GENTECH archive


WTO/Seattle - Mark Ritchie text

Beyond Seattle
Mark Ritchie, President 
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

The recent World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial talks in Seattle
failed largely because the negotiation process was undemocratic.
Negotiators from nearly all of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and
parts of Asia bitterly condemned the talks as coercive and exclusionary.
Accordingly, these representatives of the South would not agree to a new
round of talks.  

These complaints were not new; in fact, the WTO process has been described
as undemocratic for years, both from the "inside" by delegates and from
the "outside" by non-governmental advocates.  In the past, however,
protesting delegations had always been forced by superpower pressures to
go along with the prescribed agreement.

But this time it was different.  There was near unanimity between and
among the key forces: leading Southern country delegates to the
Ministerial and non-governmental representatives inside and outside the
meetings.  Several Third World delegates confirmed that they found the
strength to hold to their positions in part from the powerful,
ever-present voice of public protest outside the meeting halls.  

These protests included newspaper advertisements opposing expansion of the
WTO from groups ranging from the Swiss Parliament to the Humane Society of
America.  It was the first time, in my memory, where the developing
nations stood fast against the trade agenda of the economic superpowers.


"WTO Seattle" was, as the papers called it, the first post-modern global
gathering - both within and outside the Ministerial.  Freed from Cold
War-era alliances and constraints, and taking lessons from past trade
agreement failures, the nations of the South combined with representatives
of civil society to write a new chapter in global governance.  

The outcome creates the possibility of far-reaching change in the WTO, in
the broader Bretton Woods economic system, and in global governance.
Civil society has moved to the center stage in these affairs.

Inside the WTO, the old process, whereby the United States (US) and
European Union (EU) cut a deal and then imposed it on everyone else is, I
believe, a thing of the past now. Almost all the member countries, rich
and poor, are insisting on a new process - one that is more inclusive and

At the same time, major changes are needed to include civil society in a
formal way in both future ministerial meetings and in the on-going WTO
process. If the WTO cannot be changed sufficiently to accommodate these
demands from governments and citizens, it will become unmanageable. 

In the broader Bretton Woods system there is already an active
re-examination of the entire system taking place, with literally hundreds
of think tanks and academic institutions working to evolve from the
Bretton Woods system of international economic management.  This we call
the "new architecture" for the global economy. Until now, the WTO has been
conspicuously absent from many of these discussions although it is the
third leg of this system, along with the World Bank and the IMF. Wholesale
reform or restructuring of the entire system is now much more likely in
the aftermath of the WTO's organizational failure in Seattle.  

With respect to global governance, I believe that something profound
happened in Seattle. The process of re-examining the framework and
rationale behind the entire system of global governance has taken a giant
leap forward.

First, the need for global cooperation has never been more apparent.
Protestors and delegates alike raised an impressive range of issues,
nearly all of which will require coordinated action over long distances
and democratic global rules and procedures to address. Those raising
concerns about the loss of species and biosafety wanted to reinforce the
global Convention on Biodiversity. Those concerned with protecting
children from employer exploitation or slavery demanded globally effective

In some instances, the need was to change existing global rules. An
excellent example is the Nobel Prize-winning group, Doctors Without
Borders, that led an effective campaign "across borders" to convince
delegates to give special global protection to essential medicines from
intellectual property rights.  The need for coordination and democracy
across borders was highlighted over and over throughout the ministerial -
both inside and outside.  

Second, we have transformed the "table" of global governance.  Civil
society has joined national governments and multilateral institutions in a
full-scale debate on the shape of global decision-making and governance in
the future.  In Seattle, the credibility of global institutions, such as
the WTO, as managers of global affairs has been deeply damaged.  National
governments were able only to defend their national interests and were
therefore unwilling and unable to tackle truly global concerns, especially
in the environmental and human rights arenas. The WTO, itself a reflection
of these national governments was deadlocked by the same limited vision
and narrow interests.

A half-century ago, delegates from many nations came to San Francisco to
create the United Nations. They engaged in a great debate over the opening
language of the founding charter for the UN. Many governments wanted the
Charter to declare that "We the governments" of the world were creating
the UN.  The representatives of civil society present in San Francisco
fought for language that declared that "We the people" were creating,
legitimizing, and empowering this new global institution. 

The same debate over control of global affairs continues today.  In
Seattle civil society said to itself and to the world that global affairs
are much too important to be left up to national governments or global
bureaucracies. We have announced that we are ready to engage in a dialogue
with others concerned with global governance: governments, businesses,
cultural institutions, and social movements.  Global governance has been
and will be transformed forever.  We find this historic breakthrough
deeply gratifying and inspiring.  

The implication for civil society is enormous. We must find a way to
engage governments and others in a dialogue on how we will organize
global, long-distance and cross-border affairs. And we must develop the
ideas and concepts that can address the problems that led to the collapse
of the WTO talks, including ways to construct democratic debate and
decision-making at this scale.


Most of the civil society advocates gathered in Seattle were united in one
demand -- opposition to the launching of a new round of trade rule making
by the WTO.

Almost everyone believed that we needed to take stock of our current
situation and to address very serious shortcomings and problems before
considering whether and how to proceed. In this objective we were
successful. This was, again, a breathtaking victory.  For the overall WTO
structure, many groups think we must either "fix it" or "nix it" in the
coming months. 

However, there are key WTO-led negotiations already under way in the areas
of agriculture, services, and the patenting of life that will go forward
despite the collapse in Seattle. We already know that the talks in these
areas will be greatly accelerated in hopes of finding quick agreements to
prove that the WTO is not dead or damaged. 

Particularly in the agricultural area, there is great danger that these
new agricultural talks will make matters even worse for farmers and
fishers, both in the North and in the South.  At the same time, the
current WTO rules in agriculture have proven to be disastrous for both
producers and consumers.  They must be changed. 

Before Seattle, we had very little hope of making any changes. After
Seattle, the situation has changed completely.  If the WTO cannot deliver
a successful agricultural negotiation it may, in some respects, be placed
on "life support."  If the WTO continues to refuse to take our views and
concerns into consideration, the outcome will most likely be unsuccessful
and threaten the very survival of the WTO.

To test this opportunity we need to move quickly. We need an efficient and
inclusive global process over the next months that can hammer out our
ideas in three areas. 

First, we need to determine areas in which we do not desire any WTO
involvement whatsoever.  Second, we need to highlight some of the areas of
current WTO rules, such as prohibitions against the dumping of
agricultural exports, where we want the WTO to start enforcing its own
rules.  Third, we need to identity key issues on which we want the WTO to
take affirmative action. For example, we want the WTO to prohibit the
patenting of life and essential drugs. 

The victory in Seattle joins the denial of fast track negotiating
authority to President Clinton and the suspension of talks on the
Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) as proof of civil society's
ability to block ill-considered initiatives in the global arena. We can
say clearly what we do not support, and we can stop some of the worst
threats. And we will continue to do so with ever-greater strength.  

But Seattle also demonstrated that we are prepared to express our ideas on
what is needed in terms of global governance and to engage in constructive
dialogue on these ideas with all concerned actors, including governments,
religions, cultures, businesses, and other global institutions. 

Many of the groups from around the world that came together in Seattle
will continue to work together at an even higher degree of cooperation on
both WTO issues and on other global concerns. Agreements on specific
activities such as the creation of a globally coordinated WTO lobbying
operation and plans for regional and global meetings were hammered out.
Some progress was made on the mechanics for on-going debate and
decision-making, but a lot more work on this is needed.

Seattle will be remembered for a lot of things, including the courage of
the mostly young people who stood solidly and steadfastly in the face of a
furious assault. My hope is that it will also be remembered as a watershed
event --- a time and place where "we the people" confronted dysfunctional
and oppressive global institutions with new ideas and new energy. I hope I
will be able to look back someday soon and be able to say that this Battle
in Seattle helped jolt the world onto a new path, one leading towards a
just and truly sustainable system of global governance and world peace.


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