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Reinventing the World 

Seattle summit brings 134 governments and tens of thousands of protesters together — to disagree on the rules of the global economy

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
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In 1968, Leone Hankey was too young to take part in the massive student protests that rocked Paris or the tumultuous anti-war protests at the Chicago Democratic convention. But the volunteer coordinator of the Southern California Fair Trade Network will definitely be in Seattle at the end of this month, when top government officials from 134 countries convene a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to try to start a new round of negotiations about trade and global economic rules. They will be greeted by what is likely to be the 1999 version of Paris or Chicago (if not quite so confrontational) -- the biggest, most diverse and most international protest about globalization in the nation‘s history.

As an array of citizen groups from around the world gather in Seattle for marches, rallies, teach-ins, debates, street theater, civil disobedience, banner hanging and even a shutdown of Seattle ports, they will be driven by an abundance of grievances about what the world economy -- and the WTO -- are delivering. Hankey will be joined by thousands of union members demanding WTO protection of worker rights, campaigners for human rights in China and Burma, critics of genetically modified food, mainstream environmentalists, family farmers, rainforest defenders, religious activists, third-world women’s groups, advocates for developing countries, radical democrats, anarchists, localists and a host of others.

“I see this as a watershed for a protest movement, with teeth in it for the first time since the ‘60s and with the power of labor behind it,” Hankey says enthusiastically. “The internationalism of it really appeals to me.”

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Why are they all mad at the WTO -- a rather low-profile organization that makes its home in a small, classically elegant building on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland? Launched five years ago, the WTO is the successor to even more obscure boards and commissions that administered nearly five decades of international agreements that reduced tariffs and encouraged international trade. The new WTO has more institutional solidity and more power to enforce its rules than its predecessors, just as the treaty establishing it also went far beyond traditional tariff reductions to protect property rights and global investors. The WTO decisions, typically prompted by a complaint from one country that another’s policies are unfair trade barriers, so far have stirred up several hornet‘s nests of protests and forced the United States, the European Union and other countries to change their laws or face economic sanctions.

Indeed, Public Citizen, the Ralph Nader --founded research and advocacy group, concluded that in its first five years of operation, the WTO has overturned as an illegal trade barrier every single “democratically achieved environmental, health, food-safety or environmental law” that has been challenged. WTO dispute panels -- which typically are a group of trade lawyers meeting in closed session -- overruled a U.S. regulation promoting cleaner gasoline; a U.S. law requiring shrimp fishing boats, if they want to sell in the U.S. market, to use a device to protect endangered sea turtles; and a European Union ban on beef containing artificial hormone residues.

Just the possibility of a challenge at the WTO has discouraged governments from enacting consumer or worker protections. Simply on the basis of threats of action, Public Citizen reports, Guatemala weakened a regulation designed to protect women from misleading inducements to use baby formula, South Korea watered down food safety laws, Europe weakened bans on the sale of furs obtained from certain animal traps, and California Governor Gray Davis vetoed a law giving preference to certain local goods and services.

Beyond objecting to the WTO rulings and their ability to intimidate elected governments, some groups are protesting the WTO as the symbolic guardian of globalization. Some of them are hostile to foreign trade and investment and would like to dismantle the WTO. More simply want to slow down the free-trade stampede -- to stop the torrent of new rules that favor multinational corporations and reassess how globalization is proceeding. Many insist that the WTO must adopt and enforce tough protections of the environment, such basic labor protections as bans on child labor and forced labor, the right of workers to organize unions, and the democratic rights of citizens and consumers to regulate their economies.

Hostility toward the WTO and corporate globalization has been enough glue to hold the protesters together so far, but there are fault lines that will be apparent in Seattle. Consider one of the top issues before the WTO this year: whether to start a formal discussion of the relationship of workers’ rights and global trade and investment. The AFL-CIO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which encompasses national labor federations representing 135 million workers, are pushing hard for inserting a labor-rights clause into the WTO‘s fundamental rules of trade. European labor movements have long advocated “social clauses” in international economic arrangements, as in the governing document of the European Union, but until recently American unions were more likely to emphasize unilateral U.S. action to stop what they regard as unfair trade.

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