WTO in Seattle: Tempers start to fray as delegates trade resentment
Saturday 04 December 1999
Many delegates complained that - in part because of the demonstrations - progress was slow, and they blamed inactivity by the WTO Director General, Mike Moore. But the real bile was reserved for the American hosts. Sometimes it seemed that there were two summits going on: one between Americans and Americans, and another for the rest of the world. The result was a bad-tempered and unproductive session that will leave lasting resentments.
The atmosphere was soured from the start, since talks in Geneva had failed to make any progress. Then on Tuesday delegates were trapped in hotels, caught in tear gas fusillades and sometimes pushed around.
The intervention of President Clinton mid-week may have done much to calm tensions on the streets and heal rifts in the Democratic Party, but it left delegates steaming. And America's determination to push through its version of an agreement may have helped build support for trade domestically, but it enraged many other nations.
A deal on agriculture was shaping up yesterday morning, as the delegates from the main countries went to the "green room" - the place where deals are tied up between small groups of nations in the closing stages. Agriculture was always the keystone of a deal, as one of the most emotive and technically complicated subjects, but after a night of tough talking, the words were starting to come between the US and the agricultural exporters of the Cairns Group on one side, and the EU on the other.
But the more significant problems were not those between developed countries: they were those which divided the North and the South. And here, the atmosphere was becoming poisonous. The US had promised to make this round of talks a "development round", and pledged greater openness to the poor nations. Instead, they ended up feeling marginalised and insulted. One pregnant Colombian delegate was knocked to the ground in the melee on Tuesday; an African delegate was refused entry to the conference.
Many expressed disbelief that the Americans had permitted demonstrators to parade outside their hotels , and saw this as an attempt to pressure them. When Mr Clinton flew in to Seattle on Wednesday, his aim was clearly to bridge the gap that divided the country and especially his party. In particular, he wanted to address those who, like the US unions, wanted new rules to regulate labour standards and impose penalties on countries that break them.This was always the most tricky issue. India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt and other nations strongly oppose the idea, and were promising to block it right to the end.
Yet this was the most crucial issue for the US government, facing demonstrations by trade unions outside, pressure inside from John Sweeney, the head of the AFL-CIO, (American's umbrella union body), an election in a year's time and deep divisions in the Democratic Party.
So in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mr Clinton said the US wanted sanctions; and in speeches, he seemed more concerned to express his sympathies with the demonstrators.
The developing countries who oppose linking trade and labour felt this was proof that they could not back down. As the talks moved into their second day on Thursday - late, disorganised and bad-tempered - Charlene Barshefsky, the US Trade Representative, accelerated the separate working groups. Many countries then felt cut out of the process; some had their speaking time cut or their texts ignored - and they went ballistic.
"There is no transparency in the proceedings and African countries are being marginalized and generally excluded on issues of vital importance," the Organization of African Unity said in a statement.
Even if the summit does succeed in setting a course for three years of negotiations on a new world trade pact, it is clear that the WTO has been gravely wounded by the week, and American credibility on trade issues further undermined abroad. For a domestic audience, none of this matters quite so much; and in the end, it was only the domestic audience that American officials, who were supposed to be chairing and running this conference, really cared about.
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