WTO limps home from Seattle

 

SEATTLE, Wash. - After the tear gas cleared from Seattle's streets, environmentalists and labor unions emerged as the only clear winners from last week's tumultuous World Trade Organization ministerial meeting.

Trade officials hoped that the meeting, the first major WTO event held in the U.S., would be a smooth North American debut for the international rule-making body for global trade. Instead, talks collapsed amid massive and sometimes violent street protests, and disgruntled trade ministers headed home with their confidence in the organization shaken.

Environmentalists, labor unions and just about every progressive group imaginable turned out an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people on the opening day of talks, publicizing their concerns that global trade rules are undermining environmental and labor standards in the U.S. and abroad.

The protests sent a signal that "the WTO and the (Clinton) administration couldn't ignore," says Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club.

While a small group of hard-core anarchists forced confrontations with police and caused property damage during the meeting's first two days, the week's demonstrations were nearly all peaceful.

Protest organizers believe the events in Seattle will give rise to a new alliance among environmentalists, labor unions and other groups fighting to tame globalization. While details are still sketchy, the King County Labor Council's Ron Judd says that groups will likely begin meeting after the first of the year to solidify the new coalition.

"There was something that happened here that was special," says Judd. "Shame on us if we lose that."

Delegates from 135 countries came to Seattle to ratify several major trade agreements, including a forestry agreement that Northwest environmental groups feared would weaken domestic forest protections and increase global timber consumption. Trade ministers had also hoped to set the agenda for a new round of negotiations that would expand trade rules into areas such as fisheries and government purchasing. Trade talks collapsed at the eleventh hour due to the protests in the streets and dissension inside the conference.

The Seattle meeting also exposed the organization's internal fault lines. President Clinton angered trade ministers from developing countries when he called for strong labor and environmental standards in WTO rules. The poor nations saw the environmental and labor rules as another way to hold them down. Delegates from African countries nearly staged a walkout over procedural issues. The European Union took advantage of the civil unrest to protect its domestic agricultural subsidies and kill an agreement on agriculture.

World Trade Organization head Michael Moore downplayed the conflicts and said that new negotiations would begin in January. However, many trade ministers doubt the fractured organization can make progress until after the American presidential elections.

Even if trade ministers can pick up the pieces next month, activists say the events in Seattle have politicized international trade policy as never before. After Seattle, the whole world is watching the WTO.

"At this point, (the WTO's) future hangs ... on whether it democratizes and embraces worker rights and environmental protections," says Bill Arthur. "If it fails to do that, I don't think it will be around for much longer."

Chris Carrel reports from Federal Way, Washington.