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World: Many WTO Ministers Resist Linking Trade, Labor Practices

  • Andrew Tully

At the World Trade Organization's ministerial meetings in the US city of Seattle, US President Bill Clinton's talk of slapping sanctions on countries that use child labor has alienated some ministers. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports that as a result, the prospects are dimming that an agenda will be reached clearing the way for a new round of trade talks.

Seattle, 3 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Some economics ministers at the WTO meeting expressed anger yesterday at the intrusion of domestic politics into the arena of international trade negotiations. They were responding to President Clinton's emphasis on adhering to a UN convention against child labor, which some developing countries see as too stringent.

Clinton surprised some observers by choosing the site of the international trade meeting to sign the convention, which bans the worst forms of child labor, such as prostitution, soldiering and hazardous work. It was unanimously adopted in June by the 174 countries of the International Labor Organization, a UN agency.

Clinton had already annoyed some of the delegates on Wednesday when he said that, while he condemns the violent demonstrations in Seattle, he agrees with some of the points made by protesters. The demonstrators demand raising labor and environmental standards, which many WTO members say they cannot afford to do yet, and the ministers gave Clinton only tepid applause.

Signing the convention yesterday, the U.S. president spoke about the need to protect children against such exploitation as slavery, forced labor, prostitution and pornography.

"The step we take today affirms fundamental human rights. Ultimately, that's what core labor standards are all about, not an instrument of protectionism or a vehicle to impose one nation's values on another, but about our shared values, about the dignity of work, the decency of life, the fragility and importance of childhood."

Observers say Clinton signed the treaty in Seattle in the midst of the WTO meetings to curry favor with the U.S. labor movement. His vice president, Al Gore, is campaigning to succeed Clinton as president, and he badly needs labor support if he is to win the election next November.

Ministers from some developing countries found Clinton's tactic offensive. Even nations that are politically aligned with the US objected.

Thailand's trade minister, Supachai Panitchpakdi, is slated to be the WTO's director-general in 2002. Supachai said Clinton's insistence on higher labor standards could jeopardize prospects for convening a new round of trade negotiations.

The Thai minister said he appreciates Clinton's need to promote his domestic political agenda, but stressed that the president's push for sanctions against countries not meeting certain labor standards would be, as he put it, "really ultimately highly detrimental" to the WTO.

This sentiment was echoed by the trade ministers of other developing countries. They said Clinton is trying to impose the labor and environmental standards of the US on countries with fewer financial resources.

If divisions over such issues persist, and the ministers cannot draft a new agenda by today (Dec. 3), the WTO will not be able to begin a new round of trade negotiations for three more years.

Representatives of the organization's 135 members worked for more than a year in Geneva, the WTO's headquarters, in an effort to design an agenda for the new round, but could not reach a consensus. If the negotiators' superiors, the trade ministers, cannot develop this framework by the time the Seattle meetings adjourn on Friday, the opportunity for the round will be lost.

The possibility of this failure looms in an already grim atmosphere. The center of Seattle, ordinarily a pleasant city, has developed a siege mentality since police and members of the National Guard cracked down on sometimes violent demonstrators.

The protesters said they were determined to shut down the meetings by blocking access to the area around the convention center. The gathering went ahead, but the organizers of the demonstrations claimed victory by forcing the WTO to cancel its inaugural session. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan were to speak at that largely ceremonial event.

In many instances, the protesters went far beyond civil disobedience, smashing windows and blocking streets. The normally tolerant Seattle police eventually had to resort to tear-gas and other coercion. Since then, downtown Seattle has taken on a desolate cast. Its streets are walked only by law enforcement officers, delegates, newspeople, and the few others with pressing business in the area.

This dreary atmosphere -- enhanced by Seattle's persistent autumn rain -- seems to match the dimming hopes for an agreement on a negotiating agenda.