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US NGOs press campaign against Qatar as next Ministerial venue

by Jim Lobe

Washington, 29 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from the United States are stepping up efforts to persuade Washington and the General Council of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that plans to hold the WTO’s next Ministerial meeting in Qatar should be cancelled.

More than 20 US NGOs have signed on to a letter to senior officials of the new George W. Bush administration protesting the selection of the Gulf kingdom as the site for the meeting, currently scheduled for early November. A similar letter is now circulating to groups outside the United States for their endorsement.

With no history of tolerance for dissent, according to the US groups, Qatar will be unlikely to permit NGOs and other WTO critics to demonstrate against the WTO and its policy decisions.

“Either the Government of Qatar must pledge that free assembly will be respected, including for its own citizens and foreign visitors,” the US NGOs statement says, “or the WTO must find another location.”

One problem faced by the Geneva-based WTO, however, is that no other nation has volunteered to host the next WTO Ministerial, and without another host the meeting will have to be held in Geneva, Switzerland (whose authorities have come under attack for their handling of protestors at Davos meeting)

The last WTO ministerial  meeting, in Seattle in late 1999, made international headlines after police attacked thousands of peaceful protestors in apparent retaliation for vandalism by small groups of self-styled anarchists.

Seattle suffered several millions of dollars in property damage, as well as a permanent black eye on its dignity and public image. At the same time, it gave its name to the so-called “Seattle Coalition” - an agglomeration of environmental, consumer and development groups, worker rights organisations and labour unions - which has since mobilised in Washington, D.C.; Windsor, Ontario; and Prague against what it says are the corporate-led agendas pursued by the WTO and other western-dominated multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In the latest action, many of the same groups tried to mount protests against the World Economic Forum (WEF), an annual gathering of international corporate and government elites in the Alpine village of Davos, Switzerland, last weekend.

According to news reports, some 300 demonstrators were forcefully prevented by police from approaching the WEF meeting site, while at least a thousand more rampaged through nearby Zurich when the authorities blocked roads and shut down train and bus services to the hamlet.

Several participants at the Forum, including US labour leader John Sweeney and consumer activist Jeremy Rifkin, reportedly denounced the security measures at Davos.

[The WTO’s General Council, which met Tuesday, has formally accepted Qatar as the venue, but now faces the problem of reconciling the dates of tis meeting with the FAO-organized summit in Rome]

The new Bush administration has not taken a position on the issue, although its US Trade Representative (USTR)-designate, Robert Zoellick, will probably be asked about it during his confirmation hearings which begin Tuesday.

The US groups, which include some of the country’s biggest labour unions, several church organisations, and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth (FOE) and the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), say that the choice of Qatar reinforces what they have been saying for some time: that the WTO prefers operating behind closed doors, far removed from the public whose interest it is supposed to protect.

“The WTO’s choice of Qatar demonstrates the fallacy that the WTO is committed to transparency,” said Brent Blackwelder, FOE president. “We have to ask what the WTO’s real agenda is when it needs to meet in a nation that prohibits peaceful demonstrations and hinders the freedom of the press.”

“We will never achieve an international trade agenda that enjoys democratic support if we do not encourage debate and welcome dissenting opinions,” according to the draft letter now being circulated internationally. “Unfortunately, the Government of Qatar has been unwilling to support such debate within its borders.”

It was the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) which first raised the issue in a formal manner. The group is not associated directly with the “Seattle Coalition”. In a statement last week, HRW director Kenneth Roth charged that the selection “looks like an effort to avoid the noisy demonstrations of the past year by picking a country that bans demonstrations”.

In response, WTO Director-General Mike Moore said that all NGOs which have been accredited by the WTO will have access to the meeting, although he failed to add that their rights to peaceful assembly will be upheld by the government there or that groups not listed by the agency will be permitted to enter the country.

“Whether the WTO agrees with these groups or not,” said Roth, “it should make sure that their right to be heard is respected.”

According to the “New York Times”, Doha, the capital of Qatar, has only about 2,000 hotel rooms, enough to house only about one-third of the expected delegates. The emirate has said it will charter cruise ships and get villas to provide more accommodation.

Although the human rights situation in Qatar, particularly for women, has reportedly improved since the current Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, ousted his father in 1995, it remains an absolute monarchy in which, for example, there is no constitution and political parties are banned, according to last year’s US State Department human rights report.

The report states that freedom of assembly is “severely limit(ed)” and that the government “does not allow political demonstrations”. Private groups must register with the government, and their activities are regularly monitored by security agencies, the State Department said.

Workers are banned from engaging in collective bargaining, and Qatar has been suspended from the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) insurance programmes because of Doha’s failure to observe core international labour rights. Foreign workers, mostly from South Asia and poor Arab countries, outnumber citizens four to one.

The government owns most basic industries and services, leaving the retail and construction industries to the private sector. Foreign businesses must work through a local agent, according to the State Department’s Commercial Guide. –SUNS4825

 


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