by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Seattle, 29 Nov 99 -- As the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization kicked off here, with an officially-organized pre-Conference event of an NGO symposium, the contrast between the mood of militancy outside and the defensive mood of promoters of the neo-liberal trade order inside the WTO was stark.

In September 1986, when the Contracting Parties to the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) were trying to kick off a new round of multilateral trade negotiations that ended up as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its annexed agreements, few in the outside world, beyond the select circle of trade officials and experts, had heard of the GATT.

As this writer approached Punta del Este then, the streets were full of buntings and banners stretched across the road with the words "Welcome to GATT" in three languages.

On the bus from Montevideo to Punta del Este, two fellow passengers were conversing and wondering what the banners and buntings were about. "What is this GATT," asked one, of his friend by his side. The friend replied that he did not know, but that it must be a circus, and his children will be clamoring to be taken there.

Well, no one in Seattle was unaware of the WTO this week. Its presence here, and the protests it is attracting, has made life difficult enough for the ordinary people.

And with the police and authorities here and at the FBI talking for weeks about the threat of terrorists and their attacks (even biological weapons were mentioned!), stores and businesses which normally hope to get large "sales", have found their business disrupted, with buyers staying away, fearing civil disorders.

The repeated efforts to promote the WTO as the most powerful multilateral institution has resulted in every group in the world wanting their pet subjects put onto the WTO agenda, and with the use of its coercive powers of enforcement. The public outside finds in the WTO, a focus of their frustration and anger - for the many ills of the world.

And if the United States government had chosen Seattle as the site of the 3rd Ministerial, and if the WTO membership in 1998 had enthusiastically accepted President Clinton's invitation to host the meeting, in the belief that it would boost the image of the "most powerful organization" in the world, they could not have chosen a worse place or gone about it in a worse way.

Adding that to the many difficulties of a conference where ministers have just 4 days to negotiate an agenda and a text of their declaration that has been caught up in controversies with no agreement on anything.

The very organization of the Conference and the facilities provided - at an exorbitant cost to the visitors - were so appalling and presented an atmosphere of such confusion, disorganization, incompetence and inefficiency of the host country and the host committee (comprised of big names in Corporate America), that most diplomats confessed, in private, that it had been a big mistake on their part to have agreed to the US hosting the meeting.

"This is a wrong country at any time, and more so in 1999 with a lame-duck president, a vice-president trying to run for the Presidency and win it, and their domestic agendas sought to be made into a WTO agenda", a trade negotiator from a developing country said in private.

The US exercise of power was such that the WTO signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the host, but not a headquarters' agreement which lays out the responsibilities of the host and the rights of the WTO's membership, as is customary with all international meetings of the UN system (of which the WTO is not a member, and has detached itself even from the pension fund).

And the fact that the host country's costs for holding the Conference was to be met by huge private "donations" from corporations, and the arrangements being made by a host committee headed by Microsoft's Bill Gates and Boeing's President Bill Condit, to raise these funds showed to the anti-WTO protestors, the nature of the relationship between corporations, governments of powerful countries and the WTO which they control and run from behind. In exchange for the funds to run the Conference, donors were promised free publicity and privileged access to the assembled delegates. And there were attempts to get foreign corporations to contribute funds too, though this misfired when NGOs got hold of the circular and publicized it.

And, in line with an American practice of funders getting access to the administration and the Congress, this time too, donors, depending on the size of their donations were promised privileged access to the USTR. But the negative publicity this aroused forced the office of the USTR to distance itself from this promise.

But to the activists and protestors against the WTO, this was yet another proof of the link between corporate, state and the trade body - to the detriment of the public everywhere.

At Geneva, as the trade negotiators gave up their attempts to negotiate a draft ministerial declaration and agenda for this meeting and the decisions to be taken, there was a view that it had been engineered by the host country to take control into its own hands and manipulate an outcome using its "power" and the instrument of the chairmanship of the Conference.

But it may now need a miracle and extraordinary skills to get an outcome that the US wants. Unfortunately, the amateurism of the US in running the Conference is matched by that of the WTO officials and even many trade officials and negotiators from the capitals who have come to Seattle with their own agendas and hopes of striking deals with the US.

In today's world of the Internet and flow of information and exchange of such information among NGOs, even if any deal is struck, it may not be in the power of those striking the deal to deliver.

Perhaps, the WTO needs a cooling-off period. The trade body and its officials may need to scale back their ambitions of running the world by disarming governments' domestic regulations and expanding the powers and the profits of big corporations. The WTO may even need to give up some of its remits over the domestic decision-making powers of countries, to be able to attract public support. (SUNS4563)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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