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Seething In Seattle
Saturday, January 1, 2000

The main demands of the tens of thousands of protesters at the third WTO Ministerial Conference, or the so-called “Millennium Round,” were imposing of worldwide standards for labor conditions (including child labor and sweatshop conditions), environmental concerns and basically stirring up visceral reaction against globalization in all forms. Activists from diverse groups and movements from around the world strongly reacted to what they thought would be the further escalation of the exploitation of our planet and its people by the global capitalist system.

The unlikely array of protesters included nihilists, animal rights activists, students, seniors, demonstrators dressed up as sea-turtles (or monarch butterflies to protest genetically modified crops) and, ironically, even many wearing clothes and shoes made with sweatshop labor that they had come to protest. The common war cry and purpose of the demonstration was “Shut down the WTO,” the trade body viewed as an ominous tool of big business.

WTO: A Brief History

The successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) established in the wake of World War II, the World Trade Organization came into being in 1995. Although the WTO is relatively young, the multilateral trading system that was originally set up under GATT is more than 50 years old. The trading system was developed through a series of trade negotiations, or rounds, held under GATT. The initial rounds dealt mainly with tariff reductions but later negotiations included other areas such as anti-dumping and non-tariff measures.

The WTO’s objective is to help trade flow smoothly, freely, fairly and predictably — although critics of the organization are unanimous in their assessment that that is just what the organization does not do. To them, the organization is a global government represented by the most powerful nations of the world that uses solidarity between the rich to crush workers’ rights, social well-being and important environmental resources.

The main purpose of the formation of the WTO after the Uruguay Round (1986-94) of GATT was to help developing countries export their products in large volumes and at world market prices. Five years later, economists see no significant change, moreover, the inequalities of the international trading system appear to have been strengthened, rather than diminished.

Strange Bed-Fellows

The WTO has more than 135 members, accounting for over 90 percent of world trade. More than 30 other countries are negotiating membership. It’s rather daunting to consider that the organization works by consensus; at any given time many of the members are in territorial conflicts with other members, at war, or have imposed trade embargoes on each other.

Members include such longtime regional rivals as India and Pakistan, the latter with a military regime that overthrew the democratically elected government; Greece and Turkey; the United States and Cuba, a country where political dissent is the norm. Other member countries accused of human rights violations include Sierra Leone and Indonesia.

Waiting in the wings to join the WTO is China, long known for suppressing democracy and Sudan, accused by the United States of supporting terrorism.

India and the WTO

India, which had earlier adopted and promoted self-reliance, shut its doors to international trade. Other South Asian countries soon noticed the prosperity that free trade brought, which transformed their nations and wiped out poverty. In the early ’90s, India opened its doors to free trade, realizing that developing countries that keep their markets closed to international trade tend to have far lower economic growth.

It’s certainly in India’s best interest to hold onto its WTO membership, not yet being a member of any major trading block such as the EU or the North American Trade Association. The WTO is the key for India to gain access to the 135 member countries’ markets without having to negotiate individually with each one.

The Indian team, led by commerce and industry minister Murasoli Maran, arrived in Seattle with strong briefings from the Prime Ministers Office to adopt a proactive stand in pursuance of India’s commercial interest.

Maran shared the high table with President Clinton at a luncheon meeting of trade ministers, viewed by trade diplomats and the Indian delegation as a special treatment to India. Maran however, was not impressed, calling it a “casual meeting.” During his Lunch talks, Clinton stressed the need for reopening up the WTO to ordinary people, with hints of possible US financial aid to India to grow faster. Later, at a dinner meeting with leaders of the Indian community, Maran could not help but make at dig at Clinton’s talk. “The president talked like Lenin and Stalin. I appreciate the president of the capitalist US talking about labor concerns.”

The Collapse

Tension among participating countries kept rising during the four day conference. Even a few minutes before the extended midnight deadline on the last day, the 135 member countries could not reach a consensus on a declaration. Charlene Barshefsky, chairperson of the WTO trade ministers’ conference announced a “time out” to pick up the broken pieces later in Geneva.

A week before the Seattle round, WTO envoys in Geneva dropped efforts to agree on a text on the launch of a new trade round. The European Union (EU) warned before the start of the Seattle round that the failure of preparatory talks would make it harder for ministers to agree to launch a new global trade round. “The fact that Geneva went nowhere is not helpful. There are three steps to a negotiation: preparation, hard work and the final push; and the failure of the Geneva talks meant ministers would have to climb all three steps in Seattle,” cautioned European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy.

An optimistic Mike Moore, WTO Director-General, remarked later, “”We all left Seattle disappointed but not dismayed that it was not possible to finish the job we went there to do. A great deal was achieved in the short time Ministers had for serious negotiation. Gaps were narrowed considerably in a number of important areas.”

India was disappointed that the conference failed to achieve any positive outcome even though India has adopted a constructive attitude. A hopeful Maran did not want to term the conference a collapse, and rather labeled it inconclusive. “With this constructive attitude we had participated in the deliberations, and significant advances were made in many areas. But in other areas, particularly non-trade related issues, there were divergence which could not be bridged,” said Maran, summarizing the conference.

Was it the protests that brought down the talks or was it the member countries agreeing to disagree? They both might have succeeded. Although we need organizations like the WTO for smooth transition of globalization, it should make public its proceedings and establish a group to work on international labor standards.

Pascal Lamy was proved right; the three steps he named were the steepest the WTO delegates had to climb. The “final push,” rather than propelling negotiators to a resolution, sent the whole thing tumbling down.

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