World

People Power

The protest groups that stunned Seattle have become a global force

Barry Came January 1 2000
World

People Power

The protest groups that stunned Seattle have become a global force

Barry Came January 1 2000

People Power

The protest groups that stunned Seattle have become a global force

Barry Came

in London

World

At the John Knox Centre in Geneva, the mood is upbeat, feisty even. More than 100 delegates are assembled in the lakeside conference hall, gathered to discuss the failure of the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in early December. Up at the podium, Rubens Ricupero, the Brazilian secretary general of the UN conference on trade and development, is worrying aloud that the world’s major trading nations—the so-called Quad of the United States, the European Union,

Japan and Canada—may “misread the lessons of Seatde.” But down on the door, there are few signs of similar concern. For each of the assembled delegates represents an NGO, the handy rubric coined to describe the bewildering international potpourri of citizens’ and special-interest groups, or nongovernmental organizations—many of which helped wreck the WTO talks. And in the wake of Seatde, the NGOs are in fighting trim. “We won a batde,” says Tetteh Hormeku of Ghana. “Now we have to make sure that we don’t lose the war.”

For the Ghanaian, a member of the African secretariat of the Malaysian-headquartered Third World Network, the fiasco at the WTO summit is a sign of the times. “It’s a wake-up call,” he warns, “to the advanced countries that people in the developing world not only want free trade but fair trade.” It is, as

well, an indication of a new kind of power that Hormeku and his NGO colleagues can tap into. To some, the protests in Seattle bore the marks of an earlier era, when the radical movements of the 1960s denounced the war in Vietnam, staged sit-ins at universities, demanded womens liberation, civil rights and nuclear disarmament. But the activists in Seattle were part of a very modern network, aided hugely by instant global communications via the Internet, in pursuit of many different goals. “These aren’t quite the hippies of the ’60s,” says Bob Everton, a 50-year-old lecturer and graduate student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., who joined the marchers in Seatde. “They are young people who see nothing in corporate rule that protects their interests. They see nothing but corporate greed.” And in the wake of Seatde, many are examining where next to turn their protests.

A prime target is transnational corporations, industrial and technological heavyweights such as Nike, Microsoft, Monsanto or Coca-Cola, all intent on grabbing hold of world markets. “The issue is not just the WTO,” says University of British Columbia graduate physics student, Jonathan Oppenheim, 28, one of the students who organized the infamous, pepper-sprayed protests during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit at UBC in 1997. “The issue is differing world visions. People who are active against the WTO grew up in strip malls and are fed up with having consumer culture shoved down our throats.”

Yet while that is certainly true of many of the youthful Canadian and American contingents who marched in Seatde, it hardly explains the motivation of dozens of other activist

groups, many from other countries, that demonstrated against the WTO. “There’s a host of different agendas,” says Hilary Coulby of British-based ActionAid, “almost as many agendas, in fact, as there are NGOs.” That number is unknown, but it is so large that the United Nations recendy set up an office in Geneva just to track and stay in touch with them. At the moment, 26,000 separate groups are listed on the United Nation’s books, and that only includes those operating internationally. Millions more exist within countries, ranging from local grassroots organizations with shoestring budgets right up to generously funded outfits like the nationalist Council of Canadians.

While the growth of these advocacy groups has been phenomenal, it was not until the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development, the so-called Earth Summit, that the newly emergent NGOs really began to flex their muscles. “That was the turning point,” says Cyril Ritchie, president of the Federation of International Institutions in Geneva. “It was the first time so many turned up wanting to influence an intergovernmental decision-making process on the basis of very serious preparatory work.” In Rio, a coalition of NGOs staged their own parallel earth summit, generating enough public pressure on the assembled governmental delegations to force the adoption of agreements controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

Ever since the Rio summit, the NGOs have been gathering strength. In 1994, they disrupted the 50th anniversary celebrations of the World Bank, occupying the bank’s Wash-

ington headquarters with banners proclaiming “Fifty years is enough,” eventually forcing the bank’s authorities to alter their procedures. In 1998, an alliance of environmentalist and consumer rights NGOs torpedoed an attempt by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to issue a multilateral agreement on investment. Another NGO alliance, calling itself Jubilee 2000, is currently engaged in an effort to reduce the debts of the worlds most poverty-stricken countries.

It was a coalition of dozens of NGOs that inspired and helped bring about the Canadian government’s successful effort to negotiate a global ban on land mines. Others are involved in the ongoing Canadian-sponsored program to establish an international criminal court. Still others have zeroed in on individual companies: Nike for using child labour in Third World plants, Nestle s for peddling powdered milk to Third World infants, Monsanto for attempting to corner the market on genetically engineered crops, CocaCola for shoddy bottling plant procedures.

In the jargon of the NGOs, the common thread linking all of these efforts is the drive to establish an “international civil society.” Just what that means, however, is open to debate, as it was during a December conference in Montreal devoted entirely to the issue. By way of example, the FIIG’s Ritchie, who organized the Montreal meeting, pointed to the events in Seattle. “The discussion in the conference halls at Seattle is what we really ought to be talking about, not what

happened on the streets,” Ritchie says. “I don’t believe that breaking windows is a way of advancing world trade questions. We want to pursue ways of making the WTO more open to responsible civil society input. And the way to achieve that is by sitting down quietly in a room with WTO leaders to tell them the reason that civil society should have more access is our input will help you to have better output.”

It is a tactic that has worked in the past. NGOs are now routinely consulted at various UN agencies as well as both the World Bank and the IMF, one reason why those once-reviled organizations are now only rarely targeted by mainstream NGOs. “There are all kinds of ways to achieve this,” explains ActionAid’s Coulby. “The WTO could even install degrees of accessibility depending on the issues under discussion.”

For many, however, the proposals come with their own problems. John Weekes, the former Canadian ambassador to the WTO who is now a trade consultant in Geneva, points to one. “The delegates at the WTO are all appointed by 135 member governments, each of which is more or less democratically elected,” notes Weekes, before asking: “Who elected the NGOs?” It is a good question. While the NGO coalitions wield everwidening powers, they remain, for the most part, unelected and largely unaccountable representatives of special-interest

groups, often with narrow goals that may conflict. Ghana’s Fiormeku, for instance, wants the WTO to honour

its commitment to reduce high tariffs on imported food in the Quad countries. Yet that is anathema to First World NGOs that support farmers. Some of the groups that went to Seattle are now debating whether they even want to reform the organization, or should try to eliminate it altogether. “We may have set the bar too low,” says Steve Staples, a Council of Canadians organizer in Vancouver who sent 41 busloads of demonstrators to Seattle.

Staples says that in addition to maintaining pressure on the WTO, the next big issues for activists will include genetically engineered food and, in Canada, stopping the bulk export of water. In getting attention for such quests, Seattle certainly demonstrated that the raw muscle exists. “It showed that there is a new phenomenon at work,” says Nigel Martin, president of the Montreal International Forum, one of Canada’s homegrown NGOs. “Civil society has now gone global.” That is no doubt true. Where it is taking the world is another question.

With

Jennifer Hunter

in Vancouver and

Brenda Branswell

in Montreal