Everybody's a Loser

The World Trade Organization's recent ministerial meet in Seattle, USA, will be remembered more for the protestors who turned the venue into a battlefield than for the controversial trade issues that were discussed. As the protestors grabbed the media's attention, the ministerial talks produced nothing significant. But the 'demonstrations' were poorly masked. Despite their diatribe against capitalism and the sundry other causes they supported, it soon became apparent that most of the 'protests' would only beef up the cause of the powerful North. And the noise they created almost managed to subvert the genuine concerns of developing countries. Had it not been for a rift between the US and the European Union, the interests of the South would have faded into insignificance. Ultimately, everybody was a loser in Seattle.

By Anju Sharma
Published: Friday 31 December 1999

Everybody's a Loser

Trouble on the streets: Seattl (Credit: Eric Drapper / AP Photo)Sound And Fury

Every cause found a supporter at Seattle. Trade was never this politicised

It was a victory for every rebel with a cause who had flocked to the us city of Seattle. The World Trade Organization's ( wto ) third ministerial trade talks, held between November 30 and December 3, ended on a note of complete failure.

For over a week before the meet, the media across the world was swamped with images of protests. Many protestors claimed the talks had collapsed due to public opposition and internal dissension. Delegates blamed the latter. But the one lasting memory of Seattle will most certainly be the thousands of protestors who took to the streets to protest 'untamed globalisation' in trade matters and to prevent the world from becoming a playground for rich corporations.

"Spirit of the Sixties returns with a vengeance to harass capitalism," screamed uk-based The Independent on December 1, the morning after demonstrators had delayed the opening session by four hours. On the face of it, capitalism was under attack. But in the end, ironically, the protests only served the interests of capitalist giants and the rich nations. Most demonstrators toed the us line by insisting on the inclusion of issues relating to labour and environment in the trade regulation talks. One of the most prickly environment-related trade issues reflected in the demonstrations was the shrimp-turtle fight between the us and the developing countries (see box: The turtle and the shrimp).

False start
Demonstrators blocked the streets early on November 30, the first day of the meet. Initially, the atmosphere was congenial. A crowd of about 100,000 people stormed downtown Seattle and besieged the venue, Paramount Theatre. After breaking the police cordon, they prevented several delegates from entering the theatre. Some even chained themselves and lay down on the streets to block the motorcades of delegates, shouting, "Block the streets! They can't move all of us!" United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan and us trade representative Charlene Barshefsky were among those confined to their hotel rooms. The European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy managed to enter only through a back entrance. The morning session of a meeting between trade ministers from 134 countries had to be cancelled as most failed to make it to the venue, which was shifted to the city's more secure Convention Center.

A carnival
Leading newspapers termed the demonstrations as "the biggest protest in the us since the Vietnam War". The protests began on a carnival note. Demonstrators resorted to taunting the delegates over loudspeakers. Every wall in the neighbourhood was scrawled with graffiti reflecting a range of emotions -- 'We are winning', 'Desire Armed', 'We want to live, not just survive', 'Burn the Rich' and 'Never Forget', to state a few.

Protestors brandished balloons shaped like whales and large animal skeletons representing the threat to endangered species. A majority of the crowd was obviously in favour of including environment in trade talks, an issue that was being opposed by India and other developing nations as it was disadvantageous for their domestic industry. A Seattle resident told uk -based The Guardian : "This is the nearest we get to Mardi Gras."

A cause for every rebel
Protestors voiced issues like human rights, fair trade, aids and religion, to name a few. Some were dressed as turtles, Santa Claus, cows and butterflies, pirouetting and dancing to Beethoven's 5th symphony, Tina Turner and drumbeats.

"I want to defend the culture of the Kuna people," 32-year-old Ibe Wilson from Ustupu Island, Panama, told the Wall Street Journal . "For 500 years the powerful have come to our island, and they always have a different name. This time the name is wto , but it's still the same thing. They come to destroy our biodiversity and to steal our indigenous knowledge," said Wilson, echoing the concerns of many developing countries regarding 'bio-piracy'. There was a group from Ottawa, protesting the us interference with pickerel fishing in an Ontario lake (see box: Fishing for trouble ).

A majority seemed confused about what they wanted. Some were pushing for local production and control, all the while calling on the wto to exercise its powers over production methods in other countries. The wto was accused of putting corporate profits before the people and the planet. Those dressed up as turtles were drawing attention to the controversy over shrimp farming in South Asia.

On the human rights front, there were those trying to draw attention to issues like child labour and safety standards. "Human-rights activists' conducted a 'people's tribunal' that indicted Union Carbide, the Gap, and other firms for crimes against humanity," reported The Economist .

The globalisation of trade drew flak from groups like the Direct Action Network. Among those opposing global free trade, there were some who simply wanted the wto to show more democracy and transparency in its functioning. "Fair trade, not free trade," stated a banner. On the extreme, there were some demonstrators who wanted to completely do away with the wto -- "The wto is a hazardous waste" screamed one banner. To drive home their protest against the secrecy maintained by the wto in its functioning, the demonstrators blocked intersections with false police tapes reading "Unseen Crimes".

What began as a 'carnival against capitalism' turned violent by the afternoon of November 30. News reports pinned the responsibility of the outrage on the cohorts of anarchists, who the Federal Bureau of Investigation ( fbi ) referred to as the "Forces of Darkness". The anarchists numbered around 300, most wearing balaclavas and bandannas. The fbi suspects that the same group of anarchists was involved in the London "J18" riots in June. They also orchestrated the strife that ripped across Euston station in London.

Staying on the fringe of the demonstrators, they attacked shops and offices, smashed cars, buses and other vehicles. The police retaliated with tear-gas shells, rubber bullets and pepper spray. Caught in the crossfire, the mainstream demonstrators fled. "I didn't sign up for this," a local trade union member told the Evening Standard , pointing to a gang smashing the window of a jewellery shop. "This won't help us." City authorities called in reinforcements of around 350 personnel of the National Guard and 300 state troopers. On December 1, Seattle mayor Paul Schell declared a state of emergency and curfew was imposed from 7 pm to dawn.

On the other hand, there were reports in the Indian media that the protests could not have been so successful if the us government wanted the talks to be peaceful, indicating that the protestors actually played into the hands of the us government by drawing attention to issues of primary importance to the us . So, media attention was constantly focused on issues important to the us without the government making any effort. A smart ploy by all means, especially when considered in the light of the following comment by us president Bill Clinton: "If the wto expects to have public support grow for our endeavours, the public must see and hear and in a very real sense actually join in the deliberations."

But what prevented the us from scoring an outright victory? It was the disagreement between the us and the European Union ( eu ), the largest and most powerful trading blocks inthe world. Had it not been for the us-eu disputes regardingagriculture and biotechnology, the North could have scoredan easy victory over the South, which itself was divided between the us and the eu .

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