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A THEATRE OF THE ABSURD AT SEATTLE

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Seattle, 5 Dec 99 -- It was a case of a carefully choreographed and scripted theatre, with some famous names as actors, but in which other actors refused to play their assigned part, wrote their own script and 'blew up the theatre'.

It may probably take weeks, if not months, for cooling down of tempers and feelings aroused inside the World Trade Organization before its diplomatic behaviors, niceties and courtesies come back into play, and trade ambassadors at Geneva try to pick up the pieces of the system shattered at Seattle.

But even this is by no means certain.

In the week of Nov 22, when trade negotiators at Geneva were trying to find a way of admitting failure and putting all the documents and square-bracketed texts into the hands of Ministers, a few thoughtful Third World ambassadors speculated whether the outcome was the result of a planned US strategy to prevent anything emerging in Geneva and getting everything under its control (as Chair of the Conference) in Seattle to produce the outcome it sought.

Or they wondered, was a case of sheer incompetence and amateurish trade diplomacy at the US Trade Mission in Geneva -- and there has been plenty of it visible over the last 18 months or more, both in the selection/election of the DG and in the preparatory process?

But a few of them that gathered at Seattle had bargained for the kind of conference and process and pressures they were subject to by the world's most powerful, richest, and clearly, the meanest host.

Ministers and high trade officials of key countries, as arranged among themselves, began arriving in Seattle from 26 November, to be available over the weekend for some quiet contacts and consultations on how to move the ministerial agenda forward.

But the host, USTR Mrs Charlene Barshefsky was not on hand, and came in only Sunday evening (28 November).

Delegates of member-governments, observers, international organizations, media and NGOs, who had been told they had to send in their registration by about the third week of November, and filling forms and affixing pictures to pick up their badges on 27 November, found their badges misfiled, and in many cases missing. They had to stand in line filling forms anew, and getting pictures taken, and their credentials questioned. WTO officials were red-faced, and everyone gave the benefit of doubt and agreed that the much vaunted US technological efficiency and capacity was just not there.

They found the same lack in the conference centre too, where even the normal facilities for any international gathering was lacking. And preceding the official NGO events, there was the weekend of teach-ins and workshops by several of the leading anti-globalization organizations, with some presentations very reasonable and argued, and some, wild-eyed pseudo-left romanticization.

On the 29th, the first official WTO event, a NGO symposium with some carefully (from US point of view) chosen lead speakers repeating their by now shop-worn pet views -- UK Development Minister Claire Short, free trader Jagdish Bhagwati, USTR Charlene Barshefsky, the head of the US National Wildlife Foundation, which strongly advocates US unilateralism on plea of environmental protection (who chaired a panel and kept to the chair's role), the WWF International (whose organization has been unable to explain clearly questions about its funders and its involvement in Dutch forest labelling schemes) and a few others. None of the Southern and Northern NGOs, who have serious questions about the WTO system, but by and large have been playing by the rules and remits of NGOs in lobbying their governments to change course, were lead speakers, but could only speak from the floor (if they gave their names in advance, for the chairs to call).

But in what seems likely to have been another Clinton choreographed script that went out of control, protestors surrounded the conference centre, and a broken latch over a door led to a bomb scare, and the entire building had to be evacuated, and search dogs brought in, before the conference area was declared safe. This put the symposium back by a few hours. And when the floor responses and questions came in, a number of very serious NGOs challenged and questioned several of the lead speakers, including Barshefsky, about the claims of globalization and trade liberalization, and confronted with empirical evidence to the contrary.

The next day, the planned demonstrations to coincide with the ceremonial opening day of the 3rd Ministerial was upstaged by others who 'invaded' the Paramount Theatre venue of the ceremonial and occupied it and were able to use its facilities to "dialogue" with the delegates. Others blocked the streets and surrounded some hotels to prevent ministers and dignitaries to go to the opening -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan being among them.

For the record, the Seattle hosts had authorized a planned march and demonstration by the US administration's 'allies' in the AFL-CIO, Steelworkers unions (demanding protection, quotas and anti-dumping investigations to keep out steel from the poorer countries), textiles and clothing unions using the plea of 'child labour' to shut out imports from the developing world, and the Teamsters Unions providing some muscle to the administration and the Democrats.

There were other peaceful protestors on the streets ranging from those wanting to save turtles and tropical forests and preaching 'sustainable development' to the poor while they themselves jet around the world to meet in seminars and symposia in 5-star hotels, and are not ready to give up their own styles of living.

The police who had a very visible presence, threw barricades on the road to separate protestors from the delegates and others going to the conference, with some roughed up by the demonstrators.

And suddenly there appeared a group, some 100 strong perhaps, in masks and black clothes, who went around breaking shop windows and looting, and engaged in some mayhem.

The police did not apprehend even one of them -- if they had, and as per US police procedures had been fingerprinted, perhaps their links with some agencies would have come out -- and the perpetrators remain mysterious and named as "anarchists".

To this writer, they seemed more like the agent provocateurs who joined in and created the unruly demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention that led to the election of Republican President Nixon. There certainly were agent provocateurs around Seattle, but whether of some government agency or the equally powerful big business corporations, only time will show.

For two days, 30 Nov, 1-2 December, the organized protestors took over control of the streets, the police used tear gas and pepper spray, and declared curfew to regain control over the streets, and the National Guard was called in, but to the end participants at the conference were subject to siege conditions. And all this was used by US negotiators and Bill Clinton himself in a lunch address, to persuade and arm-twist delegations to gain two commitments -- one to bring in the labour standards issue into the WTO, and another, to use the environment issue to open the dispute panel proceedings to the environment NGOs, who believe they can present amicus curae briefs and change the views of panels (and perhaps collect more money from their constituents).

While the conference itself went through the motions of 'transparency' in discussing the issues to figure in the declaration, in four working groups, there was no real negotiations or discussions in any of them. And the secretariat and the chairmen often did not even objectively report in summing up the differing viewpoints and gave some explanations that did not stand a moment's scrutiny, but showed contempt for the membership

For example, when one of the working group's chair, was faulted in the Committee of the Whole for ignoring the view point of the countries of the ACP grouping (EC-Lome pact countries), it was first claimed that the ACP view had been presented in the afternoon while the summing up report had been based on the morning meeting. And when this was challenged by noting that Jamaica and others who had spoken had done so in the morning, no real explanation was forthcoming.

There were some efforts in some restricted 'informal green rooms' - as one participant put it, for the small meetings chaired by a minister or sometimes by a WTO official, where there was some effort to push those resisting to accept some of subjects for new negotiations in new areas.

Meanwhile, the US was conducting with the EC bilateral negotiations to settle on a mandate for agricultural negotiations, which by about late 2 December seemed on hand, provided the US could deliver on the EC demand for negotiations on investment and competition policy.

At the working group meetings on the Singapore agenda and other issues, a number of countries had spoken out against any negotiations or even commitment to negotiate on any of the four Singapore agenda issues - and the number of these seemed to surprise the conference leadership. Some of them, like Egypt (whose trade minister Boutros-Ghali seemed to reflect his Bretton Woods background) made some 'soothing' statements, which they sought to explain to their colleagues in the LMG group as merely intending to show a 'positive' approach and 'flexibility'.

In the 'green room' meetings, chaired by a New Zealand Minister, which went on at the same time as other plenary working groups at level of ministers, there were further attempts to isolate and pressure a few of the countries that made clear they would not move beyond the current mandate of study process.

None of these meetings had a set group of countries, excepting that those who seemed likely to support the EC or US views seemed to be able to come in and show that a large number were in favour and only a recalcitrant minority was opposed.

For the 2 Dec night meeting on the Singapore issues, chaired by the New Zealand Minister, the Chair first gave the floor to those who would show support. It was clear by then to the EC that no negotiations would be started or mandated in Seattle, but it was looking for a commitment to convert the study into negotiations at the 4th ministerial.

The meeting reportedly began with the New Zealand Chair presenting as options: negotiations, focused study with commitment to negotiations, study without any commitment, with the latter presented as not a viable option. And those given the floor to speak, even though others had put up their hands to take the floor first, were those supporting the first and second propositions.

When India, which had put up its hand first protested, it was told that the chair was first giving precedence to Ministers.

As one participant put it, the normally very polite Indian ambassador to the WTO, Mr. S.Narayanan, asked the chair whether it expected the Indian Minister to be able to split himself and be present in two places at the same time. [Later, outside the room, the WTO officials and the New Zealand delegates, it was reported unattributively by other delegates, were seen talking to Narayanan, and reportedly apologizing for the Chair's behavior and that they had no hand in the way the chair had behaved.]

Zimbabwe (which had come to the 'green room' with South Africa) said there was need for flexibility and those rejecting negotiations (as India) must give alternatives - a view that India summarily dismissed.

The Indian representative then took the floor to reject the proposals for negotiations to be mandated nor study continued on the basis that negotiations would begin at the 4th Ministerial.

Neither was politically acceptable or feasible to India.

Malaysia and Pakistan, which were represented at 2nd or 3rd level, also spoke up rejecting either negotiations or a study with commitments to negotiate at the end. The Malaysian representative accused the chair of being unfair and partisan.

And Hong Kong China bluntly told the informal 'green room' and the Cairns members that Hong Kong China was not ready to pay a price to the EC or others to enable them to make concessions in agriculture to the Cairns Group or the US.

The meeting ended about 4.30 am with those who had presented other formulations asked to put in their formulations on paper.

Meanwhile, it would appear that the US and EC had reached an accord of sorts on agriculture, with the US going some way to satisfy the EC on a comprehensive round, by being agreeable to launch it at the 4th Ministerial. The US then felt emboldened to pressure others to fall in line, and several informal 'green room' meetings were called at very short notice, as the EC spokesman put it in one press briefing, at less than 10 minutes notice in a city where movement from next door hotels to conference centers require going through several police security barriers and walking.

And inside the conference centre itself after midnight, even water or tea or coffee was not available.

There was the sudden effort to constitute a group to discuss labour standards, an informal working chaired by Costa Rica. When delegates challenged its legality, the meeting was adjourned, but the effort was not abandoned. The EC held a separate meeting with some of the key developing countries to sell its idea of a joint ILO-WTO forum outside the WTO framework. There was also an alternative idea of a forum to discuss globalization, trade etc and bringing in ILO, UNEP etc.

But with Clinton having revealed his hands in a newspaper interview that at some stage down the road the US wanted the WTO to apply trade sanctions against labour standards, most of the developing world closed ranks to reject any such discussions through the WTO.

As one delegate put it, about the course of events on the final day (3 December), he had hardly reached his hotel at about 5 am (after day- and night-long meetings during the night of 2-3 December) and was hoping to have an hour's cat's nap before showering and going back to the conference center, when he was told to rush back for 'green room' meetings to be chaired by Barshefsky.

As if the charges of human rights (economic and social, and not merely civil and political) aired by a UN Committee in November were not sufficient, the conferees were subject to sheer physical exhaustion and lack of sleep, more reminiscent of third degree police investigations.

There were 'green room' meetings on agriculture, market access and others in the room chaired by Barshefsky, and other second track parallel meetings - with an ever increasing hardening of positions and stands. And a number of small countries who felt excluded, and who had issued joint letters to the Chair and the WTO head and released them to the media threatening that they would withhold consensus to any outcome, stormed their way into the 'green room' demanding an explanation and serving notice that they would reject any conclusion at the meeting.

In this situation, when it became clear to Barshefsky that neither of the Clinton agendas -- on labour and environment -- would advance here, she called the White House and sought its consent to suspending the conference. When this came, she conferred with Moore and one or two others, and then called a meeting of the COW (in once again near chaotic arrangements inside) and announced her intention to suspend the meeting.

As already set out, several of the ambassadors confessed that they had not even been able to hear properly what she said, it was their impression that no proposition had been put forward and declared and carried by consensus. Some immediately left the conference centre, and did not even know there was a plenary, which only heard a closing speech by Barshefsky and received some scattered cheers, and another by Moore, which was received in silence and the conference suspended. (SUNS4567)

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

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