A global tug-of-war splits nations over World Trade Organization

U.N. Observer & International ReportJune 1998

A global tug-of-war splits nations over World Trade Organization
U.N. Observer & International Report,  June 1998

As world leaders gathered in Geneva 
in May to trade praise and plans for a
 borderless economy, activists were at
the ready with a monkey wrench for the
 new world order.

The Second Ministerial Conference
 of the World Trade Organization was
 more than a meeting, more than a 15th 
birthday party for the multilateral trading
 system. It was a battleground for the

Inside, WTO leaders sang the virtues 
of globalized trade—what they call
 “commercial common sense” and a 
recipe for world prosperity. Outside,
 activists for People’s Global Action 
(PSA) decried the “globalization of 
misery” by those who have the gold to
 make the rules.

“This is completely illegitimate. They’re
 deciding the future of humanity behind people’s backs,” says Sergio Hernández,
 a Spanish PGA organizer. “They only
 consider the interests of multinational
 corporations. They’re destroying the
 planet and condemning a lot of people
 to misery, using and abusing power
 structures that practically no one is 
familiar with.”

Hundreds of protestors gathered in 
the square outside the conference building. 
Their objective: an open microphone—
a chance to share a radically different
 view. Blocking them were Geneva riot
police, unswayed by French-language
 calls of “Let us pass . . . please!” Protestors hoisted individual activists above
 the crowd and passed them over their
 heads, trying—unsuccessfully—to toss 
them over the police line.

The police replied with clubs, entering 
the crowd to arrest specific organizers. Nearly 2,000 people walked gagged 
and hand-cuffed through Geneva to
 illustrate their lack of voice. They staged
 a funeral for “the victims of an economic
 war that treats people like merchandise.” 
In a city fond of order and tidiness,
 youth street riots spawned broken glass,
 burnt cars, broken bones, nearly 200
 arrests, alleged police brutality requiring
 hospitalization, and one mission accomplished:

Many Genevans had never heard of
 the WTO, but the name now rings 

After nearly half a century tweaking 
the nuts and bolts of global commerce,
 the General Agreement on Tariffs and 
Trade won institutional power. On
 1 January 1995, the WTO was born.
 With 132 member nations, a staff of 500
 and an annual budget of nearly $100
 million, the WTO is GATT with teeth.

Gatt was a provisional forum and series
 of agreements on trade in goods, never 
legally recognized as an international
 organization. GATT members approved 
the WTO in 1994 “to help trade flow as 
freely as possible, to achieve further
 liberalization gradually through negotia
tion, and to set up an impartial means of
 settling disputes.” This new body
 incorporated GATT, added language
 on services and intellectual property,
 and became the only global body with
 power to rule on trade between nations.

At their First Ministerial Conference
 (Singapore, 1995) leaders laid the foundations of the Multilateral Agreement
 on Investment (MAI), a proposed treaty
 to allow transnational companies to 
invest across borders with the same
 rights as local firms and to create an
environment favorable to those investments. When countries like India slowed 
negotiations by claiming rights to protect
 local industry, parallel MAI talks began
in the Organization of Economic Co-
operation and Development (OECD).

In 1996 the WTO signed a cooperation 
agreement with the International Monetary Fund—and in 1997 with the World
Bank—to “achieve greater coherence in
global economic policy-making.”

Critics say this convergence of
 economic strategies castrates national
 sovereignty, letting transnational capital
 play global hopscotch with no accountability to workers or environment.

Globalized trade, says PGA, “only
 benefits multinational business elites
 while increasing numbers of people are
 going hungry, unable to afford basic
 health care and education and forced to
 cope with environmental destruction.”

Unwilling to accept “forced competi
tion,” a grassroots alliance of civic
 groups from 56 countries first descended
 on Geneva in February. About 300
 delegates held the first world Congress
 of indigenous peoples, environmentalists, 
labor unions, feminists, intellectuals,
 the landless, the homeless and the 
unemployed—and any group with an
 anti-capitalist axe to grind—to form
“People’s Global Action.”

PGA coordinates almost 200 groups 
with a combined membership of nearly 
2 million people. The roster includes
 Argentine teachers, Filipino peasants,
 French farmers, India’s National Alliance 
of People’s Movements, Nigeria’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni
 People, the Indigenous Women’s Network 
of North America, Brazil’s Landless 
Movement, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and
 Mexico’s Zapatistas that joined others 
to directly confront neoliberal policy through nonviolent civil disobedience.

The PGA is diverse, but united by a 
belief that the “invisible hand” of the
 marketplace needs a swift slapping—
before it crushes them. Against lobbies
 or reform, the PGA seeks to destroy the 
WTO and liberalization pacts like 
NAFTA and the European Union. Nixing 
nationalist solutions, activists work across
 borders in a struggle they see as global.
The Geneva protests tested their strength.

For a decentralized organization with
r otating representatives speaking dozens
 of languages, scaling the tower of Babel isn’t easy. Bilingual volunteers interpret for those in need, translate documents and put them on
the Internet. Better educated delegates debate the fine print of written declarations and are usually
 the ones to preserve contact between

Getting to Geneva—and staying there—
isn’t cheap.

“There’s usually a lot of solidarity in 
these things,” says Aida (surname withheld
by request), a member of Play Fair
Europe! If a group needs to send a
delegate, but doesn’t have the money,
“an effort is made among everyone to
pay for the ticket.”

Back at GATT’s anniversary shindig, 
life wasn’t all champagne and birthday 
cake. As British Prime Minister Tony 
Blair celebrated the achievements of
free trade, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and
 South Africa’s Nelson Mandela were 
there to blow out the candles.

At the end of the conference, ministers
 signed a declaration celebrating “the
 system’s important contribution . . . to
 growth, employment and stability by 
promoting the liberalization and expan
sion of trade,” but agreed “that more 
remains to be done to enable all the
world’s peoples to share fully and
 equitably in these achievements.” Even
 so, the ministers defended open markets 
and rejected protectionism in all its 

But with thousands of activists demonstrating against them, they recognized 
“the importance of enhancing public
 understanding of the benefits of the
 mutilateral trading system in order to
 build support for it.” They agreed to
 work toward this end.

PGA countermeasures in Geneva were 
just the beginning. Activists at the
 Montreal OECD meeting (24 through
 27 May) blocked participants’ entry.
 Thousands took to the streets in Brazil
 and India. PGA groups continue to 
pressure their local governments, set up
continental meetings and plan global
 conferences three months before WTO

“No more WTO conferences,” says a 
PGA communique, “in any case not
 without us.”

The next PGA conference will be
held in April 1999 at Bangalore, India.

— Brett Allan King

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or publication in which story first appeared
Do not reprint without permission

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