference should not allow the protestors to succeed, and should meet even in the most difficult conditions and do its business of negotiating and launching a new round!

Many felt, but few were willing to voice it openly, that the conference should simply adjourn, and remit the issues to resolution at the General Council.

And since the US seems unable to do so, before it offers to host a next international conference and the organizations accept it, perhaps the US should get some technical help from other countries, even very poor countries who have hosted such meetings, on how to organize a conference, and may be get a loan from the World Bank for this purpose, suggested one observer delegate from a country seeking to accede to the WTO.

The WTO ambassador of a leading developing country said unattributively, "if I had my way, I would move in the plenary that 'the environment at the conference is not conducive to serious discussions' and the meeting should adjourn to meet again in Geneva. But my own government, like those of others, would not be ready to face up to the US... and we may all end up by agreeing to another compromise that will help destroy the system itself..."

But like the prisoners' dilemma, leading developing countries face the dilemma that many of their onerous and iniquitous obligations kick in from 1 January, and anything that may buy them some time would be better than being hauled up before the WTO dispute settlement system.

But this approach will only strengthen those in their own countries who want to 'shut the WTO', and even their riot police can't handle the social explosions, and the markets opened by the North would be non-existent ones.

In parallel, the conference lobbies were full of 'misinformation' and rumours aimed at splitting the various developing country coalitions, and particularly the 'core' group of  like-minded developing countries, and force individual countries to yield to the new demands of the North.

And diplomats from some key countries were spending more time to disabuse their colleagues of their 'supposed change in stand', spread through misinformation.

But there was some indication that the US host and WTO head Mike Moore already were preparing a draft declaration text, that would be sprung at the last moment and force countries to agree by consensus, holding out the threat and danger of a "failure" and rise of protectionism in the US -- more market access by the South to retain its existing rights in the US!

Even though the US and the EU are divided on the immediate decisions and agendas for the new round, the US too wants more or less the same as the EU vis-a-vis the developing world. It merely wants to push them off to the next ministerial for mainly, domestic reasons . The conference, at its plenary, set up five working groups to be chaired or co-chaired by 'friends of the (Conference) Chair'. There was some confusion even on this, with the WTO press office passing out a paper listing ministers who will be 'friends of the Chair' in five working groups, with only one, that on 'systemic issues' listed as having co-Chairs.

And the USTR and conference Chair, Mrs. Charlene Barshefsky at a US press briefing (with other leading US officials) where it was not clear whether she was speaking as a US representative or the "neutral' Chair, announced amidst some inaudible loudspeaker facilities, that each of the groups would be led by two ministers each as co-Chairs.

The one on agriculture, she said, is led by the Singapore and Bangladesh ministers; a second on implementation and rules by Canada and Jamaica; market access by Lesotho (co-Chair not mentioned); Singapore items and other issues by New Zealand; and systemic issues by Chile and Fiji.

The working groups are to start work on Wednesday, and come up with a declaration text in these areas. In an organization notorious for its stage-management, it could be a process to mislead delegations and give the impression of 'transparency' and avoiding the 'green room' process, but one aimed at pushing through something being cooked elsewhere - between the US and EC, if they could strike a deal - or one by the US, which has a minimalist agenda for now, but is keeping the door open for its expansion at the next ministerial.

And the remarks of some of the developing countries show that the famous or infamous 'Hoda text' (a draft text drawn up by former WTO Dy DG Anwar Hoda, who has been brought in as a 'consultant') is certainly an insufficient one from a developing country perspective. (SUNS4564)

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

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