WTO in Seattle: The Millennium Round or Turnaround?

WTO On-Site Report, November 27, 1999

The official WTO meeting begins on November 30. Citizen-sponsored events began on Friday evening, November 26, with a Teach-In sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization, an association of the world's foremost critics of corporate-dominated economic globalization. The Teach-In was held in Seattle's swank new Benaroya Symphony Hall, seating 2,500.

The article below was written by Sarah van Gelder, Executive Editor of YES! Magazine, after she attended the first evening of the Teach In.

The International Forum on Globalization (IFG) teach-in

Seattle, November 27, 1999

Now it has begun. Thousands of people have come to Seattle to change history. You can tell something extraordinary is happening when people line up in droves to come to a "teach-in." When the event is sold out, and people are making desperate phone calls and standing by the doors hoping for a ticket. When the capacity crowd of 2,500 stands to applaud as the speakers enter the stage – before there's been even one word said from the podium.

This audience is clearly energized. They see the tide turning. After working for human rights, labor rights, environmental protection, local self-reliance, democracy, and women's rights, they are seeing a coming together in Seattle that hasn't been seen in many long years. Moreover, it is becoming clear to these diverse groups that all that they care for and have worked so hard for can be won or lost here, in the struggle over globalization. WTO rules can trump any local, state, or national initiative and can even ignore other international agreements. Under the WTO everything from democracy to environmental protection takes second place to trade liberalization.

The International Forum on Globalization, sponsor of the Teach In, includes Maude Barlow of the 120,000 member Council of Canadians, John Cavanagh of the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, Martin Khor of Third World Network in Malaysia, Jerry Mander of the International Forum on Globalization, Vandana Shiva, author and advocate for the rural peoples of India, and many others. These were the speakers at the opening night of what promises to be a high energy week of protest, conferences, teach-ins, and further organizing.

David Korten of the People Centered Development Forum, and chair of the Positive Futures Network board, was also scheduled to speak at the Teach In, but was unable to appear for health reasons. (We're still hoping he'll be up to speaking at WTO-related events by the end of the week.)

So what is this all about? The World Trade Organization's meeting next week is designed to launch the "Millennium Round" of negotiations to further reduce barriers to trade. There are diverse views among the protesters as to whether trade itself is a good thing, and if so under what circumstances. But on one thing there is unity. Trade and the freedom of multinational corporations to invest and move capital, resources, and products around the world is not the most important value. What is most important is the enhancement of life – the life of the natural environment and the people of the Earth. People and nature ought not to be treated as a means to the ultimate end of trade and corporate freedom. Instead, the enhancement of life is the end – trade, economics, investment, and even corporations need to operate within a context that enhances the prospects for life.

One of the challenges of this week, and beyond, will be to keep the focus on life, and to not get caught in internal squabbles about whether the WTO needs to be eliminated or reformed. This process of change is organic and evolutionary. For now, the task will be to keep clear on the values that must be at the heart of any policy, and to continue developing a vision of a 21st century way of life built on the love of life.

The remarkable thing is that it now seems plausible. The WTO trade ministers were unable to reach a consensus coming into this session. They now appear to be in disarray about moving ahead, although back-room dealmaking can still take place in a hurry.

Meanwhile, the values being articulated by civil society groups around the world are beginning to have an impact. Martin Khor pointed out that the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (the MAI) was halted because of the activities of nongovernmental organizations around the world. In fact, the head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which had been hosting discussions of the MAI, admitted that the trade ministers he spoke to about moving the MAI forward told him the public wouldn't stand for it.

Vandana Shiva spoke of globalization coming in three waves. The first, the age of colonialism, lasted 500 years; the second, the age of development, lasted 50 years. The third, an era dominated by the WTO, she predict will last just five years.

Susan George predicted that the "Battle of Seattle" will be remembered in the same way the Battle of Lexington and Concord or D Day is remembered, as an historic turning point

This is a moment when two world views are clashing, and it now seems possible that a world view built on the love of life could win the day.

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