A FightingBom.com contributing editor thinks back on the WTO meeting in Cancun and looks ahead to Miami.
The shocking suicide by South Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae on the opening day of the 5th Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on September 10 occurred amid the noise and clamoring of the thousands of anti-global activists protesting in front of the barricades in downtown Cancun, Mexico. As he sat atop a 15-foot barricade facing the police, Lee plunged a knife into his chest and later died.
Meanwhile farmers (campesino) and anti-global activists, mainly from countries of the global south, continued their assault on the barricades. Men and women dressed in colorful t-shirts or solid black, representing a broad spectrum of political and social views, hurled stones, burned U.S. flags and pushed against the barricades. A fierce confrontation between the police and marchers ensued when the barricades were finally toppled. Many in the crowd had sticks and poles and beat on the shields of the police.
When word began to circulate in the crowd that a Korean farmer had died the mood changed. The confrontation subsided and both groups pulled back. Instead of a physical confrontation, different groups and individuals stood in front of the police and voiced their protest and drew pictures and symbols on the street.
A constant stream of farmers and activists from the global north and south paid their last respects to their fallen comrade at the encampment where he stayed. People hung signs on the stage representing their nations. I put one up for Wisconsin, U.S.A.
I was part of a delegation from New Voices on Globalization. I had come to tell the story of our successful fight against Nestle and their attempt to take our spring waters and to build a large water bottling plant in the midst of our rural community in the Town of Newport. The World Trade Organization, dominated by corporate interests, seemed like a good place to tell our story.
Sealed off from this street turmoil, but just a short distance away at the luxurious Hotel Zona, ministers from 146 countries and staff from nongovernmental organizations and invited guests held a more solemn and subdued opening ceremony. But both inside and outside the convention center there was tension.
Before the start of this meeting, 16 developing countries, which grew to 21 including China, India and Brazil, joined to oppose the agenda of the United States, European Union and Japan block. The “G21” developing countries were primarily concerned about agricultural subsidies in the developed countries, but there were other issues, too, such as the lack of transparency in decision-making and policy decisions at the WTO; decisions that invariably favor transnational corporations from the global north. If the block of 21 countries stood firm at this ministerial meeting, it would be the first such confrontation in the short history of the WTO.
The WTO has been described as a global trade institution with teeth. It is responsible for administering dozens of international trade agreements and declarations on a range of issues from agriculture to intellectual property rights. It also handles trade disputes, monitors national trade policies, and operates as the forum for global trade negotiations called “rounds.” It was created in 1995 at the completion of the Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiations.
The WTO has “legal personality” and the power to enforce its rulings. It has an international status equivalent to the United Nations, but unlike the UN it carries the powers and tools of a global government. WTO rulings are so powerful they take precedence over Multilateral Environment Agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, human rights agreements like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and international labor codes. WTO rulings also apply to laws at every level of domestic governance: federal, provincial, state and municipal.
The dispute resolution procedure of WTO is of concern to those of us who are fighting to keep Nestle from establishing a stake in Wisconsin’s groundwater. If our state DNR, for example, tries to limit or restrict the pumping of our groundwater by this transnational corporation for environmental reasons, this policy could be challenged as a “barrier to trade” and brought to the WTO dispute panel. This panel has the authority to strike down a nation’s domestic laws, policies and programs and require it to establish new rules more favorable to business interests. For example, the U.S. challenge to the EU restriction on importing genetically modified foods is currently before a WTO panel.
On Sunday, the last day of the meeting, jubilation broke out among the NGOs and anti-global activists. Kenya led a walkout at the conference that was quickly joined by the other G21 countries. The G21 countries stood firm. The 5th Ministerial meeting was over. WTO Ministers and others predicted further damage to the world’s already fragile economy. European Trade Minister Pascal Lamy said, “We could have gained here and now we have all lost.” Others made veiled threats against the G21 countries.
But is it not the G21 countries that are on trial, it is the World Trade Organization. If it hopes to survive it must stop catering exclusively to the dictates of the US-EU-Japan block and the transnational corporations who control it. The WTO must listen to the campesinos, unionists, and civil society from both the global north and south. Agriculture should not be part of WTO’s agenda, and such vital natural resources as water, air and forests are part of the public trust that all governments should protect for their citizens. If the ministers cloistered in exclusive hotels began to heed these voices then perhaps another world and global society will be possible.
In November, ministers from 34 western hemisphere nations will meet in Miami to expand free trade and give transnational corporations greater access to markets in Central and South America. Called Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), it will be another treaty that will expand the role of the WTO. The United States, led by our corporate leaders, is pushing hard for the adoption of FTAA. Given what happened in Cancun, their victory is not assured.
Several area organizations are coordinating buses to drive to the November 21-22 FTAA conference in Miami. If you are interested, please contact John Peck of the Family Farm Defenders at (608) 260-0900 for additional busing information.
October 28, 2003
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Hiroshi Kanno is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in the Town of Newport in Columbia County.