Attack of the Killer Kapitalists

Protestors rally to oppose the world trade organization.

Call it Lollapalooza done to an activist beat—a gathering of 50,000 or so protesters using rage and revelry to shut down a meeting of trade bureaucrats and corporate suits. On November 30, the cabal-like World Trade Organization begins a new round of trade talks in Seattle. Amid the flurry of press surrounding China's pending entry into the WTO, activists are arriving in droves. Both their message and assault encompass multi-pronged approaches. Their objections: The WTO is unaccountable to citizens, a threat to hard-won environmental standards and health and safety regulations, and willfully neglectful of human and workers' rights. If this sounds like a '60s replay, there's one striking difference: This is a multinational force of an e-connected opposition.

If you haven't given much thought to the WTO, that's just the way the members want it. The Geneva-based WTO was established in 1995, an offspring of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which had been the principal forum for trade negotiations since 1947. The WTO is made up of trade bureaucrats handpicked by the leaders of its 135 member nations. Their "job" is to mediate trade disputes among nations, and they do so shielded from public gaze or challenge, with no forum for introducing outside expertise. Beginning November 30, several thousand gold-card-carrying members of this free-trade elite will set the agenda for a new multiyear effort to expand global commerce in such areas as agriculture, financial services, and the Internet.

The WTO rulings on trade affect a broad range of issues from environmental standards to e-commerce; and the protesters are a diverse and unlikely coalition, from tree huggers to Buchananites. Everyone, it seems, has a stake in this battle. Reclaim the Streets's ravers, Art and Revolution's puppeteers, the Zapatista-inspired People's Global Action, Students for a Free Tibet, radical Catholic nuns, Ralph Nader's Global Trade Watch, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, and hundreds of other groups and individuals will occupy every crack and crevice of Seattle's sidewalks. Rallies in solidarity with the one in Seattle will be held worldwide in hundreds of cities from New York to Cairo.

The WTO tries to set international standards, and the protesters argue that each nation's citizens should vote for its own standards. "There is a place for global trade rules," says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch (www.tradewatch.org). "However, what is inappropriate is the WTO's invasion regarding decisions that affect values, which can only be determined by the people who live with the results."

One recent case involved a battle between the U.S. government—on behalf of the National Cattleman's Beef Association; Monsanto, the multinational chemical company; and others— and the European Union, which had banned imports of artificial hormone-fed beef from the U.S. After deliberations behind closed doors, the WTO handed down its ruling: The EU countries must open their markets to this meat (despite consumers' concerns over possible health side effects) or suffer sanctions from the U.S. (which would refuse to import EU products such as Roquefort cheese and mustard, accounting for over $116 million per year).

The WTO's trade experts ruled that since no scientific evidence states the hormones are a health risk, the EU's ban on the beef is an unfair barrier to trade. The markets must remain open, and European consumers can choose not to buy. Thus far, the EU has accepted sanctions rather than the beef. If it decides to open its countries' markets, a battle will ensue over whether the beef will be labeled as hormone-treated so that consumers can choose rightly.

This controversy is one of many that Lori Wallach and her coauthor Michelle Sforza document in Whose Trade Organization: Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy , an accounting of the WTO's five-year record. She lays out solid stats supporting her creeping sense that "the establishment of the WTO amounts to a slow-motion coup d'état of democratic governance worldwide." In the U.S., for example, they find the WTO guilty of weakening the Clean Air Act, by allowing Venezuela to export to the U.S dirtier oil than U.S. companies are allowed to sell domestically; and the Endangered Species Act, by allowing the import of shrimp caught in nets that jeopardize endangered sea turtles. In its quest for global standards to regulate trade, those countries that set them high are often the losers. "The WTO wants the lowest common denominator, so inevitably there is conflict," says Lance Taylor, professor of economics at the New School and coauthor of the forthcoming book, Global Finance at Risk . "Trade agreements are not magic bullets to cure the ills of society," says Jeffrey Schott, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics and editor of The World Trading System: Challenges Ahead.

The WTO doesn't see its efforts as contemptuous of national laws, of course, and on its Web site (www.wto.org) David Letterman?style top-10 lists of "benefits" and "misunderstandings" are laid out in simple terms, accompanied by childlike illustrations—white men in suits for "benefits"; women and farmers with pitchforks for "misunderstandings." Gentle reminders that no system is perfect accompany the text. Topping the WTO's benefits list are "The System Helps Promote Peace" and "Disputes Are Handled Constructively"; and among their misunderstandings are "The WTO dictates governments' policies" and "The WTO is blindly for free trade at any cost." About the latter "misunderstanding," for instance, the WTO site says: "Just how low those [trade] barriers should go . . . depend[s] on how ready they [nations] feel they are to lower the barriers. . . . " So if we or our governments can all just feel OK about lowering our standards, we could have a peaceful world order after all.

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