WTO Fails

The Debate was Changed Forever

By Mark Engler

Read full article at The ‘Battle in Seattle’ at 10

During and after the demonstrations, the mainstream media was largely focused on the smashed windows of Starbucks and Niketown—property destruction carried out by a small minority of protesters. In the past two decades, the editorial boards of major U.S. newspapers have been more dogged than even many pro-corporate legislators in pushing the “free trade” agenda. Yet, remarkably, acknowledgment of the WTO protests’ impact on globalization politics could be found even in their pages. Shortly after the event, a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times read, "On the tear-gas shrouded streets of Seattle, the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure... the elitists had lost and [the] debate was changed forever."

Various combinations of "respectable" negotiators and "unruly" dissidents forced shifts on a wide range of issues. It is not glamorous work to trace the issue-by-issue changes that activists have eked out—whether it’s compelling multinational pharmaceutical companies to drop intellectual property lawsuits against African governments seeking to provide affordable AIDS drugs for their citizens, or creating a congressional ban on World Bank loans that impose user fees on basic health care and education for the poor, or persuading administrators at more than 140 colleges to make their institutions take part in the anti-sweatshop Worker’s Rights Consortium. Yet these changes affect many lives.

The WTO has not recovered

By Anuradha Mittal

from the Forward of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle

The blow delivered to the WTO in Seattle has been difficult to recover from. Once described as the "jewel in the crown of multilateralism," the WTO has come close to its demise several times since Seattle. Trade talks have stuttered and stalled and failed to move forward despite arm-twisting and blackmailing. It was only through the imposition of "war on terror" tactics - you are with us or against us - as was done in 2001, following 9/11 in the US, that the Doha Round of the WTO (2001) was moved, and has still to be concluded.

Doha was followed by the collapse of talks in Cancun (2003). There, Kenyan delegates walked out of the ministerial, followed by representatives of South Korea and India, as civil society mourned Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean farmer who took his own life to protest the WTO's devastation of the Korean countryside. He stabbed himself at the barricades built to keep poor farmers and other protesters out of the talks. Hong Kong (2005) followed, and the WTO had to satisfy itself with a minimum package that, at best, functioned as its life support system. Since then, scared by massive mobilizations and protests and the growing confluence between delegates of the developing world and civil society, the WTO has been reduced to having mini ministerials with the hopes of hammering out a deal with a handful of its members. Its credibility as a multilateral institution has been reduced to tatters.

The plight caused by the 2008 food-price crisis was exploited by international financial institutions, backed by the rich nations, in order to boost free trade agendas and move the WTO talks further. However, efforts to promote the WTO as a solution to growing hunger were thwarted, and even the Economist magazine held the food crisis as the biggest threat to globalization. At a mini ministerial in July 2008, WTO members could not agree on the modalities to conclude the Doha Round, also known as the "Development Round," as rich nations once again failed to take concerns of the developing countries seriously.

The events since Seattle have proven that the international civil society that united in Seattle is for democracy, for livelihoods, for environment, for human rights. And that's what made it a force to reckon with - even hailed by the New York Times, on the even of the 2003 US War on Iraq, as the world's other super power.