Profs: WTO protests have mixed aims
By BRIDGET O'CONNOR
Cell phones and gas masks were the weapons of choice in Seattle for protesters at this week's annual World Trade Organization conference.
An estimated 30,000 activists converged on the city to protest the organization's record on workers' rights and environmental issues.
But developing nations, which comprised 100 of the 135 WTO member states, claim they cannot afford the types of changes protesters demand. These claims are not unusual, experts say.
"When international treaties declared slavery to be unfair trade practices over 150 years ago, nations who used slaves rather the business interests that used slaves to raise profits in host nations, complained it would impede economic growth," countered Teresa Ghilarducci, associate professor of economics at Notre Dame and director of Higgins Labor Research Center.
WTO ministers from some developing countries, including India, claim the United States and other Western countries aim to use reforms as protectionist mechanisms, but Ghilarducci said these claims are mistaken.
"The protestors have moved beyond protectionism," she said. "They don't agree with Patrick Buchanan's formulations that we must stop trade in order to save American jobs the foreigners are taking away."
Other experts disagree. Notre Dame associate professor of economics James Rakowski said that, while the protestors are well-meaning, they do not share the same interests as workers in developing nations. The reality facing the workers is very different than what the protestors know.
"I think that although they're loathe to admit it, they are well intentioned and they've clothed it in a new language — it's old-fashioned protectionism," he said.
From butterflies to bombs
While protestors intended their actions to sharpen focus on trade issues, much attention focuses on the violence and ensuing crackdown by Seattle police.
Protest organizers aimed to cause large-scale disruption to meetings, but non-violent activism quickly led to destruction. The scene went from one of monarch butterfly costume-clad marchers stubbornly, yet peacefully, delaying the start of the conference to widespread destruction of property and businesses.
Several members of an anarchist group called Black Clad Messengers admitted to taking part in the uprising. They focused their destructive efforts on major national retailers in Seattle's commercial downtown area.
This generated a response from thousands of police officers and nearly 200 National Guard members. When the original group of protesters realized what was taking place, many attempted to defend property and condemned violent behavior.
While condemning the violence, President Bill Clinton joined protestors in calling for sanctions on countries that would not conform to certain workers' rights and environmental provisions.
"President Clinton mentioned that clean technologies promote growth — he could have mentioned that high road labor practices also promote productive growth based on innovation rather than competition based on who can lower wages faster," Ghilarducci said.
A call for `openness'
Clinton's comments were an important validation for the protesters. However, some WTO officials, including Supachai Panitchpakdi, Thailand's commerce representative who is scheduled to take over leadership of the WTO in 2002, believe that his comments may have alienated the targeted audience. Panitchpakdi told reporters he believed Clinton's stance could jeopardize a new round of talks.
Experts say, however, that the focus of his and the protestors' concern is essential to a fair and successful WTO.
"As far as I'm personally concerned, to have a consideration of large-scale trade absent any employment concern and environmental consequences is simply wrong," said Robert McIntosh, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Notre Dame and editor of the American Midland Naturalist, an environmental journal published by the University.
Though not an expert on the specific circumstances facing the WTO, McIntosh thought the issues raised through the protests show that the organization is a "tool of corporations and government agencies interested in trade" which kept citizens' groups "out of the loop."
One of Clinton's focuses was on the secretive manner in which the WTO conducts its proceedings. He called for openness and public inclusion in the organization.
"I think that openness is the key issue because it is who has power — voters or corporations," said Ghilarducci. "`Openness' refers to the anti-democratic structure of the WTO that says that a nation's laws can be dismissed if corporations insist it impede their trading."
McIntosh realizes that defenses put forth by developing nations should be taken into consideration, but he said they are not sufficient reason to forego addressing larger questions at hand.
"You don't expect the Congo, for example, to have the same types of controls [as developed nations]," he pointed out. "But without some effort to ameliorate [the problems] I don't think anyone would argue that you will achieve [progress on these issues]."
All News Stories for Friday, December 3, 1999