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World: Anti-Globalization Groups May Be Sidelined By Afghan War

  • Mark Baker

The 11 September attacks have taken some of the momentum out of the anti-globalization protest movement. In the two years before the attacks the movement had grown from a few, mainly environmental, groups in Seattle in 1999 to more than 100,000 protesters in Genoa, Italy, recently. Now the world's attention is focused on Afghanistan, and people's appetite for protest and violence has diminished. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker speaks with activists about the future of the protest movement.

Prague, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The biggest anti-globalization protest to date had been scheduled to take place next week.

Organizers in New York were expecting tens of thousands of demonstrators to converge on the city's financial district to protest trade policies that they say place unfair burdens on the world's poor. The protest had been timed to coincide with a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Qatar on 9 November.

But that was before the September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. And some are now wondering whether the protest movement itself wasn't gravely wounded by those same attacks.

With the world's attention riveted on the antiterror fight, the movement's bread-and-butter issues of environmental protection and fair trade have lost their sense of urgency. Additionally, as citizens in many nations rally to support the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, it's doubtful whether they would also be as tolerant of mass protests that are often seen as anti-American or anti-Western at their core.

George Monbiot is a U.K.-based global activist and a frequent commentator in Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper. He says organizers of the anti-globalization movement have had to adjust to the events of 11 September. He says it's not yet clear what will emerge, although the need for protest has not diminished: "[September's events have] certainly made a difference, but it's not clear what that difference is. There's no doubt that the fundamental problems that we were protesting in the past have not gone away, and, in some ways, they are accelerating. We've seen [U.S. President] George Bush, for example, gaining fast-track trade powers in the wake of the 11 September attack. There's no doubt that there's still a need for protest, but whether we can protest in the way that we protested before is another question."

That view is shared by Susan George, the U.S.-born leader of the French protest group ATTAC. Her group supports instituting international financial practices -- such as levying a tax on capital transfers -- that would encourage a more equitable distribution of income.

She says the terror attacks only affirm her group's basic message that economic inequality breeds discontent: "From our perspective, our message is more important than it ever has been. And it should be clear that, now, this shock must have jolted people into understanding that with huge inequalities in the world, we are not going to be able to have a stable life at home. We are not going to able to isolate ourselves from the world simply because we happen to live in rich countries."

She says that equalizing incomes would not eliminate terrorism altogether but could help to diminish the number of potential terrorist recruits by reducing resentment and anger.

Before the September attacks, the anti-globalization movement had succeeded in capturing the world's attention and placing many of its causes on the international agenda.

The movement started in Seattle in 1999, when a motley mix of protesters representing mostly environmental and trade causes disrupted a WTO summit. The Seattle demonstration spawned similar protests in Washington, Prague, Davos, Goteborg, and other cities. The demonstrators shared the view that global financial and economic structures place unfair social and environmental burdens on poor countries.

The movement appeared to reach a high point this summer in the Italian port city of Genoa, where more than 100,000 people gathered to protest a summit of the G-7 group of industrialized countries and Russia. One protester died, and scores were injured in clashes with Italian police.

Organizers had been hoping to build on the momentum generated in Genoa. Demonstrations were planned for Washington in September to coincide with the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and in Rome later in November at the U.N.'s World Food Summit. Those events were postponed after the terror attacks.

Protest organizers canceled November's planned march on New York's financial district after determining that demonstrations targeting places like the New York Stock Exchange or the former World Trade Center would have been seen by many as unpatriotic.

Monbiot admits the public mood is not yet right to renew large-scale street protests, but he says that may be changing. He says he foresees a time -- possibly soon -- when large, non-violent protests will again be tolerated and supported: "It's certainly being perceived as unpatriotic to go on big demonstrations at the moment, although of course there have been some very big anti-war demonstrations. So I think that as long as they are not violent in any way, there is still plenty of room for large-scale protests."

Monbiot says a positive development from the attacks might be that future anti-globalization protests will be shorn of their violent components. Peaceful organizers have long lamented the fact that violent groups use the demonstrations to push their own radical anti-capitalist agendas -- undermining the causes of peaceful protesters.

"I do hope that the small numbers of people who did become violent [at] protests will have seen what real violence looks like and that maybe will make them stop and think, and make them less likely to engage in violence again. It has to be said that the violence was very small-scale and certainly nothing by comparison to any of the terrorist violence that we've seen. But I think it has stopped them in their tracks a bit."

Both Monbiot and George are optimistic about the future of the protest movement.

George says that, at least in Europe, interest in ATTAC and in the anti-globalization cause in general is not flagging: "I think you have to differentiate between what is happening on the ground in the United States right now and what's happening in Europe. Maybe in the U.S. they are feeling this in a very different way. But certainly in Europe, I would say that this is not a factor. We have gone right on. We are organizing lots of protests for 10 November on the WTO. They are going to be going on in literally dozens of countries in dozens of locations. We're doing them in a decentralized way. There is no one rallying point. And there seems to be terrific enthusiasm among people coming out on those demos."

Many groups are now recasting themselves to harness what they see as growing opposition to the war in Afghanistan.

The U.S.-based protest group the Mobilization for Global Justice, which until now had targeted the lending practices of the World Bank, has recently rechristened itself as the Mobilization for Global Peace.

Scattered anti-war protests in the U.S. and Europe to date have drawn respectable crowds, but nothing like the tens of thousands of people who came to Prague or Genoa.

Monbiot, for one, says this swapping of labels from "anti-globalization" to "anti-war" makes sense: "There is no question that the anti-war movement is a priority because something is happening that needs to be urgently responded to. And in many ways, what's going on in Afghanistan is a concrete example of some of the more abstract things [such as unfair labor or trade practices] that many of us were protesting against."

Monbiot says the movement's next test of strength will come on 18 November in London, where a large anti-war demonstration is planned. He says organizers hope to attract more than 100,000 people.

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