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World: Violence Mars WTO Gathering

  • Andrew Tully

As the World Trade Organization opened its ministerial meetings yesterday in the western U.S. city of Seattle, demonstrators angry at what they see as the body's harmful global influence clashed with police. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports from Seattle on the criticisms of the WTO voiced by many of the protesters and the response of WTO head Mike Moore.

Seattle, 1 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The mass protests against the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) were expected. But the violence was not.

Organizers of the meetings have known for months that non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, would be in Seattle to oppose the WTO. The NGOs include labor unions, environmental organizations and others. Broadly, they are opposed to the free-trade mission of the WTO and promote labor, environmental and human rights interests.

Some protesters have been gathering in Seattle for weeks in anticipation of the meetings. And they have been staging lively but peaceful demonstrations that are called "street theater" since the weekend in this ordinarily placid, wealthy city in the northwestern U.S.

But the tactics of some turned violent Tuesday morning, a few hours before the meetings were to begin with a ceremonial "inaugural session" featuring a keynote speech by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Thousands of protesters crowded into the center of Seattle, linking arms to form "human chains" to block entry and exit to the convention center and the hotels where many of the delegations have been staying. By midmorning, downtown Seattle was virtually impassable to vehicles and often to pedestrians.

Soon, isolated incidents of violence began to erupt. Some protesters flung steel newspaper vending machines into streets. Some machines were offering the pro free trade newspapers The Wall Street Journal from New York and London's Financial Times. Other demonstrators made a point of jostling passers-by who appeared not to be part of the protests.

What had been expected to be an earnest effort to disrupt the WTO meetings had taken on an undertone of violence because of what appeared to be the agendas of a few. By nightfall, roving protesters had smashed the windows of downtown shops, painted anti-WTO slogans on walls and battered unoccupied police cars. There were also reports of looting.

For most of the day, the police response was muted. But as the violence escalated, so did the police reaction, in the form of tear gas and arrests.

Although the ceremonial opening of the meetings was canceled, the plenary session began only a half-hour late. Mike Moore, the new director-general of the WTO, declared that the gathering would not be disrupted further.

This may not be entirely possible. U.S. President Bill Clinton is due in Seattle for today's WTO meetings, and this is likely to strain security resources even further. Two hundred unarmed National Guard troops have been called in to assist police. Seattle's mayor (Paul Schell) has declared a civil emergency.

Clinton has expressed sympathy with some of the NGOs' goals, and has defended their right to stage demonstrations. But his spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said the president seriously disapproves of the violence.

The NGOs express contempt for what they call the WTO's focus on lowering tariffs and easing other barriers to international trade. They say this means the WTO's priority is on boosting corporate profits at the expense of the rights of workers and protection of the environment.

Protesters also argue that the WTO is a closed body that makes crucial rulings that often override decisions made by democratically elected local and national bodies.

Moore, the WTO leader, reacted angrily yesterday to the accusations. He said he accepted that the WTO is not perfect but insisted that it is democratic. WTO officials routinely point out that the body operates by a consensus of government representatives from all 135 member states.

And Moore also dismissed the notion that his organization is bad for workers and the environment.

"Without the WTO and its sister organization -- the United Nations, [the UN Conference on Trade and Development] -- the world would be a less stable, a less predictable, and thus -- less secure place."

But as Moore was speaking, the demonstrators were gaining some allies. Dock workers in Seattle and other cities along the U.S. Pacific Coast stopped working. And even the taxi drivers of Seattle had gone home.

Many U.S. NGOs have evolved from earnest advocacy and protest to sophisticated organizing and lobbying. Their cost-efficient use of the World Wide Web has allowed them to spend more financial resources on sophisticated lobbying of political leaders.

While the new breed of NGO professionals focus on private persuasion with political and financial decision-makers, the NGOs' rank-and-file conduct public protests that often win public sympathy for their causes. But these protests can attract others who might have little real connection to the NGOs themselves and may have more violent agendas.

The NGOs could claim some measure of success on the first day of the WTO meetings by forcing the cancellation of the opening ceremonies. But images of some demonstrators' violent acts were transmitted to television viewers around the U.S. -- and around the world. It seems doubtful that the NGOs will win public sympathy if they are linked in the public mind to the use of violence.