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WTO In Montreal


In early June, Canada’s trade minister, Pierre Pettigrew exultantly announced the death of the “anti-globalization” movement. “I draw great satisfaction out of the fact that the phenomenon of anti-globalization has completely disappeared”, he crowed. On the eve of this week’s World Trade Organization informal mini-ministerial in downtown Montreal, he was singing a different tune. He lashed out at those mobilizing against the WTO meeting, claiming that they “should bear the responsibility that what they’re trying to do is really screw the African cotton farmers and the African HIV victims as well”.

At Saturday’s “Words are Weapons” anti-WTO teach-in at the Universite Du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM), I publicly pondered why it was that this week Toronto was getting the much-heralded Rolling Stones concert (as the city attempts to attract hordes of visitors and their wallets back in the wake of the SARS scare) while Montreal got the WTO meeting. I suggested that perhaps the most appropriate Stones songs for Pettigrew might be You Can’t Always Get What You Want or (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

As trade ministers and officials from 25 other countries arrive in the city, at a local and global level, things are not going so well for the WTO. Just over a week before the Montreal meetings kicked off, the original venue, the lavish Queen Elizabeth Hotel, changed its mind about hosting the event, citing concerns for the safety of its clients and staff. So the meetings moved to the Sheraton. Police have erected a perimeter around the Sheraton complex and a no-traffic zone in the streets around it.

This has infuriated small businesses, many of whom say that they have been advised to close for the meeting’s duration. “I’m very upset. No one gives a damn about small businesses”, Emmanuel Mavrikidakis, who runs several central city parking lots, told the Montreal Gazette. The resulting traffic disruption is not endearing the meeting to many Montrealers either.

The WTO is in crisis management mode. The Montreal meeting is a last-ditch attempt before September’s WTO Ministerial in Cancun to try to get agreement on widely differing positions in global trade negotiations which have become bogged down. While Pettigrew characterised Montreal as “a meeting that will want to weed out the issues so that when we arrive in Cancun, we are already hot”, others were less upbeat. Even New Zealand’s trade minister, ardent free trader Jim Sutton said that the mini-Ministerial was needed “to avoid a derailment at Cancun,” and that it needed to issue a challenge to revitalize the “lagging negotiations”.

Few expect the Montreal meeting to break the gridlock which has seen negotiating deadlines missed and renewed tensions between the Quad countries which dominate the WTO (US, EU, Japan and Canada) and many countries in the South, as well as disagreements among the Quad countries themselves. Some are predicting that the Cancun talks could be an embarrassing flop, and that this would plunge the 146-member organisation into a serious crisis of credibility.

A draft Cancun Ministerial text circulated on 18 July has come in for strong criticism for its predictable tilt towards the interests of the industrialized North, and its failure to reflect the divergent views held by many Southern delegations on many issues, including attempts led by the EU to push an investment agreement onto the WTO negotiating table. It further reveals the WTO’s fundamentally anti-democratic processes which have consistently excluded the delegations from many poorer countries from having any input into its content.

As in the late June mini-Ministerial in Egypt (see my last ZNet Commentary, Lurching Towards Cancun, for more on this), agriculture – especially the vexed question of agricultural subsidies – is likely to dominate the Montreal meeting. So will the issue of TRIPS (Agreement on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) and the rights of countries to produce or import affordable generic drugs.

Given the continued hardline stance of the US at the WTO in protecting the exclusive patents and rights of its pharmaceutical corporations to make money, over the lives of people with HIV/AIDS who are being denied treatment, the Bush Administration’s recent move to tie aid for HIV/AIDS to governments’ acceptance of food aid which may contain GMOs, strong African resistance to biotech crops and food, and Canada’s support for the US WTO complaint against the EU’s de facto moratorium on genetically modified food and crops, Pettigrew’s attack on anti-WTO protesters makes me wonder which planet he is from. His remarks are redolent of Bush’s recent cynical statements about the EU moratorium, and hunger and AIDS in Africa.

Then there is the fact that most of the African countries devastated with HIV/AIDS were not even invited to Montreal. Perhaps Pierre can speak on their behalf; he already seems to think that he can.

By contrast, the organising of the Montreal Popular Mobilization Against the WTO (see http://montreal.resist.ca) has its feet firmly on the ground, making the connections between local and global injustices, and local and global resistance. In rain and sunshine, around 2000 people marched through downtown Montreal on Sunday, on the eve of the official meeting, under the umbrella of No One Is Illegal. “We are marching together today in clear opposition to the WTO and its agenda of dispossession and displacement and displacement. This is a demonstration representing over eighty groups, and many more individuals, who are publicly and unabashedly declaring our solidarity with movements for self-determination, justice and dignity, at home and abroad.

We also march as a message of support and solidarity for our sisters and brothers in Latin America, who will converge in September to oppose the WTO in Cancun, Mexico”, reads a flyer for the march.

As Pettigrew positions himself as a champion of the poor in his shrill advocacy for free trade in agriculture, small farmers in the South continue to be displaced from their lands and pushed further into poverty through policies cloaked in the shiny new version of colonialism of the free market. Some of them end up as immigrants and refugees in countries like Canada.

The No One Is Illegal march brought together children and the elderly, and members of communities which are under attack within Canada and overseas. As it passed by corporate and government offices it highlighted the struggles of immigrants and refugees in Montreal like those who have fled Pakistan and Algeria and are now being detained and/or face deportation after their refugee claims have been rejected.

It highlighted the links between militarization, the occupation of Iraq, Palestine, and the continued colonial occupation of North America, and the interests of global capital. It was a festive and vibrant political space for people from different struggles to march together, talk, and celebrate their resistance to injustice and determination to create a better world.

Adopting the hallmarks of Peoples’ Global Action (http://www.agp.org), the Montreal Popular Mobilization Against the WTO is characterised by a clear and principled rejection of the WTO, capitalism, and imperialism in all of its forms, and decentralized organizing. As local activist Stefan Christoff puts it: “We’re for the WTO shutting down, period.” On a less-than-shoestring budget, this mobilization has helped to make the connections between a number of struggles at a local level, but also connected these with a bigger picture of the WTO and neoliberal globalization.

If we are truly fighting to win, struggles against neoliberal globalization must be firmly grounded in the day-to-day struggles in our communities, and based on solid community organizing, and not reliant on grand NGO talkfests, trade union or NGO elites’ cosy, private chats with politicians and business, or glossy lobby documents. In directly confronting the processes and actors in our own communities which perpetrate injustice we can better identify and understand the mechanics of global capitalism and how to resist them.

In a rather pathetic public relations effort, Pettigrew scheduled a photo-op with a handful of NGO representatives on Monday morning, in a day mainly set aside for meeting “civil society” – selected NGOs and business representatives. Meanwhile, direct action against the WTO meeting continues out on the streets. Police blocked an early Monday morning protest march and then proceeded to make mass arrests after surrounding a “green zone” – a safe space well away from the meeting venue.

Anti-WTO organizers have pledged to continue direct actions which aim to disrupt the official meeting until it winds up on Wednesday afternoon…perhaps just in time for Pierre to jet to Toronto’s Downsview Park and drown his sorrows with Mick and the boys. Even the militarization of a sizeable chunk of Montreal and a security crackdown cannot force the miracle that the WTO’s cheerleaders so desperately need. Wherever we live, let’s make sure that the world’s free traders get no satisfaction in Montreal, Cancun and beyond.

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