Activists converge on Seattle summit

More than 700 groups from around the world plan to protest - and

From members of Accin Ecolgica in Ecuador to the Zimbabwean Women's Resource Centre, the thousands of activists from around the globe now descending on Seattle to protest at next week's summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO) also have something to celebrate: a dramatic new level of citizen involvement in international diplomacy.

Inside the convention center, negotiators from 135 countries will be hammering out an agenda for a "Millennial Round" of talks to liberalize world trade. Outside, in what promise to be noisy and colorful demonstrations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will be forcing delegates to think about how trade rules can erode workers' rights or endanger small farmers. And for the first time, activists will be doing more than demonstrating - they will join in the negotiations.

Developing countries, such as Uganda and Gambia, keen to tap outside expertise, have invited citizens' groups onto their official delegations.

"Behind trade negotiations there are real people," says Willy Thys, leader of the 27 million strong World Confederation of Labor, a Brussels-based trade union grouping. "By being in Seattle, we make sure they cannot ignore us."

President Clinton, who has made trade a keystone of his foreign policy, welcomes the new scrutiny. "Every group in the world with an ax to grind is going to Seattle to demonstrate," he said last week. "I'll have more demonstrators against me than I've had in the whole seven years I've been president.... I told them all I wanted them to come.... I want us to have a huge debate."

The WTO, meanwhile, has found itself obliged to open its once secret proceedings to debate. The day before the Seattle summit opens on Tuesday, NGOs have been invited to a day-long symposium on trade issues chaired by WTO Secretary-General Mike Moore.

Already, activists are claiming success in their efforts to scale back the WTO's role in setting and enforcing trade rules. Ambitious plans to put health care and education within the WTO's orbit appear doomed, as do some countries' hopes of lifting restraints on foreign investment and biotechnology.

"All over the world, citizens' groups have put pressure on their governments" to keep new issues off the WTO agenda, says Lori Wallach, director of the Global Trade Watch program at Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.

That pressure has also helped shape official negotiating positions. "As we push forward with globalization, we have to take account of some fundamental balances that Europeans care about," says one French trade official. "They want to preserve cultural diversity, they want core labor standards respected, they want to protect food safety and the environment."

More than 700 groups have registered to attend the Seattle meeting. The five years since the WTO was founded have seen an explosion of public interest - and often concern - in apparently dry trade issues that turn out to have a major impact on ordinary lives.

Ritchie Jones, a Sierra Leonean working with the British charity ActionAid in Gambia will be in Seattle, pressing his belief that WTO rules are impoverishing Gambian rice farmers. The rules oblige the West African nation to open its market to rice imports, but also allow big food producers to subsidize their exports. That means cheap rice is being dumped, often at below production-cost prices, in Gambia, and local rice farmers can't compete.

Mr. Thys will go to Seattle, he says, because the WTO's rules do not take enough account of working conditions and, as the world economy globalizes, "international competition is forcing labor standards down" in the scramble for competitive advantage.

Central American activists will be there in the wake of a defeat of Guatemala's attempt to apply a UNICEF-approved code on infant formula sales that banned certain sorts of advertising. US baby food giant Gerber refused to comply and forced authorities to back down with a threat of action at the WTO. "In the real-life outcomes of this broad set of rules, everybody's ox has been gored," says Ms. Wallach.

The protesters vary from radical anticapitalists to mainstream consumer organizations, from those who hate the very idea of globalization to others who say they simply want to ensure that it benefits ordinary people as well as corporations. Their common demand is that the WTO pause before launching into a new round of international trade talks.

"We want the WTO to take stock, to look at what has happened, both positive and negative, since it was founded," says French sheep farmer Jos Bov.

Mr. Bov shot to international fame last summer when he ransacked a McDonald's restaurant in southern France to protest the WTO's ruling that European countries had no right to ban imports of hormone-treated American beef. Bov says he is not opposed to the market as such, "but we have to put the market in its place, so that it does not control everything."

Bov and like-minded activists are encouraged by their victory last year in killing an international investment code, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), that they believe would have allowed multinational companies to ride roughshod over people and governments.

"That experience was empowering for nongovernmental organizations around the world," says Wallach. "We saw that by working together and bringing the facts forward we could focus international scrutiny." When the European Union proposed reviving MAI proposals in a new round of WTO negotiations, anti-MAI campaigners switched into anti-WTO mode.

They also switched on to the Internet, which has proved an invaluable organizing tool for groups separated by thousands of miles. The Web is crowded with WTO-related sites, and e-mail has woven new bonds.

"The Internet has played a very, very important role because it has kept us informed," says Mr. Jones, who has been networking with other activists on food security issues around Africa and South Asia.

"Without the Web we would be weaker," agrees Thys. "Electronic communications are playing a bigger and bigger role, and the fact that we are as well equipped as anybody gives us the ability to act as a counterweight."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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