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Protest Actions at WTO Meeting in Qatar

Protest Group Shifts Tactics At WTO Talks

By Paul Blustein

Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, November 12, 2001; Page A01

DOHA, Qatar, Nov. 11 -- The way the plan was originally
conceived, six boats loaded with anti-globalization
activists were going to sail into the port of this Persian
Gulf sheikdom to protest the World Trade Organization
meeting here. "We were organizing everybody in our
movement," said Jose Bove, the French farmer renowned for
vandalizing a McDonald's restaurant.

The scheme was scrapped, however, after the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks. Bove, one of a few dozen activists
roaming the halls at the conference center where the WTO
meeting is being held through Tuesday, instead has joined in
staging occasional demonstrations.

Profound changes have buffeted the anti-globalization
movement since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. In an era of suicide hijackings, war and
anthrax-in-the-mail, the movement's leaders are finding it
difficult to generate much indignation about problems like
sweatshop wages or food impurity.

And as events at the WTO meeting here illustrate, many of
the movement's adherents are feeling heightened discomfort
about engaging in the sort of militant activity that once
brought them attention because they are loath to risk being
associated in the public mind with Osama bin Laden and his

The movement leapt into prominence at the WTO meeting two
years ago in Seattle, where a loosely allied throng of
left-wing students, labor union members, environmentalists
and anarchists disrupted the gathering amid violent clashes
with police.

In Seattle, and in protests at international meetings in
Prague, Washington, Quebec and Genoa, the activists forced
the press and elements of the power elite to confront myriad
concerns about the clout of multinational corporations and
the increasingly free flow of goods and money across
national borders, which the activists blamed for adversely
affecting workers' livelihoods and the environment.

Comparing the meeting here with Seattle is unfair in many
ways, though, because Qatar obviously offers a poor
environment for mass demonstrations, not to mention civil
disobedience or "direct action" against fast-food outlets
and other corporate targets.

The meeting of trade ministers from the organizations 142
member countries is aimed at striking an accord on an agenda
for multiyear negotiations to lower trade barriers
worldwide. The last meeting to set such a agenda was in
Seattle, where trade ministers failed to achieve their goal.

Because of limited hotel space, fewer than 200
representatives of labor, environmental and other groups
opposed to free trade were granted visas by the government
of this oil-rich nation, which lies on a peninsula off the
East coast of Saudi Arabia.

Although the government of Qatar allows peaceful protests,
it is a monarchy that has only recently begun democratizing.
Thousands of Qatari police and military personnel maintain
rigid security at the meeting site and hotels to prevent any
terrorist assault during the meetings.

Even so, for the anti-globalizers the need to soften tactics
"would have been an issue even if this meeting had taken
place in a western city," said Jamie Love, the head of a
Ralph Nader-affiliated group who is here seeking to relax
WTO rules that protect the patents of pharmaceutical
companies on AIDS drugs and other medicines. "Given the
unbelievable atmosphere of patriotism, being critical of
government is touchy for people."

That is a source of frustration for many activists, who
contend that their analysis concerning the evils of
multinational corporate capitalism is no less valid now than
it was before Sept. 11. This analysis, they contend, may
help account for the anti-western sentiment in Muslim
countries. Some voice hope that opposition to the U.S.
bombing of Afghanistan would help them overcome their recent
public-relations troubles.

"We felt we needed to respect the mood after Sept. 11" by
refraining from major protests, said Walden Bello, a
prominent Filipino critic of globalization who is executive
director of the group Focus on the Global South. "But ever
since the bombing started in Afghanistan, I think the mood
has changed. I think there's greater sympathy for our views
to be heard."

The meeting in Qatar also has underlined some of the awkward
divisions between the anti-globalization forces and the
governments of poor nations whose interests the activists
purport to champion. Although the activists and the
developing countries take the same position on some issues,
such as the desirability of easing international drug patent
rules, they differ sharply on others.

Food safety is one example. Bove, like many Europeans,
favors changing WTO rules so that countries can more
aggressively restrict imports of meat, grain, fruit and
vegetables for health reasons. The restrictions would stem
from products having been genetically modified or treated
with hormones.

"The people who want to put a product on the market ought to
have to show that the product is safe," Bove said. "For the
moment, it's the country refusing to import a product that
must show the product is bad. We have to reverse that."

Bove's view, which is supported to some extent by the
European Union at the meeting here, draws vehement criticism
from officials of developing nations. The EU, the officials
fear, would use health concerns as an excuse to keep their
farm products out of Europe as a way of protecting the
region's farmers.

For that reason, developing countries are rejecting
proposals to start negotiating changes in WTO food-safety
rules. On similar grounds, the developing nations oppose
initiatives favored by U.S. labor and environmental groups
that would impose trade sanctions on countries that fail to
observe sufficiently high standards for workers rights and
the environment. Those standards, too, might provide a
pretext for blocking imports from the developing world.

"Their [the activists'] hearts are in the right place; their
premise that the global trading system has inequities is
something that we share," said Munir Akram, Pakistan's
ambassador to the WTO. "But we think they get deflected by
misinformation about things like food safety and labor
standards, which could be used for protectionist purposes,
and could defeat the very goals they seek of helping
developing countries. The movement from their premises to
their conclusions-that's where we think they sometimes go

Even so, Akram said, the protesters generally aid the cause
of developing countries in trade meetings such as the one in

One such illustration came Saturday when, just outside a
press briefing being given by a U.S. delegation, a group of
activists began chanting and waving signs to protest the way
the WTO meeting is being run. The protesters focused on the
creation of six committees of trade ministers that are
meeting privately to debate the issues still dividing the
WTO's 142 member nations over the agenda for a new round of
trade talks.

"What goes on behind closed doors? Arm twisting! Arm
twisting!" the protesters chanted, a reference to the fear
that rich nations would use their economic clout to force
less-wealthy countries into making concessions.

Qatari security guards rushed to the scene. The activists
briefly considered trying to confront U.S. officials inside
the meeting, but thought better of it and dispersed.