SPECIAL REPORT

The trade contrarians

The People's Summit challenges APEC to put the spotlight on human rights abuses

JENNIFER HUNTER November 17 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

The trade contrarians

The People's Summit challenges APEC to put the spotlight on human rights abuses

JENNIFER HUNTER November 17 1997

The trade contrarians

SPECIAL REPORT

The People's Summit challenges APEC to put the spotlight on human rights abuses

Ed Broadbent has hurt his right calf muscle, running up the ramp to board the Granville Island Ferry in Vancouver. The pain has slowed him down and he is using a cane. But as he begins to talk about human rights issues in Southeast Asia—relating the story of a meeting with women workers from factories in Thailand—his voice becomes impassioned, his body animated, his hands and greying eyebrows raised in emphasis.

“I asked these women: ‘As bad as conditions are here, would you rather stay and struggle to improve, or go back to work up north in the rice paddies/ ” recalls the former NDP leader, who is now teaching political theory at the Institute for the Humanities at nearby Simon Fraser University. ‘They said they’d rather stay. The working conditions are poor, there is compulsory overtime and low pay, but they are still, in their own perception, better off than they were.”

Workers’ rights is one of the issues Broadbent, who is also the former president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, will address during the People’s Summit, a meeting of contrarians set to coincide with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vancouver. The People’s Summit is being organized by Canadian labor, environmental, women’s, aboriginal, church and student groups such as the Canadian Labour Congress and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Organizers say 1,000 delegates, representing nongovernmental organizations from the 18 APEC nations, will attend. Ottawa is contributing $200,000 towards the cost and the province is providing meeting facilities rent-free.

The rationale behind the People’s Summit is that APEC nations, say critics, will

narrowly focus on trade during their meetings. Issues such as human rights will be purposely sidestepped to avoid confrontation with some member countries. For example, the incarceration of political dissidents in

Chinese prisons and the killings in East Timor by Indonesian soldiers will not be addressed. But at the People’s Summit, some of the other agenda topics include press freedom, the impact of APEC members’ economic policies on migrant women and domestic workers, and the plight of indigenous peoples in Asia-Pacific countries. “Most Canadians want trade,” says Broadbent. “But they also believe in basic rights, and Ottawa should be doing more.”

Shauna Sylvester, executive director of the Vancouver-based Institute for Media Policy and Civil Society and one of the People’s Summit organizers, says she is dismayed by Ottawa’s general unwillingness to push the human rights issue. “The Canadian government says this APEC meeting is about facilitating business. But what is the role of our government? Is it just to do trade? How can we throw out everything that we’ve fought for in terms of human rights just to do trade?”

Some left-wing groups are so agitated by the Canadian government’s unwillingness to confront other APEC countries over environmental and human rights issues that

they have even refused to participate in the People’s Summit. A Vancouver group called No to APEC will hold its own mini-conference with fellow “anti-imperialist” groups such as the Committee on Solidarity with political prisoners in Chile, the East Timor Alert Network and the End to Legislated Poverty group. And at the University of British Columbia, where the formal APEC leaders’ meetings will be held, some students and faculty have formed APEC Alert to voice dissent over the trade meeting. “We want to stop APEC,” says Jonathan Oppenheim, a graduate student in physics. “APEC bills itself as a free-trade zone, but really it’s a transfer of power from people to huge transnational organizations.”

Despite that rhetoric, the official Ottawa reaction to the People’s Summit is benign. Says Leonard Edwards, foreign affairs assistant deputy minister for trade and economic policy: ‘We see broadening the engagement of APEC as a key Canadian objective. I think

the People’s Summit is a very

good thing. It will complement a lot of the work we are doing.”

During the APEC summit last year in the Philippines, there were at least five counter-conferences, reflecting divisions among nongovernmental organizations. Ten thousand people marched 100 km over four days from Manila to Subic Bay, where the leaders were meeting at the former U.S. naval base. Opposition to APEC was vociferous, but in the end, notes Carole Samdup of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Montreal, there was little impact on AsiaPacific governments. “Despite everyone’s best efforts and the amount of lip service it got from government officials, zero came out of it,” she says.

Broadbent remains convinced that the more pronounced the voices of protest are, the more government will be forced to respond. “You can’t have industrial or commercial development without affecting people’s lives,” he argues. “You can’t isolate trade from human rights.” At least, not at the People’s Summit.

JENNIFER HUNTER