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World: WTO Talks End In Failure

  • Andrew Tully

Ministers from the 135 member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have failed to agree on an agenda for a new round of talks intended to further reduce barriers to international trade. The WTO meetings ended on Saturday in the U.S. city of Seattle, from where RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully sends this report.

Seattle, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Observers from emerging democracies attending the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle last week might not have been prepared for what they saw.

Activists opposed to the WTO's free-trade policies crippled the center of this northwestern U.S. city.

The president of the host country was greeted tepidly at best.

And the WTO ministers squabbled for days over an agenda for the next round of negotiations on liberalizing international commerce -- and finally admitted they could not agree.

This is exactly how open-market economies and free democracies work.

Each of the 135 member nations of the WTO has its own needs. And each needed to be heard. And for 14 months before this week's meetings, each made its case at negotiations in Geneva, the WTO's headquarters, as the organization tried to draft an agenda for the next round of trade talks.

The differences were deep, however, and the issues were emotional. A week before the ministerial meetings, Mike Moore, the WTO's director-general, announced that the negotiations had broken down. Therefore, he said, it would be up to the ministers themselves to come up with an agenda in Seattle.

Finally, early Saturday, the talks ended in failure. The ministers could not agree on issues ranging from labor standards to farm subsidies. It was left to the WTO's Moore to admit defeat, which he said was above all a setback for poorer countries. But he held out hope the Seattle meetings may still prove fruitful:

"It is enormously disappointing that we were not able to finally put together a package for the least-developed countries, because they need jobs and opportunity, and we weren't able to put together the package we want for technical assistance to the marginalized. But I can report to you that all that work, in implementation and elsewhere, is not lost."

Virtually every country was called on to compromise. The EU was asked to make concessions on the subsidies that it says its farmers desperately need. And U.S. President Bill Clinton was asked to abandon his push for tougher standards to protect workers rights.

Whatever compromises might have been made, they were not enough.

The top American negotiator, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, said that in the end the talks failed because they were simply too complex:

"I think that the complexity, the novelty, strained the collective capacity of delegations to make decisions. They weren't ready."

When looking back on the week, many pundits are likely to say Clinton's decision to come to Seattle to press his case for labor standards had dimmed any hope that the ministers could reach agreement. First, Clinton said in an interview with a local newspaper that the WTO should impose sanctions against countries that do not meet higher labor standards.

Then, on Wednesday, he amplified on that theme in an address to WTO ministers. Finally, on Thursday -- still in Seattle -- he ceremonially signed a UN convention that would fight child exploitation for such uses as labor and prostitution.

The measure is heartily supported by the American labor movement. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, needs the enthusiastic backing of labor in his effort to win the U.S. presidential election next November.

Delegates from developing countries accused Clinton of bringing domestic politics to the WTO meetings.

These delegates also said Clinton's appeal for higher labor standards would impose middle-class American standards on countries whose economies are still maturing.

Further hindering the negotiations -- and almost eclipsing them for the first two days -- were the demonstrations by non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. These groups represent varying interests, from labor to the environment to women's issues.

The NGO protesters accuse the WTO of being obsessed with profits -- primarily for wealthy countries and big corporations -- while ignoring the plight of low-paid workers and industrial damage to the environment.

The demonstrators had been gathering in Seattle for weeks. As the WTO meetings approached, they staged peaceful and even good-natured demonstrations, where they professed their intention to shut down the session.

But on Tuesday, the first day of the meetings, the protesters linked arms to form "human chains," blocking access to the buildings and hotels being used by the delegates so the meetings could not be held. Some of the demonstrators grew violent.

Seattle police have a reputation of avoiding confrontation whenever possible, and this week they were initially criticized for allowing the protesters to shut down the center of the city. But by mid-week, they were being accused of using excessive force.

The protests dwindled as the week wore on, with one farewell gesture on Friday. About a half-dozen demonstrators managed to penetrate security at the convention center and stage a protest in the press center. They were quickly escorted out.

Tuesday's protests forced the WTO to cancel its inaugural session. The event would have been largely ceremonial, but the protest leaders declared what they called a major victory anyway.

Downtown Seattle was largely back under control for the rest of the week. But the possibility of further unrest had indelibly soured the mood of the WTO meetings -- and of the entire city.

Indeed, downtown shops and restaurants had expected to reap great profits from the presence of the WTO ministers. Instead, they lost an estimated $7 million worth of business.

The whole week seemed to provide participants and observers alike with a few clear lessons: Free markets guarantee nothing. Free speech guarantees nothing. They are merely free, and often turbulent.