After Seattle: Following Failed Trade Talks, the Protest Continues. (Currents)

By Bogo, Jennifer | E Magazine, March-April 2000 | Go to article overview

After Seattle: Following Failed Trade Talks, the Protest Continues. (Currents)


Bogo, Jennifer, E Magazine


When a world conference on the once-sleepy issue of trade came to Seattle late last November, the press got the soundbite they were looking for: 50,000 demonstrators crowded the city, leaving a trail of shattered windows and police barricades in their wake. But despite a handful of anarchists, the real story lies in the mass of ordinary citizens who came together, peacefully and intelligently, to temporarily halt in its tracks one of the world's most powerful organizations.

Protesters, from farmers and students to environmental activists and union members, linked arms and voices in a weeklong demonstration against the World Trade Organization (WTO), clamoring for changes that would place environmental protection and basic human and labor rights above short-term profit. Both a legislative and judicial body, the WTO has governed the flow of goods, services and money across international boundaries since 1995, negotiating and enforcing global trade laws in what has become a distinctly undemocratic process.

Though the Third Ministerial meeting in Seattle may have officially taken place, its real purpose, to launch the Millenium Round of trade liberalization talks between 135 member nations, never materialized. Activists filled the streets, blocking access to buildings and successfully delaying the start of negotiations. The event, which did not end before a dusk-to-dawn curfew and state of emergency involving the National Guard, was one that activist Vandana Shiva, director of the India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, called a "historic watershed." And the real Millenium Round, Shiva says, is the beginning of a new democratic debate about the future of the Earth and its people.

"Seattle was literally a stage where issues of corporate concentration of power, environmental degradation and biotechnology were pulled out of the corporate closet and put in the public's eye," says Scotty Johnson, rural outreach coordinator for the GrassRoots Environmental Effectiveness Network (GREEN). "It was a tremendous step toward revitalizing democracy and putting citizen input back into global control."

Because it is run by unelected trade representatives, deciding the fate of national laws in meetings clouded by secrecy, Jennifer Gleason, staff attorney with the U.S. Office of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, declares, "Any advances our governments have made in protecting our rights are being eroded by WTO agreements and decisions implementing them."

WTO rules are designed to limit government actions that affect trade. Any member nation may accuse another of violation of trade agreements, charging that health, human rights and environmental laws act as unfair "trade barriers." The scenario has already upended U.S. regulations under the Endangered Species Act, which required that sea turtle protection devices be used by shrimp trawlers harvesting for American markets. Also affected were Clean Air Act gasoline rules designed to reduce smog.

The U.S. has not merely played victim: Waving the banner of free trade, it successfully thwarted a European ban on beef treated with growth hormones that are suspected carcinogens. "Whether the issue is food safety, invasive species, hazardous materials, or toxic waste, it's now a question of the environmental precautionary principle hanging in the balance," says Victor Menotti, director of the environmental program at the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization.

The disparity between corporate influence and public interest was blatant in the sponsorship of the Ministerial itself (co-chaired by Boeing and Microsoft), say activists.

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After Seattle: Following Failed Trade Talks, the Protest Continues. (Currents)
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