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<nettime> Faceless in Seattle


http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3909384,00.html

Faceless in Seattle

The awesome power of the World Trade Organisation to rewrite national laws
to favour global business is being challenged at the grass roots. Andy
Rowell reports from the frontline of protest

Wednesday October 6, 1999

The party of the millennium is not, contrary to popular thinking, happening
on New Year's Eve. It's occurring just over a month earlier in Seattle,
where environmental, human rights and labour organisers are planning a
ding-dong of a protest.

Last month, the cream of the American direct action community held a
five-day strategy meeting at Pragtri Farm, a 25-acre small-holding in the
foothills of the Cascade Mountains, north of Seattle, on America's Pacific
Coast.

The protesters' aim is to stop the third ministerial meeting of the World
Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle in late November. John Sellers,
director of the Ruckus Society, organisers of the strategy meeting, says:
"I feel like we have all the ingredients to create a defining political
moment."

There is a similar feeling in European cities, where environmental and
other protesters are planning their own "parties".

The WTO was set up in 1995 at the formal end of the Uruguay round of the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It is now the most powerful
trade body in the world, with some 134 member nations and a further 33
wanting membership. WTO trade agreements provide legally binding rules for
international commerce and trade policy. Trade disputes are settled by
three unelected bureaucrats, operating in secret.

At Seattle, the delegates will be discussing a new round of trade
liberalisation talks - called the Millennium Round - in areas such as
investment, agriculture, forest products and government procure ment. In
Europe, where the EU is pushing in favour of the new round, discussions are
about to start as to what negotiating line to take.

What happens in Seattle will help to define the trade, environmental,
development and health agenda into the new century. In Britain, it may
change the future of public education, the minimum wage and the NHS, which
could face anti-trade rulings by the WTO.

"It is the policy of industry lobbyists to press for liberalisation of
health care," argues David Price, research fellow at Northumbria
University. "Conditions are being created to pressurise the government to
privatise health services."

The WTO is accused of being a faceless, undemocratic organisation which
puts the interests of corporations above everything else. "The WTO has the
right to completely rescind any law passed by the citizenry to protect the
environment, health and labour rights," says Kelly Quirk, head of the
Rainforest Action Network, co-sponsors of the Ruckus camp. Every
environmental or public health law challenged at the WTO has been ruled
illegal.

"What is wrong with the WTO is that it is totally representative of the
interests of corporations and money and the richest one-tenth of 1% of
people on the planet" says David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule
the World, who spoke at the camp. "In that sense, it is contrary to life,
the principles of life and everything we need to get a world that works
both for people and planet."

Activists point out the record of the WTO on dolphins, sea turtles as well
as the three Bs - bananas, beef and Burma. The WTO ruled in favour of
commercial interests against dolphins protected by the US marine mammals
act and turtles protected under the US endangered species act. It ruled in
favour of US banana interests in Central America which objected to Europe
buying bananas from small-scale Caribbean producers. It ruled against the
EU, which did not want to import US hormone-treated beef because of its
links to cancer. And a law passed in Massachusetts against working with
companies investing in the repressive regime in Burma was also attacked at
the WTO.

Another 'B' could be added to the list, as biotechnology will be one of the
main issues discussed at Seattle. Any measures by Europe to stop the import
of GM food will be ruled as a violation of trade.

Worried that it is losing the argument, the WTO is fighting back with a PR
offensive, saying that nation states, not them, are to blame. Mike Moore,
former New Zealand prime minister who is the new head of the WTO, also
believes that everyone can benefit from free trade. "People who march in
Seattle will be marching against opportunities for poor people to sell
their products and services," he says.

But the protesters won't only be marching. At the Ruckus training camp,
direct action techniques were taught. Workshops were held in political
theatre and WTO delegates will be greeted by an array of thousands of
colourful puppets. Activists were taught about the ethics of non-violence,
and practised de-escalating violent situations.

They also learned from their British counterparts. In the early 1990s,
British activists took the philosophy of Earth First in the US and imported
it over here. Mass direct action and protest was born and redefined on the
roads schemes at Twyford Down, Newbury and the M11 in east London. Since
then, groups like Reclaim the Streets (RTS) have turned protests into mass
parties of resistance.

Dave, from the Art and Revolution collective in San Francisco, says: "RTS
has influenced and inspired a lot of activists in America." And John
Sellars adds: "The great challenge for us in the US is to start putting up
the same numbers of people protesting against globalisation that we have
seen in Europe and in the global south."

A debate raging within direct action communities is whether property
destruction is a legitimate form of non-violent protest. "One thing that
has happened in Europe, which I very strongly believe will not play here,
is mass demonstra tions that lead to some sort of property destruction,"
says Kelly Quirk. "Private property is God."

Another reason for the Ruckus camp was alliance building. John, from RTS,
says: "There is more of a willingness to make broad-based alliances in the
US. To see steelworkers, reformists, anarchists, peace activists and
environmentalists all sitting around the campfire was amazing."

"For years, unions have tried to stand on their own," says Ron, one of the
steelworkers, "but it doesn't work. The corporations used to tell their
workers that if you get involved with environmentalists they will come and
shut your plant down. We have found that that is not true and they will
help you with your job." Environmentalists and steelworkers have formed the
Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment.

Celia, a consultant to the steelworkers, believes that the growing labour
and environmental alliance is one of the strongest cards that the
opposition has in the run-up to Seattle. "Because labour and
environmentalists are both strong constituencies that have to be listened
to, the idea that they are singing the same song is really scary to a lot
of policy makers," she says.

Indeed, a comprehensive alliance has formed to fight the WTO. Over 1,000
organisations from 87 countries have signed a statement opposing the
Millennium Round and any further liberalisation. "In the past five years,
the WTO has contributed to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the
rich few; increasing poverty for the majority of the world's population;
and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption" says the
statement.

They are joined by an array of interests, from international churches and
unions to Indian peasants and French farmers.

The protesters definitely feel that the momentum is behind them with two
recent significant anti-free trade victories. They felled the ill-fated
multilateral agreement on investment (MAI) and in the US they stopped Bill
Clinton's "fast track" of the North American Free Trade Agreement. "I do
think it is a strategic moment in an on-going confrontation between civil
society and corporate rule," says Mike Dolan.

"I think there is a definite possibility that the WTO will be defeated
after Seattle, so what do we do then?" asks John, from RTS. "We have to
remember to go for the heart of the beast, which is capitalism itself."

  Many environment and social justice groups say the WTO undermines
national governments and threatens people as well as nature. This week, the
Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) argued that WTO rules were threatening
seven hard-won treaties and were being used to prevent new environmental
laws.

Two new treaties are at risk: WTO rules would take precedence over the
proposed Persistent Pollutants Agreement, seeking to curb toxic chemical
pollution; and the Biosafety Protocol on the trade in GM organisms has all
but collapsed because rich countries want weaker WTO rules to govern the
trade.

Strengthening existing treaties could also be threatened: the Convention on
Biological Diversity is at risk because WTO rules on intellectual property
conflict with the convention's aims to help developing countries patent
local knowledge; and, WWF says, the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion,
the Kyoto climate change convention and the Basle convention banning the
export of hazardous waste to countries where it cannot be properly managed
could all be challenged.

The WWF wants an agreement implemented to exempt environmental trade
measures from challenge by the WTO. "Every time an agreement is seen to
threaten economic interests, WTO rules are invoked to weaken the
proposals," says Nick Mabey, of WWF.

 Andy Rowell is a freelance journalist who attended the Ruckus camp as a
guest.


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