From the Trenches: Opening Day of the WTO Ministerial Meeting

WTO On-Site Report, November 30, 1999
WTO protesters, photo by Alan Graves

Photo by Alan Graves.

November 30, 1999

On Tuesday, the opening day of the WTO ministerial, I spent the afternoon in the PFN office while thousands of protesters took to the streets--marching,chanting, attending or conducting teach-ins--and took some of the world media spotlight away from the delegates. Already, I could feel that what was happening in Seattle would go down in history. People from Chicago, Washington, DC, Canada, India, Israel, Latin America, and many other parts of the world were converging on Seattle to stand for human and environmental rights, to call for a society that values life over money. By mid-afternoon, I had finished the work I'd considered urgent, and it was time to head for Seattle to attend a WTO debate sponsored by Public Citizen, the International Forum on Globalization, and other groups.

The skies were growing darker and more ominous by the minute, and as I walked onto the ferry that would carry me across Puget Sound, I caught snatches of conversation from people who had been downtown during the morning. Words like "riot police" and "tear gas" and "broken glass everywhere" fueled my imagination. Someone mentioned that the Metro buses were no longer running downtown for "safety reasons," and then I heard that police were shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at people to keep them in line. The rubber bullets were almost the last straw, making me wonder if I shouldn't just jump overboard and take my chances with hypothermia rather than wander alone into the Orwellian nightmare that Seattle had obviously become.

As we neared the city, the captain announced over the crackling loudspeaker that the City of Seattle had declared a "state of emergency," and the police were imposing a 7 pm curfew on the downtown area from Seneca Avenue to Yesler. And right smack in the middle of the restricted zone was Town Hall, my destination, where the debate would begin at 7:30.

I have to admit, it was a bit of an adrenaline rush to walk off the ferry and into the unknown. However, the police had apparently managed to clear the evening streets of protesters.

As I pulled my coat tightly around my body to ward off the rain, I noticed that the downtown area was unnaturally quiet. Few, if any pedestrians wandered about, and the shops had all closed early. The virtual silence was broken only by the occasional car hydroplaning through the city. Police in full riot gear were scattered on every other corner, their numbers growing denser the closer I came to the hotels where the WTO delegates were staying. No buses, of course, which meant that I had to slog 10 blocks up a steep hill in the rain.

Fortunately, I found Town Hall bustling with activity--the rumors I'd heard on the ferry of the event's cancellation had been greatly exaggerated. I took my place in line and, in a burst of cynicism probably a little strange for someone who works for a journal of "positive futures," wondered if the debaters would be preaching to a choir of people already deeply entrenched in their opinions about trade.

I had hoped that the protests, the independent media coverage, and the teach-ins would have piqued enough people's curiosity so those who didn't know about the issues surrounding the WTO would come out to learn more. As I looked at those around me, I worried that that might not be the case. What was the use of having a debate if everyone who attended already knew all the answers?

It turns out that I need not have been concerned. The room was packed with people of all ages and backgrounds, some well-versed on trade issues, and some wanted to increase their knowledge. Before the debate began, I asked several people why they were there and was pleasantly affirmed by their answers.

Sitting to my left were two Seattle women who claimed they didn't know a lot about global economic issues but had come to hear the speakers out of "rampant curiosity." One of the women, Elizabeth Davis, said, "I have this feeling that all sorts of institutions that have been in place for some time are suddenly going to go belly up, and something new is going to take its place."

When pressed to say what that "something" was, Davis admitted that she had no idea. "It will probably be a neutral change," she said, then paused. "Although now I wonder if it might be more of a good change. What I'm seeing with all these protesters against the WTO is that there are many people uniting to say that the old way isn't working." Her companion, Marian Mowatt, added that she was present because the WTO needed "more input from something other than big business."

Behind me was a group of five students from Whitman College in western Washington. The majority were there for an optional, school-sponsored field trip and had been learning about the issues surrounding free and fair trade in one of their classes. Sophomore Sarah Foster said the class had given her a better understanding of the reasons behind both sides. However, she said, "the WTO is just a bunch of economists deciding everything for everyone, and that's not fair."

Finally, the debaters walked onstage. On the pro-WTO and free trade side were Scott Miller, from Procter & Gamble; Dr. Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor of economics at Columbia University; and David Aaron, the Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade. The opposite side included John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies; Vandana Shiva, of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology; and Public Citizen founder Ralph Nader. The crowd clapped politely for all six, but the applause level definitely spiked when Nader took his place at the table.

During their opening statements, the pro-WTO and free trade side asserted that opening up trade is "vital" to growth and helps lift poor countries out of poverty. David Aaron cited Korea, Thailand, Latin America, and Indonesia as areas where striking down barriers to trade had boosted economies. In addition, he and his colleagues stressed that small business and small countries need an international tribunal like the WTO to be a watchdog over trade and protect their interests.

Following up on Clinton's statement that day "agreeing" with the concerns of the protesters, Aaron mentioned that human and workers' rights and the environment were "top concerns" of the Clinton administration, as well as bringing more transparency and openness to the WTO. He concluded by advising those present not to develop new barriers to trade that would "commit the US to cultural and economic stagnation."

Bhagwati, though pro-WTO, said the WTO needed provisions to protect environmental, human, and worker rights-a statement that immediately garnered praise from Nader. Bhagwati said that he wasn't in favor of globalization without monitoring, "although that is an IMF [International Monetary Fund] story, not a WTO story." The WTO, he concluded, serves as "defense for the weak. It provides a more symmetrical view of labor and environmental standards."

In conclusion, the pro-free trade side stressed the need for a rules-based trade system. "We need to fix the WTO, not nix it," said Aaron. The side that represented those seeking fair trade, Nader in particular, took Aaron and the Clinton administration to task for jumping on the protesters' bandwagon. "We didn't hear about transparency or environmental concerns when Aaron and the Clinton administration rammed GATT and NAFTA and the WTO tribunals down our throats," said Nader. These other free trade agreements that the Clinton administration had worked hard to ratify contained the same lack of provisions for health and human rights as the current WTO, he asserted.

Nader, Shiva, and Cavanagh charged that the dominant economic model that the WTO represents--which aims to increase trade and investment at all costs--is harmful to the environment, working people, small farmers and business, and communities. They pointed out the vast discrepancy between worker and CEO salaries in the US and the lowering of wages in Mexico after NAFTA as evidence that the dominant model isn't working. Shiva said her own native India--small farmers in particular--had suffered greatly after the country opened up trade. US laws created to ensure health and safety are being challenged under the WTO, they said, and the US does the same to other countries. "If we lose a case before the WTO," said Nader, "we have to repeal our laws and pay sanctions to victorious nations."

The three cited the need for economic alternatives that sustain democracy, protect the environment, and ensure food safety. To do so, they said, corporations should be "downsized," and government should be strengthened at the local, national, and international level.

"There are alternatives," said Cavanagh. "They can and will help build a different world."

As part of creating an alternative economy, Nader, Shiva, and Cavanagh called for a moratorium on the WTO and similar trade agreements while an accounting is made of the social and environmental damage caused by free trade. Following the accounting, international trade rules need to be renegotiated so environmental and health concerns, workers' rights, human rights, and the sovereignty of local, national, and international governments took precedence over corporate interests, they said.

What amazed me was the energy that fairly crackled around the room. The audience was a unified entity, skeptical of the Clinton administration's sudden turnaround on behalf of the protesters, and they let Aaron know exactly how they felt. Several times, the debate ground to a halt as the audience reacted-whether to boo and hiss, or to give a speaker a standing ovation. (The emotion in the room reached its peak when Nader challenged Aaron to a 5 hour debate to fully delve into the issues surrounding the WTO, a move which brought the audience to its feet. Although Aaron promptly accepted, the date is still to be set.) Although their education level on trade issues varied, these people clearly meant to support an economy for the people, not the corporations.

[For those of you wondering if I made it through the curfew zone to the ferry back home, I did. I was only stopped once, and not a single rubber bullet or tear gas canister was fired in my direction.]

Tracy Rysavy, Associate Editor, YES! Magazine
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