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TRADE: Campaign Against WTO Ministerial Conference Kicks Off

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Oct 15 2005 (IPS) - Protests against the upcoming WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong, by civil society groups from around the world, began Saturday in this Swiss city with a demonstration that lambasted the trade liberalisation process led by the global body.

An international civil society network has come together with the aim of attempting to derail the WTO (World Trade Organisation) multilateral trade talks in the runup to the Dec. 13-18 ministerial conference in Hong Kong. The agenda of the WTO negotiations includes market opening in services, industrial goods, intellectual property, and – the touchiest area û agriculture.

The main objective of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is to block agreements that will hurt the people of the world, both in the industrialised North and the developing South, said Olivier de Marcelluz, a member of the Leman Social Forum, which links groups from towns and cities on Lake Leman, in western Switzerland.

The Doha Round of trade talks, launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, has no other aim than to further strengthen transnational corporations (TNCs), said Alessandro Pelizzari, spokesman for the Geneva Peoples Alliance, a coalition of around 100 groups that organised Saturday’s demonstration.

”The big trading powers have used the WTO to advance and consolidate TNC control of economic and social activities in areas beyond trade, including development, investment, competition, intellectual property rights, the provision of social services, environmental protection, migration and government procurement,” said de Marcelluz.

He also clarified that although civil society is taking to the streets, it does not reject other routes, like parliamentary action.

Nevertheless, de Marcelluz told IPS, it is well-known here, as elsewhere, that the right-wing political elites are dominant, and unfortunately a large part of the left, like Pascal Lamy, ”a supposed socialist,” have opted for that neoliberal programme. So it is only the popular movement in the streets that can stop that machinery, he added.

Lamy, a leading figure in France’s Socialist Party, assumed the post of WTO director general on Sept. 11. One of the signs carried by the protesters read ”Pascal Lamy du capital” (Pascal Lamy, friend of capital).

Delegations from throughout Europe and other continents took part in the march in Geneva, which set out from the WTO building and wove through a large part of the city. Among the demonstrators were representatives of leftist parties and political groups, as well as humanitarian organisations like Oxfam and environmental groups like Greenpeace.

The Lutheran World Federation’s field director in Haiti, Michael Kuehn, expressed the concern of churches that he said have witnessed the impoverishment of people all over the world as a result of structural adjustment policies.

“Economic globalisation as it is happening now is not working for us and is not working for the people we are concerned about,” he added. “At its heart, trade is not just an economic issue. It affects the lives and the livelihoods of million of people across the world every day.”

Describing the appalling poverty in Haiti, which he said has been aggravated by globalisation, Kuehn told IPS that ” Just or fair trade is therefore a moral challenge for us, and a responsibility from which we cannot escape.”

The organisers of the march said the number of people who took part, around 3,000, surpassed their expectations. “It was a success because this year it has been difficult to mobilise people against the WTO, since it is a somewhat abstract issue,” Pelizzari told IPS. ”People are caught up in the social struggles in their own countries.”

The fact that several thousand people turned up shows that ”just as we have been able to combat the European constitution in France in this year’s referendum, for example, it is also possible to fight the forced liberalisation of the markets, through the WTO,” the activist added.

The Geneva Peoples Alliance will hold new protests outside the WTO when the world trade body’s General Council meets next week, and when trade ministers from countries playing a key role in the negotiations gather in Geneva as well.

Progress was made in WTO talks here over the last week, especially on the question of agriculture, and some negotiators expect them to pick up even more momentum in the meetings scheduled for Oct. 19 and 20.

Demonstrations will continue to be organised by the international civil society network in other countries, and will culminate in a gathering of activists from around the world parallel to the Hong Kong ministerial conference.

Ruperto Aleroza, international liaison officer of Kilusang Mangingisda (Fisherfolk Movement-Philippines), told IPS that his organisation plans to charter a ship to take activists from that country to Hong Kong.

We will gather signatures in support of a document to be presented to the WTO with our demands, and along with other groups, we will make a caravan of boats to Hong Kong, he explained.

”The problem of the small fishers in Philippines is that the imported fish coming from other countries to our country is lower-priced than ours. So our local produce will not be sold properly because consumers buy the cheaper ones from other countries,” he said.

He also complained that the WTO vision of promoting agriculture in the Philippines has led to the destruction of the mangroves to create fish farms, which means ”our major fishing grounds are heavily disturbed.”

Over the next few weeks, Kilusang Mangingisda and other groups from the Philippines will launch a campaign ”announcing our call against the WTO,” through a motor vehicle caravan that will tour the country, said Aleroza.

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