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TRADE: Anti-WTO Protesters Back on the Streets

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Oct 10 2005 (IPS) - Civil society groups will be taking to the streets beginning this week, staging demonstrations around the world in the run-up to the December WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong.

The organisers of the protests stress that the greatest frustrations to the trade liberalisation policy promoted by the WTO (World Trade Organisation) have come at times of large-scale civil society mobilisation, as was the case with the ministerial conferences in Seattle in 1999 and Cancún in 2003.

“When we look at Seattle and Cancún, it is very important to underline the role played by civil society in derailing these ministerials. We hope to play the same role in Hong Kong,” said Filipino activist Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South.

“We are going to stop the WTO negotiations because we don’t see any good prospects for all countries, especially in Latin America and Africa,” stated Iara Pietricovsky of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Studies (INESC).

One of the slogans launched for the current campaign, “Hong Kong will be the WTO’s Stalingrad,” clearly reflects the intentions of the non-governmental groups from Asia, Europe and Latin America that are leading up the protests.

In the Russian city of Stalingrad – renamed Volgograd in 1961 by Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev û the troops of the former Soviet Union dealt a defeat to the invading Nazi German army in 1943 that many believe marked the beginning of the end of World War II (1939-1945).

But this time, it will be in Geneva, in the neutral country of Switzerland, that the anti-WTO protesters will launch their first battles in the coming weeks, before expanding their actions to other parts of the world, and eventually, Hong Kong.

Activists place key importance on a series of WTO meetings beginning this week, particularly this Thursday’s session of the Trade Negotiations Committee, the body mandated to supervise the overall conduct of WTO talks.

The following week, they will shift their focus to the Oct. 19-20 meeting of the General Council, which carries out the functions of the WTO in the intervals between ministerial conferences.

This emphasis on preliminary meetings responds to what activists see as a change in tactics on the part of the WTO.

They believe that the organisation is striving to ensure that negotiations are not left until the last minute, for fear of a repeat of the disastrously inconclusive Seattle and Cancún ministerial conferences.

Consequently, the negotiations taking place this month in Geneva will be crucial to the outcome of Hong Kong, the activists maintain.

The December conference is meant to yield agreements establishing the framework for the continuation of the Doha Round of WTO talks, launched in the Qatari capital in 2001.

So far, the Doha Round has experienced repeated failures and broken deadlines, essentially because the industrialised and developing nations are defending opposing interests, and no one has been overly willing to make concessions.

The main themes of the ongoing negotiations are agriculture, services, industrial tariffs, intellectual property rights and issues of specific interest to the developing South, such as special and differential treatment for poor nations and the pending application of measures already agreed upon to benefit them.

According to Bello, it has been proven beyond a doubt that over the last 10 years, the WTO has consistently promoted the interests of transnational corporations.

A prime example, he said, is the case of the pharmaceutical industry, and the efforts to undermine the supremacy of public health over intellectual property rights mandated by the Doha Declaration.

Bello attributes the current stalemate in the WTO negotiations to the intransigence of the United States and the European Union (EU), “because the developing countries simply cannot agree to a new ministerial declaration that is absolutely lacking in terms of anything for them.”

In view of this fact, civil society groups in Geneva and throughout Switzerland have called for the joining of forces against “extremely bad” agreements in the first major demonstration scheduled for Oct. 15, reported Florence Proton of the Swiss branch of ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens).

The organisers expect to gather at least 5,000 demonstrators outside the WTO headquarters in Geneva for this mobilisation.

In the meantime, at least 8,000 protesters are expected this December in Hong Kong.

Bello reported that South Korean organisations are forecasting that between 2,000 and 3,000 activists from that country alone will be travelling to Hong Kong, along with thousands from nearby countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

As a result, he believes there will be a bare minimum of 8,000 protesters, and most organisers expect many, many more.

Their goal in Hong Kong will be to prevent the ministers meeting there from reaching an agreement.

“What we are precisely all about at this point is making sure that a deal doesn’t happen, to show the developing country governments there are large numbers of people from civil society representing the interests of people in the developing world and elsewhere that will be very, very dissatisfied, very, very upset if a deal were made,” said Bello.

“We will be united by the slogan that no deal in Hong Kong is better than a bad deal,” he added.

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