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November 30, 1999


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Showdown In Seattle

Naeem Mohaiemen in New York

Activists are calling it the 'Battle in Seattle'. On November 30, representatives of 135 nations gather in Seattle for the third ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization. Hosted by the Clinton administration, this round is billed as the "millennial" round and is intended to be a crowning moment for the WTO. As the conference approached, the WTO became ensnared in one controversy after another.

On November 23, WTO officials failed to reach consensus on a draft declaration after 15 months of negotiation.

But looming large on the streets of Seattle was a much bigger challenge to the WTO, threatening to dwarf the disagreements among international powerbrokers. The WTO conference in Seattle has become a catalyst for a massive mobilization of activists from all corners of the globe. They see the WTO as an unaccountable global trade body that threatens worldwide human rights, labor unions and the environment.

The activists who are descending in tens of thousands on Seattle are broadly leftist and progressive in orientation, but their micro-interests are diverse -- covering the gamut of environmental, economic and social justice advocacy, labor unions, human rights activists, farmer unions, feminists, churches, and anti-corporate agitators.

The people who have traveled here from all over the world to confront the WTO "power cabal" include India's Vandana Shiva, members of Mexico's underground rebel Zapatista movement, Anita Roddick of England's Body Shop, Yash Tandon of the International South Group Network, representatives of the Students for Free Tibet and Sanjay Gopal of the National Alliance of People's Movements.

When Seattle was first chosen, one of the intentions was to locate the WTO meet away from the traditional hotbeds of anti-WTO agitation. Europe, already stinging from violent protests against Monsanto, Shell, Unocal, McDonalds and other symbols of global corporate power, was considered off-limits. Only a few months back, a French sheep farmer Jose Bove had become a national hero when he attacked a McDonalds in Paris to protest "American neo-colonialism".

On June 18, London saw violent anti-globalization protests that caused major property damage. Latin America was equally volatile on this issue. Seattle, the home of Microsoft and Boeing, was considered a safe meeting place for the millennial round.

The WTO organizers forgot to take into account two things. First, the Internet allowed activists to organize on a global level, transporting knowledge and experience from the European/South protests to Seattle.

Second, Seattle is one of the most heavily unionized American cities -- with 120,000 union members in Seattle and more than 400,000 members in Washington state. The AFL-CIO national union body, already irked by what they saw as the Democrats' abandonment of labor issues in the effort to the "fast-track" WTO, mounted a heavy campaign focused on November 30.

Throw into this mix the demands of labor, environmental and human rights activists from all corners of the globe, and you had a showdown that threatened to shut down the entire WTO proceedings. So volatile was the mix on the streets that Seattle Council member Brian Derdowski told reporters the WTO meet was "the greatest security risk this region has ever known."

John Kinsman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer travelling to Seattle to join the protest told The Nation magazine, 'I think they thought they could put this meeting in the US and nobody would care. But they're going to find out that an awful lot of us do care.'

Inspired by the example of guerrilla street theater, anti-WTO activists were combining the traditional speeches, leaflets and seminars with alternative "theatrical" forms of protest. Throughout November, an "international caravan" of environmentalists, human rights workers and women's rights activists from Bolivia, Israel, Tibet, Panama and Nigeria (to name a few places) had been travelling across America on its way to Seattle.

Along the way they stopped at 18 towns to host anti-WTO teach-ins and train local grassroots groups. Caravan sponsor Michael Morrill told reporters, "In India and Europe tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the WTO. Seattle is where America will catch up."

Reclaim The Streets ( was another activist network that was organizing "carnivals of resistance" -- street parties with music and dancing combined with a sharp political message.

Using 12-foot street puppets that represented various multinationals in the act of destroying indigenous people and environment, the group was forcing networks like CNN to give coverage to the dissenting voices.

Other media-savvy activist groups like AdBusters created sleekly packaged anti-WTO TV advertisements, sending them out to organizations across the US to get them aired on local television stations. Other grassroots organizations like AgitProp were taking inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, staging "Direct Action" events on November 30, including a call for people to "walk out" from their jobs or school to block the streets of Seattle.

Seattle's fighting spirit has spread to regional protests across the country. Here in New York, a block away from my office, student protesters have besieged the immensely popular GAP clothing store, protesting the company's policy of manufacturing clothes in sweatshop conditions. The theme of all the protests is the same, to draw attention to the WTO, so that it can no longer continue its deliberations in conditions of semi-secrecy with no accountability to democratic governments or people.

The WTO's militant free-trader Michael Moore has dismissed this opposition as "grumpy, geriatric communists". President Clinton said, "Every group in the world with an axe to grind is going to Seattle to demonstrate".

But looking at the position papers being circulated by activists, it is difficult to be dismissive or patronizing about their concerns. Here are just a few key issues that anti-WTO activists are focusing on:

1. Democracy & Sovereignty: WTO rules supersede domestic laws. Any laws that place worker's rights, food safety, environmental protection and cultural heritage above free trade can now be judged illegal by the WTO.

In the United States alone, California has 95 laws that are "WTO-illegal". The state's ban on a poisonous chemical, methyl tertiary butyl ether, is already being challenged under NAFTA's "Investor Protections" Act. State laws such as the "Burma selective-purchase" laws, which attempt to stop US purchases from corporations doing business with Burma's military junta, would be in violation of the WTO.

It isn't a far-fetched scenario to imagine Bangladesh's attempt to stop dumping of toxic varieties of food crop (as with the recent wheat case) being challenged by the WTO.

2. Environmental Standards: Under WTO, global companies will be given incentives to open factories in locations where environmental law enforcement is lax, so they can pollute in ways that would be unacceptable in their home countries.

Combined with World Bank and IMF pressure to pay off loans through export earnings, this will propel LDC's into a "race to the bottom", where countries will compete to have the most lax environmental standards to attract the next Nike factory. A few years ago, the World Bank's Lawrence Summers (currently US treasury secretary) was engulfed in controversy for a memo in which he suggested that rich nations export their polluting materials to poor countries, in exchange for financial compensation.

Now the WTO will indirectly implement Summers's suggestion. As pressure mounts in the North to raise environmental standards, polluting factories will gladly move their factories to the Third World where they can continue business as usual.

Bhopal is the most extreme result of such a policy, but gradual long-term pollution is an even more deadly, and invisible, killer.

3. Global Sweatshops: There is now a full-throttle campaign in the United States and Europe against buying clothes that were made using sweatshop or child labor. In the US, students have been particularly powerful on this issue, launching highly effective campaigns that have bloodied Nike, Banana Republic and many others -- forcing them to improve the nightmarish conditions in their overseas factories. The WTO would make such campaigns impossible, as they would be considered barriers to "fair trade".

Some business lobbies have claimed that sweatshops are an essential price to pay on the path to industrialization. Pro-WTO businessmen point at the US in the early 19th century, when similarly brutal conditions existed in American factories. But they fail to realize that, it was campaigns against these sweatshops, mounted by American labor, that forced the modernization of these factories.

The WTO can enforce laws so that no such campaign, whether international or domestic, can be waged against sweatshops.

4. Bio Piracy: The WTO's TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property rights) allows multinationals to claim patents for agricultural and medicinal knowledge of indigenous people. Companies have already secured patents for traditional medicines, human DNA and indigenous methods of growing food.

At a recent WTO Teach-In at New York University, Panamanian activist Taira Stanley told students; "Scientists from the [American-led] Human Genome Project have even come and taken the blood of indigenous people and patented it, because we have immunities that you don't." Similar patent claims have already been made for quinoa (high-protein grain developed by indigenous Quechya and Aymara people of Bolivia and Peru), fish-killing ingredient (Amazon), Una de gato (indigenous medicine of Peru) and numerous other indigenous products.

5. Health: Genetically modified food is at the center of an intense trade war between Europe and the United States. Monsanto's genetically modified "Frankenstein food" has been the cause of widespread protests in Europe.

Emboldened by European opposition to Monsanto, there have been attempts to stop the marketing of Monsanto products elsewhere, including Bangladesh (where UBINIG and others opposed Grameen Bank's partnership with Monsanto). Stung by criticism, Monsanto has withdrawn the "terminator" gene from the market. But WTO could turn the tide in favor of the "Frankenstein" food-makers.

Recently the EU banned the import of artificial hormone-fed beef from America. The US government, on behalf of the National Cattleman's Beef Association and Monsanto brought a case to the WTO, which ruled that the EU had to allow import of the beef, or face sanctions.

6. Human Rights: WTO rules require all member countries be treated equally, even if some have undemocratic governments. The "Free Burma" campaign has already been effected by these regulations, making it harder for individual countries to maintain boycotts against the military junta for human rights violations. The long-running struggle for Tibetan freedom from Chinese rule will also be hard-hit by the US success in securing a deal to gain WTO membership for China. As one of the most powerful members of the WTO, China will almost certainly block any attempts at making human rights part of trade agreements.

The fallacy of the new mantra of "constructive engagement" through trade with dictatorships is revealed if we pause to study the South Africa example. A decade ago, the South African apartheid regime was brought to its knees by a worldwide campaign of trade sanctions (endorsed by the UN and the International Court of Justice).

If the WTO rules had existed back then, these sanctions would have been judged illegal, the Afrikaner regime might well have lasted into the Millennium and Nelson Mandela would still have been in jail. Now, substitute Aung San Su Kyi for Mandela, and it becomes clear how much the world has changed in favor of dictatorships.

Today, under a new free-trade regime where it is difficult to enforce global sanctions, China is unscathed from the human rights violations of Tiananmen, prison labor in sweat shops, continuing crackdowns in Tibet, and attacks against Falun Gong followers. All this because institutions like the WTO preach "constructive engagement" through trade rather than sanctions. In neighboring Burma, the Burmese junta does not face any South Africa-model sanctions. Thus companies like Unocal can freely invest in Burmese gas pipelines in built using forced labor.

Because the structure of the WTO is byzantine and its far-reaching power is so poorly understood, I encourage readers to do further research on this topic.

Some of the best resources are on the Internet, as listed below:

  • One World:
  • Public Citizen:
  • Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy:
  • Mobilization Against Corporate Globalization:
  • 50 Years is Enough campaign:
  • Seattle Anti-WTO Campaign:
  • Friends of Earth:
  • Turning Point:
  • Jubilee 2000 campaign for cancelling Third World Debt:

Naeem Mohaiemen is an Internet activist based in New York.

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