A Perspective on 'The Battle of Seattle'

WTO On-Site Report, December 2, 1999
Live More Fully

Wednesday, December 1st, 1999

I've spent the last few days in Seattle attending events surrounding the World Trade Organization meeting; watching, listening, following the US media coverage -- and thinking about what it all means.

Unfortunately, coverage of the violence has overshadowed the substance of the dialogue between those supporting and those opposed to the WTO. When the mainstream media has covered some of the issues, it has been predictably superficial and unquestioning, focusing on the issue most easily packaged for American audiences - loss of American jobs. When they have addressed some of the more controversial issues between countries, both sides of the arguments are given from the perspective of business in each country, not from the perspective of people or the environment. NPR coverage, particularly from Seattle's local affiliate, KUOW, has been quite good, offering a wider range of viewpoints and examining more of the complexities. However, the majority of American people, forming their impressions of this WTO meeting from a smattering of mainstream news sources, may miss the two big stories emerging from this week.

There are many underlying reasons for the opposition to the WTO, including the role of corporations in writing its rules, the primacy of corporate profits over concerns for humanity and the planet, the philosophy of globalization over localization, the trampling of national sovereignty, and the secrecy with which the WTO has conducted most of its dealings. These views were well represented at the International Forum on Globalization's (IFG's) Teach-In. [Note: You can watch and/or listen to the first night of the Teach-In at www.wtowatch.org]

For me, however, the most compelling arguments against the current form of the WTO are the wide range of real world impacts of globalization as practiced under the WTO, its predecessor, GATT, and NAFTA.

Here are just a few such issues:

  • Under WTO rules, laws on human rights, environmental and cultural protection, food safety, child and prison labor, healthcare access, worker safety, and a myriad of other areas can be viewed as "trade barriers."
  • Farmers in India, forced by trade rulings to open their seed supply to giant seed companies such as Monsanto, are committing suicide, burdened by the debt required to annually purchase their genetically-modified seeds and the pesticides they were designed to work with.
  • In 1998, an estimated 150,000 endangered sea turtles were killed in shrimp nets. A provision of the US Endangered Species Act requiring all shrimp sold in the US to be caught in nets that do not kill sea turtles was ruled illegal by the WTO.
  • The WTO has ruled against or threatened to rule against countries' attempts to protect their population's food supply. Some of the most well-publicized cases include rulings against bans or restrictions on hormone treated beef, pesticide levels, and genetically engineered foods.
  • Water, which the World Bank says will be the cause of the wars of the next century, is quickly becoming a commodity, with corporate ability to "harvest" the water and trade it globally for profit already enforced within North America by a NAFTA ruling.
  • In order to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies, Guatemala banned claims on baby food packaging equating infant formula with fat, healthy babies. Under threat of a WTO challenge by Gerber Products, Guatemala retracted the ban.
  • According to Bill Blaikie, Canadian Member of Parliament, the U.S. healthcare and pharmaceutical industries have already set their sights on the Canadian single-payer healthcare system with the intent of increasing their profits by overturning Canadian regulations that keep the cost of healthcare and drugs low enough to be offered to all Canadians.

On top of these individual examples, the overall record of trade liberalization of the last 50 years paints a picture of tremendous flows of products worldwide while wealth flows from poor to rich. For example, despite a record amount of exports last year, Canadian farmers now have the lowest net income since 1926. Another startling indicator of this, presented by John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies, is that the wealth of the 475 billionaires of the world is equivalent to that of the poorest 60% of humanity, some 3.6 billion people. Clearly, the benefits of globalized trade are not being shared by everyone.

The other big story that may be missed in the mainstream media's coverage is that for the first time, an international coalition of people from diverse backgrounds is uniting to turn the tide against global policies that put people and the environment last.

The variety of panel discussions, rallies, and marches going on in Seattle this week, coupled with the flood of thousands of trade ministers, journalists, and activists have turned Seattle into a bazaar of issues and ideas, both global and local. From the intellectual panel discussions including activists such as Ralph Nader and Vandana Shiva to the nonviolent acts of civil disobedience that have helped to draw the world's attention to the WTO, activists from across the spectrum are doing their thing. When steelworkers, who in a different era were seen beating up activists, are marching side by side with environmentalists and human rights activists, we know that we are witnessing a new kind of mobilization. At our own Positive Futures Network reception ( see Fran Korten's article ), two leading thinkers in different areas of global and corporate economics, Susan George and Paul Hawken, met for the first time and found they were mutual admirers of each other's work - another link formed.

As Paul Hawken has said, the best thing about the WTO is that it puts a face on a globalization process that has been happening for 500 years. Every trade decision the WTO makes inevitably has an environmental, cultural, health, or even moral aspect that doesn't get considered in the WTO's current process. Now that more people are realizing this, a global community of activists will focus their cries for reform on this international body. Given the unexpected depth and breadth of resentment that is surfacing this week in Seattle, it is unlikely that the WTO will be able to continue to work in secrecy as it has. Also, knowing what happened here, it is hard to imagine any city jumping at the chance to host the next WTO ministerial meeting. All of these factors point toward a significantly different WTO post-Seattle - a WTO that must begin to incorporate the concerns of an increasingly united alliance of activists.

If nothing else, the Seattle ministerial meeting of the WTO will be remembered as the spark that significantly advanced the free trade of ideas amongst those who value life over money. In case you missed it, Civil Society has taken another big step forward.

Rod Arakaki
Associate Editor, YES! magazine

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