Intervenor: Vol 24. No 4 October - December 1999

The Battle in Seattle - CELA is There

It's Saturday night November 27th at Pearson airport. With the increasing integration of the Canadian and USA economies, courtesy of free trade, you can now fly direct to all sorts of destinations Stateside. Not surprisingly, Air Canada has instituted a direct Toronto-Seattle flight only weeks before the WTO Ministerial, and it is packed solid. There are government trade bureaucrats, Council of Canadians representatives, agricultural industry representatives, farmers, unionists, three of us from CELA and a host of others.

Prowling through the newsstands before the flight, it is fascinating to see more coverage of trade issues in the mainstream media than we have had for years. Newsweek, Business Week, the Economist all feature extensive stories and even the split run edition of Time magazine (only in Canada, eh ?) has a cover story on the WTO. Ironically, a big feature of their coverage is an opinion piece by John Weekes, Canada's former Ambassador to the WTO in Geneva who was bumped by Sergio Marchi. It's rumored that Weekes (now a consultant in the private sector) is being paid twice his former salary to provide advice to Marchi. It was the WTO, while Weekes was our Ambassador there, which ruled that Canada's magazine policy had to be changed, thereby opening the door to the split run editions. I suppose the article by Weekes should be seen as meeting their "Canadian content" needs.

In his long defence of the WTO and free trade in Time, John Weekes castigates the WTO's critics and once more raises the hackneyed bogeyman of protectionism. Weekes claims that opposition to the WTO will lead to protectionism and we all know that protectionism led to the great depression and the rise of fascism. It is this kind of failure even to debate the weaknesses of the free trade approach, let alone begin to address its problems, that has created so much frustration across the globe, especially in the southern hemisphere.

The battle begins

Our low-budget hotel in Seattle is the headquarters for Greenpeace International, a number of delegates from the Africa Trade Network, some European representatives and a number of folks from the Northwest. Already on the weekend there have been a host of excellent forums, and bright and early Monday morning the protests begin. A bomb scare shuts down the conference center until noon so the NGO forums start hours late. The environment demonstration and march floods the streets with Sierra Club members dressed as sea turtles shutting down major intersections.

Inside the Conference centre, delegates are milling about waiting for things to get started. The two "official" NGO forums, part of an ever increasingly sophisticated attempt by the WTO secretariat to engage some of its critics, turn out to be interesting affairs. Starting late, the "development" forum is chaired by Alec Erwin from South Africa the former trade union researcher now the ANC's Trade Minister. He is clearly at home in this kind of event and African government delegates have already held their own preparation meeting on Sunday reflecting the increasingly organized way southern governments are engaging the WTO.

Development issues are clearly a hot topic. Mike Moore, the WTO Director-General tries hard to dub this the "Development Round", not the Seattle Round. Other political heavyweights from the EU, the USA, and the UK all try to imply that they have heard the southern critique that they are getting little for their Uruguay Round concessions. The presence of so many heavy hitters suggests that the stalemate reached in Geneva (there is no draft text for the ministers to work from) has yet to be bridged and it will be a challenging week for the trade establishment. The speakers on the panel express some very harsh criticism of the WTO, including a strong speech from the African Trade Union Council head, which many of the protestors would easily endorse.

The official panel was followed by statements from the floor. Martin Khor from the Third World Network leads things off with his usual well-informed, scathing commentary. Maude Barlow follows, and then Medicine Sans Frontieres launch their call for reform of the TRIPS agreement to allow access of essential drugs for all. After a geographically diverse set of commentators have presented their views, including representatives from some major corporate lobby groups, the session winds up.

Summing up, Alec Erwin emphasizes two points. He says that the WTO is an intergovernmental agreement and therefore the key to change at the WTO is for NGOs to press their governments to bring a new agenda to the WTO. His second point, throwing down the gauntlet so to speak, is that he has heard nothing new today and we need new ideas to move things forward.

As the cast changes and the environment forum opens, the contrast with the development forum is striking. The chair is the President of the US based National Wildlife Federation, not a trade minister. Not a single political heavyweight in the WTO or any of the major country delegations speaks on environmental issues and the panels represent a much more main-line view of the issues. Clearly Seattle is not going to be the "environment round".

Tuesday opens with a round of breakfast meetings and the big demos aimed to shut the Ministerial down. Already by 8 am protestors have a ring around the site for the opening ceremonies and the police are out in force. They never do get the official launch going and abandon their attempts by noon. Protesters have locked themselves onto sewer grates, hemming in an armed personnel carrier full of well-armed riot police. I twice caught a whiff a tear gas and discovered that any journalist I ran into usually reeked of the stuff.

The alternative media are fascinatingly innovative. One group has organized live simulcasting from a digital video camera linked to a cell phone with a modem. They are doing interviews direct to the web with demonstrators and showing shots of tear-gassing and police actions. Many photographers are uploading their digital material every few hours so the folks in Europe or India or the Midwest can be a part of things if they want to be. In fact one of the legacies of the battle in Seattle is a flood of high caliber material on trade issues available on the Internet. (An excellent starting point is http://www.wtowatch.org/pages/home.cfm.)

By 2 o'clock the big AFL-CIO sponsored march has reached the conference center after a lively rally at a football stadium. A number of Canadians here-from the CLC, the Council of Canadians, Common Frontiers, ourselves-have been doing live media interviews by cell phone with the folks back home on the CBC and other radio shows. The protests have a festive air near the hotel where many delegates to the WTO are staying. But just a few blocks away, on our way to late afternoon meetings, we come across boarded up storefronts for Eddie Bauer and other well known names. We turn the corner and there are folks hauling garbage containers out into intersections and setting them on fire. You can feel the tension level rising as the riot squad begins to move in. By seven that night there is a curfew in place in downtown Seattle. Clinton is coming to town, and police are still in running battles with protestors. As we head back to our hotel, the downtown core is eerily silent. We come across a ring of National Guard troops surrounding Clinton's hotel. As we cross a street we run into the reporter from the Toronto Star and stop to swap stories and rumours. A small world indeed.

On Wednesday, the police go on the offensive; many would say overboard. A state of emergency is in place and protests are banned in the downtown core. Yet with my gray NGO badge, and a tie on for camouflage, I can go anywhere with only minor detours. Heading up one of the main streets, a group of protestors rounds the corner and heads towards Clinton's hotel. Right on their heels come the police on horses scattering all of us in the street as they hem in the group from both sides and then begin the arrests. The battles go on all day; testimony to the tenacity and organization of the Direct Action Network.

La lutte continue

But the protests are only part of the story. The city is alive with forums with people from all over the world. The variety and high caliber of many of the sessions reflect the increasingly effective critique that is being made of the WTO. Michelle Swenarchuk from CELA shares a platform with Vandana Shiva and other leading critics of the Patenting of Life forms and the TRIPs agreement, Sarah Miller speaks on water issues and unlike other WTO events there are a host of briefings by government delegations. The EU ones are the best, much more informative than the Canadian government ones. And the message is that the talks are in trouble.

By Thursday Clinton has left and the jails are full, so the action in the streets is much more sporadic. The forums continue with an emphasis on agriculture. Inside the convention centre tensions are rising because the backroom maneuvering is leaving a large number of countries out of the loop and there are few concessions being made by anyone. Come Friday, I am back on a plane to Toronto. The talks go into overtime as delegates scramble to try to salvage something. But ultimately the gaps are too wide to be bridged.

It is still too early to decide exactly what has changed. There is talk of reforming the decision-making structure within the WTO; there is talk of trying to re-launch the negotiations; there is talk of opening the built-in negotiations on agriculture and services. At a meeting of CEOs of the world's largest companies in Davos Switzerland, it is reported that many of the corporate types are talking about the "lessons" of Seattle-that Seattle is a wake-up call to business to recognize that the economy is just a part of society. But so far there seems to be little real change being proposed. But stay tuned, this is only a beginning.
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Ken Traynor is the International Programme coordinator at CELA