Antitrade activists face tough sell

As world trade meeting wraps up in Qatar, activists find little appetite for US-bashing in shadow of 9/11.

Lively salsa tunes blared from a flatbed truck outside the Paris stock exchange, concession stands did brisk business in spicy sausage sandwiches, and thousands of people milled around in the bright autumn sunshine as they unfurled their banners.

"WTO - global pillage" read one. "We are not a commodity" declared another.

But despite the glorious weather, turnout for Saturday's demonstration here against the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar, was disappointing. Similar protests across Europe over the weekend also drew only a few thousand people each.

In the wake of Sept. 11, these are difficult days for the anti-globalization movement. Calls that inspired hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Genoa last July, at a summit of rich country leaders, are today less widely heeded.

"We have to fight the same battle for public attention as anyone else," says George Monbiot, an English anthropologist and author who has become a leading light of the movement in Europe. "It is very hard to focus public attention on anything except the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan."

Anti-globalizers, however, are putting a brave face on what they say is only a temporary eclipse. In the long run, they insist, the attacks on New York and Washington only point up the need to create a more just and equitable world.

"The struggle for a fairer, more united world, more respectful of human beings, is one of the surest defenses against the blind hatred and fanaticism of the terrorists," argued a flyer handed out at the protest.

They are not the only ones who believe that the events of Sept. 11 should work to their advantage. Supporters of globalization, who want the WTO's 142 members to launch a new round of negotiations to liberalize world trade in Doha, see the meeting as their response to terrorism.

"By promoting the WTO's agenda," US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said in a recent speech, "these 142 nations can counter the revulsive destructionism of terrorism."

Mr. Zoellick is leading the US delegation to the Doha conference, which closes this evening, in a bid to recover from the disaster that befell the WTO at its last summit in Seattle in December 1999.

At that meeting, an attempt to launch a new round of trade negotiations collapsed - victim of acrimonious disputes between rich and poor countries and tumultuous demonstrations outside.

This time, such demonstrations are impossible: The Qatari authorities - pleading lack of hotel space - have allowed only 300 or so nongovernmental organizations to send one representative each. However, the talks themselves, are no less contentious. The European Union yesterday refused to accept an end to farming export subsidies, putting the 15-nation bloc at odd with the US.

At the same time, a new mood is abroad in the anti-globalization movement, that mass protests, especially violent ones, are no longer appropriate.

"We are turning to more appropriate tactics, vigils not protests, phone-banking instead of sit-ins," says Lori Wallach, who handles trade issues for Ralph Nader's Public Citizen movement and who has traveled to Doha.

The issues the anti-globalizers raise - their arguments that rich countries force poor ones to do their economic bidding and open themselves to exploitation by multinational corporations - have also taken on a different aspect in the past two months. The anti-American flavor that tinged the protests in many parts of the world has lost some of its appeal. A fledgling campaign to boycott Esso, for example, in protest at its role in funding George Bush's campaign and supporting his rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming, ground to a halt.

"Anti-Bush arguments were perceived as anti-American," says Monbiot.

Despite people's attention being distracted from world trade issues, traffic on Public Citizen's website has "gone through the ceiling" in the past two months, Ms. Wallach says. In France, Attac - the leading anti-globalization movement - says it is recruiting new members at the same rate as before.

"The more things develop, the more people wonder, 'What can we do about this besides bombing Afghanistan?' " says Remi Parmentier, political director for Greenpeace, the international environmental organization. "What happened and what is happening shows even more the need for a new kind of global security that does not give any purchase to terrorism."

For advocates of globalization, real solutions mean increasing trade liberalization, which they say boosts growth and prosperity everywhere. But to launch a new trade round, they need third world support in the WTO.

"America's ability to sustain coalitions against terrorism will depend in part on attention to problems faced by our partners," Zoellick acknowledged in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations.

In Doha, says Helwig Schlögl, deputy Secretary General of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), "a new realization that you can't go it alone" and an "increased determination for multilateral cooperation" could engender a new spirit of compromise, he suggests.

The obstacles will not be easy to overcome, however.

The US and other industrialized countries opposes demands from third world countries that they be allowed to override drug patents so as to provide affordable medicines to AIDS sufferers and other patients. This dispute could scupper the meeting, WTO director general Mike Moore has warned.

Developing countries are also demanding that the results of the last round of trade negotiations be implemented before embarking on a new round, and resisting pressure from rich countries to open their economies to foreign investment before local firms are strong enough to compete.

At the same time, Japan is demanding that the US drop punitive duties on certain imports, and developing countries are refusing EU demands that labor rights and environmental protection provisions be included in trade pacts.

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