In the Streets

Protesters and the WTO

| November / December 2005

The World Trade Organization's 1999 ministerial in Seattle was the global justice movement's coming-out party. An estimated 50,000 protesters flooded the streets, blocking delegates from entering the convention center for several days. A small group of protesters broke windows and taunted police (some activists charge that they were undercover police provocateurs). While it's unclear who swung first, the understaffed police panicked, beating and tear-gassing the crowd and arresting some 600 people in what Filipino activist and academic Walden Bello described as 'a police riot.' The trade ministers were finally able to convene on the last day of the conference. But dozens of delegates from poor countries, emboldened by the protests, refused to go along with a proposed new round of trade talks that they viewed as grossly unfair. Lacking a consensus, the talks collapsed.

Stung by their failure in Seattle, WTO leaders convened the November 2001 ministerial in Doha, Qatar, a remote Persian Gulf emirate that lacks basic freedoms of speech and assembly. Due to the lack of public protest, a shady system of private negotiating sessions called 'green rooms' that shut poor countries out of talks, and outright arm-twisting (aid to several developing countries was withheld just before the meeting), the United States and the European Union achieved their goal of a ministerial consensus declaration launching the 'Doha Development Agenda' for a new round of talks.

Again with an eye toward keeping protesters far away from delegates and the media, Cancun was chosen to host the 2003 ministerial. The hotels and convention center are separated from the rest of the city by a large lagoon; only one heavily barricaded road on a thin strip of land connects them. As a result, the protests were much smaller than in Seattle -- but the 10,000 protesters who came had a major impact, especially South Korean farmer and activist Lee Kyung Hae, who committed suicide atop a police barricade on the first day of the conference. A coalition of activist groups employed an innovative inside/outside strategy: Representatives inside the convention center lobbied delegates and staged small protests for the media in coordination with marchers in the streets. These demonstrations played a pivotal role in the collapse of the ministerial.

It's not clear what will happen in the streets of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong People's Alliance on WTO is expecting 10,000 protesters at a march on December 11 -- mostly local migrant workers, as well as delegations from Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea -- and coordinated demonstrations around the globe. Early this fall, though, the group reported that the Hong Kong government was being uncooperative, and some hotels were refusing to accept bookings for groups opposed to the WTO.

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