Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

5th December 1999

WTO: opening up trade whilst under siege!

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NEW YORK - Amidst a storm of violent protests, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) met in Seattle last week to discuss a proposed new round of global trade negotiations aimed at opening up markets, lifting trade barriers and accelerating the process of globalisation.

But as one newspaperman remarked-rather uncharitably- the delegates who came to discuss free trade ended up negotiating free passage: how to find their way from their hotel rooms to a convention centre blocked by angry fist-waving demonstrators.

The UN press corps which had rushed to file his embargoed speech discovered next morning that the speech was never delivered-reminding them of the story of the critic who wrote a rave review of a play without seeing it, only to discover that the theater had burnt down overnight forcing the cancellation of the opening. In Seattle, the 135-member WTO received a raw taste of public reaction when over 50,000 protestors displayed their anger against a body accused of protecting corporate interests. One banner unfurled outside a hotel read: "The WTO Kills. Kill the WTO."

The protests were so overwhelming that the Mayor of Seattle in the state of Washington-home of Microsoft and Boeing-was forced to call in the National Guard to restore law and order.

Among the protestors were non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and environmental groups who argue that unfettered globalisation could put the world's poorer nations in jeopardy and eventually ruin their fragile economies.

Martin Khor, director of the Penang-based Third World Network, complains that there is lack of democracy and transparency within the WTO.

"The whole decision-making process is shrouded in secrecy. The US objects to any vote being taken, and wants decisions by consensus," he says. But in reality what this means is that decisions are made by the major powers, and others are threatened and cajoled into going along, argues Khor. The conventional rule is that whenever Western nations sense overwhelming opposition from Third World nations, they abandon the basic principles of majority rule and democracy— which they diligently preach to developing nations- and resort to decision-making by consensus.

As a result, no divisive issue is put to a vote and all decisions are only by unanimous agreement. But in between there is plenty of arm-twisting and veiled threats aimed at winning over opponents.

Surprisingly, US President Bill Clinton, in his address to the WTO meeting last week, singled out the secrecy issue when he said "the sooner the WTO opens up the process" of rule-making to outside groups, we'll see less demonstrations and more constructive debate."

In a letter to US President Bill Clinton last week, 113 House Democrats said the WTO also infringes on the sovereignty of nations to enforce worker rights.

But as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the UN General Assembly in September: "The concern over child labour and sweat shop factories is expressive of a sense of caring."

"But unfortunately," he said rather sarcastically, "the concern (by Western nations) is shown only when the products of child labour and sweat shops compete successfully with the products of highly-paid, high-living four-day week workers in the developed countries."

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