One Small Step Toward Justice

MINNEAPOLIS — When I left the Cancun convention center for the last time, just after noon on Sunday and only hours shy of the Ministerial’s official closing deadline, a group of NGO’s were in the hall outside the media center chanting: “No means no! Reject the text!” These activists — including members of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Food First, Council of Canadians, Global Exchange, and Focus on the Global South — were making one final full-court press to back up the 70-plus Third World countries that had rejected the bullying of the U.S. and E.U. earlier that morning after an all-night negotiating session.

By the time I boarded the plane home at 2:40 PM, those same NGO’s were dancing in the halls of the convention center, cheering the collapse of the trade talks. And across town outside the security zone several thousand global justice protesters were dancing in the streets.

The Kenyan delegation, disgusted by the strong-arm negotiating tactics of the U.S. and E.U. — which were attempting to broadly expand the WTO’s authority over issues like foreign investment and government procurement — had abruptly pulled out of the talks, bringing the consensus-based process to a screeching halt. Other poor countries immediately followed suit, torpedoeing any hope of reviving the talks in the final hours.

I didn’t find out about it until I got home that night. My wife picked me up at the airport and said the talks had collapsed. She’d already read about it on the web site of Stockholm’s main newspaper Dagens Nyheter (Daily News). I was incredulous but relieved, and curious to see how the press would spin it in the coming days.

It was clear even before the Ministerial began that the spin war after it was over would be fierce, and the coverage since Sunday has not disappointed. Take, for example, Elizabeth Becker’s front page article in Monday’s New York Times. On the front page, Becker quotes US Trade Rep Robert Zoellick, EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, and WTO Director General Supachai Panitchpakdi, all heaping blame on the poor countries with variations of Lamy’s line, “We could have all gained here and now we have all lost.”

Not until deep into the article, on page A6, does Becker even bother to quote a developing country official, Richard L. Bernal, a delegate from Jamaica, who said a group of African, Caribbean, Asian and Latin countries they had no choice but to quit the talks. “There is nothing for us small countries in this proposal,” he said. “We don’t want any of this.”

My own hometown paper, the Minneapolis StarTribune, got in on the act today with a bumbling editorial that makes them sound like Reaganite free-trade zealots:

“For the protesters who showed up with battering rams and turtle costumes, the collapse of global free-trade talks in Cancun, Mexico, on Sunday will come as a great victory. For everyone else — especially the poor nations who were waiting to see how globalization might finally work to their advantage — the weekend was a bitter disappointment and a lost opportunity…

“Rich consumers don’t have to be the only winners. Poor nations such as South Korea and Ireland have joined the world’s middle class because of an influx of foreign investment in the last 20 years. Millions of people in China have climbed out of penury in the last decade, and a World Bank study estimates that globalization could lift another 150 million of the world’s people out of poverty.”

They’re flat wrong, says Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who has been working on these issues for nearly twenty years. “For the great majority of civil society groups and the great majority of countries around the world, last week was a gigantic success.” The failure of the talks was not a failure at all, because “It opens the way for real international negotiations to take place. It opens the way for reform of the WTO.” And for that reform to take place, he said, “the role of civil society becomes even more important now.”

A new superpower?

The emergence in Cancun of the so-called Group of 21, or G-21, signalled a historic shift in the international order. This bloc of developing countries, formed just weeks before the Cancun gathering and led by Brazil, India, China and South Africa, mounted a direct challenge to the U.S./E.U. agriculture proposal. And despite U.S./E.U. attempts to shatter the coalition — by offering tariff reductions to key members, and publicly attacking Brazil — the bloc held together. George Monbiot had this to say in his Guardian column today:

“Paradoxically, it was precisely because the demands being made by Lamy and (to a lesser extent) the US were so outrageous that the smaller nations could not be dragged away from this new coalition. Whatever the US offered by way of inducements and threats, they simply had too much to lose if the poor countries allowed the rich bloc’s proposals to pass. And their solidarity is itself empowering. At Cancun the weak nations stood up to the most powerful negotiators on earth and were not broken.”

He ends on this hopeful note:

“The lesson they will bring home is that if this is possible, almost anything is. Suddenly the proposals for global justice that relied on solidarity for their implementation can spring into life. While the WTO might have been buried, these nations may, if they use their collective power intelligently, still find a way of negotiating together. They might even disinter it as the democratic body it was always supposed to have been.”

Yes, indeed, another world is possible.

Leif Utne is the online managing editor of Utne Magazine.

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