By Daniel ZollWorld Trade Observer
November 30, 1999
Monday's meeting between the WTO and reprsentatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was not a dialogue, as advertised, but a transparent public-relations exercise in which NGOs offering the most powerful critiques of the organization were excluded from the panel. Nevertheless, several NGO leaders made their views on the WTO, and on the unbalanced nature of the event, known from the floor.
"We are in the country of spin doctors and we feel that the whole exercise today is one of spin doctoring so that the WTO will not be criticized," said Muthoni Muriu from ENDA, an environment and development group based in Senegal. "The real issue here is that we want the imbalances and inequities in WTO rules to be addressed."
WTO Director-General Michael Moore kicked off the panel by responding to a common NGO criticism of the WTO. "The WTO is not a world government, a global policeman, or an agent for corporate interests," he said. "It has no authority to tell countries what trade policies - or any other policies - they should adopt."
Few of the speakers on the NGO panel, which included staunch WTO advocates such as Columbia University professor Jagdish Bhagwati and Hewlett-Packard chair Lewis Platt, said anything to challenge Moore's view. Meanwhile, obvious choices for an NGO panel such as the Sierra Club's Carl Pope and Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder were blasting the WTO to an audience of thousands of activists gathered at a protest around the corner.
One of only two environmental representatives on the panel was Dr. Claude Martin, Director-General of World Wildife Fund International. He called for a more environmentally sustainable global economy, but said that free trade can help to achieve that.
"Multilateral trading rules are a neccesity for sustainable development," he said, before going on to praise the WTO for becoming more transparent and environmentally sensitive in recent years.
The panel of speakers included several officials from developed countries, including Clare Short, the UK's secretary of state for International Development, but did not include a single minister from a developing county, much less one critical of the direction of the WTO.
Short called for the next WTO round to be a "development round." "If the door is slammed shut here in Seattle, the poor will suffer. I appeal not to let that happen," Short said.
But Martin Khor of Malysia-based Third World Network told the panel from the floor that any trade round that purports to be a development round and ignores the concern of developing countries is "a sham." These concerns include the implementation of existing agreements and the impact of adding new issues like investment liberalization, government procurement and competition policy to the WTO, he said.
At a press conference, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky responded to the criticism that the symposium was simply a PR exercise, since the WTO has no intention of heeding NGO calls to abandon a new round. "The essence of democracy is to let everyone in and let them be heard," she said. "That doesn't mean that you agree with their views." She said the view that there should be no new WTO round "doesn't take into account the need for global prosperity."
But again, speaking from the floor, Maude Barlow of the 100,000-member Council of Canadians decried "the lack of any real representation of civil society" on the panel. She then produced a document that underscored the corporate-driven agenda of the WTO: a contact list that Canada's trade delegation provided for the media "for quotes, analysis and reaction." The list consists exclusively of industry groups, including the Alliance of Manufacturers and Exporters, the Business Council on national Issues, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
The start of the NGO symposium was delayed several hours when the conference center was shut for security purposes after someone broke into the building. This turn of events, which resulted in the gathered pack of international media being forced into the street, meant that NGO leaders excluded from the panel got the last laugh. They used the opportunity to hold an impromptu press conference.
"We had some of our key people there, and we just yelled â€˜press conference," said Josh Karliner of San Francisco-based Corporate Watch, who organized the briefing. "It was like yelling fire in a crowded auditorium."
More Information on NGOs
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