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World: WTO Finally Gets To Work

  • Andrew Tully

The Seattle ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization are in full swing. The ministers from the WTO's 135 member states have until today to come up with an agenda for the next round of negotiations on reducing trade barriers. If they do not, the next round cannot begin for another three years. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports from Seattle that despite the possibility of failure, everyone at the meetings is still talking about the protests that threatened to shut down the meetings altogether.

Seattle, 3 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The ministers of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have finally got down to their meetings in Seattle, but the violent demonstrations that have marred the gathering are hard to forget.

The protesters who disrupted the opening session on Tuesday were kept at bay on Wednesday. Police eventually realized that a non-confrontational approach to the demonstrations was not working, and switched their tactics to quick arrest.

That left the center of the northwestern US city clear, permitting delegates -- and ordinary Seattle residents -- to go about their business. The delegates were even able to make some progress on the dispute over agricultural subsidies. This pits the United States and other agricultural exporters against some European Union and other countries, which subsidize small farms.

And there was time for some Asian ministers to criticize U.S. President Bill Clinton's proposal to slap sanctions on countries that do not meet high labor standards.

Still, the violence remained on everyone's mind.

U.S. President Bill Clinton mentioned it in two addresses in Seattle on Wednesday. Clinton said he condemns the actions of those who expressed dissent through assault, vandalism and looting. But he also welcomed the presence of peaceful protesters. He said it is important for the WTO and its members to listen to complaints, and that a free, democratic society has nothing to fear from public protests, as long as they are peaceful.

But Clinton made it clear that the WTO and its free-trade policies should not be abolished, as demanded by many of the organization's critics. The critics complain that its policies help only rich nations and rich corporations, while workers, poorer countries and the environment suffer.

The president said in a speech to WTO ministers that there are two convincing arguments against this view.

First, he said, free trade makes all nations of the world stronger and more stable because it enhances every country's political strength.

"If we cannot create an interconnected global economy that is increasing prosperity and genuine opportunity for people everywhere, then all of our political initiatives are going to be less successful."

Second, Clinton said, expanded commerce between countries with differences can lead to fewer serious conflicts.

"When people are working together for common prosperity in a rule-based system, they have big incentives to lay the differences down and join hands to work together."

Meanwhile, the trade ministers of the 135 WTO members got down to the work they came to Seattle to do. Their most important job is to come up with the agenda for the next round of worldwide negotiations seeking to further reduce tariffs and other trade barriers.

Lower-level negotiators worked for more than a year in Geneva, the WTO's headquarters, to draft the agenda. But there are sharp differences among the member nations on several issues. And because the WTO operates on consensus, any disagreement on an agenda could mean no agenda at all.

The Geneva negotiations broke down last week, so it is now up to the ministers themselves in Seattle to decide on the agenda. If they cannot do so by today, the last day of the Seattle meetings, there can be no new round of trade negotiations for three more years, under WTO rules.

Yet even with the possibility of this failure looming, the violence that had threatened to shut down the meetings dominated the informal discussions among delegates.