ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Negative Impressions Mask Positive Developments in Seattle

The protests and other civil society actions in Seattle brought together a large number of groups who, notwithstanding their different and sometimes conflicting agendas, shared a common demand to be heard by the WTO policy-makers, called for greater transparency and accountability on the part of the WTO and expressed a deep distrust of the kind of doctrinaire neo-liberalism reflected in the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’.

From November 29 to December 3, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) held its Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle, Washington, where perhaps 50,000 representatives of civil society converged to observe the proceedings, organise workshops and teach-ins and to protest against WTO policies. Inevitably, the media focused almost exclusively on the negative outcomes of the event – on the violence and the destructiveness of a small minority of the protestors, and on the failure of participating WTO members to reach consensus. However, these negative impressions mask positive developments which are in fact much more significant.

Firstly, the lack of consensus at the conclusion of the conference is the consequence of a greater co-ordination and solidarity among developing countries. This co-ordination and solidarity has been built on an increasing concern about the extent to which existing WTO policies and practices have worked to the detriment of the poor in developing countries. Provoked in particular by the strong arm tactics of the representatives of the host government, developing country delegations banded together to resist extreme pressure to abandon their most cherished policy objectives. This is a healthy sign for the multilateral, ‘rules-based’ international trade regime. It raises the possibility that the WTO may actually be evolving into something more than a forum in which the US, the European Union (EU) and Japan slug it out and then impose the results on the rest of the world. If the oft-expressed support for a multilateral, rules-based international trade regime is genuine, this development should be welcomed.

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