American Friends Service Committee
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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Nothing Can Stop Us in Our Struggle
Arnie Alpert coordinates the American Friends Service Committee's New Hampshire program, and works with the AFSC's Trade Matters project.
As thousands of protesters gathered at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on the opening day of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) sixth ministerial meeting December 13, murmurs went through the crowd that the South Koreans were planning something dramatic. For days, perhaps weeks, the local press had been full of fear-mongering stories about the plans of radical South Korean farmers and union members.
Their outrage fueled by drops in price supports for rice, Korean farmers were in Hong Kong in large numbers. And one of their leaders, Lee Kyeong-Hae, had committed suicide at the opening of the last WTO Ministerial in Cancún in 2003. "Nothing will stop us in our struggle," they vowed. The South China Morning Post reported police had learned someone had bought more than 100 gas masks, "raising the specter that radical groups are preparing for violence."
The march of several thousand banner-waving protesters snaked through the streets on its way to a rally by the harbor, close by the Convention Center where the WTO delegates would be holding their official meetings. Protesters chanted "Down Down WTO" in several languages. Thousands of Hong Kong residents watched from the sidewalks, while thousands of Hong Kong riot police looked on. Members of China's People's Revolutionary Army were nearby waiting for orders to mobilize if protests got out of police control.
As the last of the marchers arrived at the rally site, the Koreans made their move. About 75 farmers broke away from the others, put on orange life vests, jumped in the harbor, and began swimming toward the Convention Center. It was a great example of the spirit, creativity, and discipline that characterized the WTO protests.
Granted, there were some physical and violent confrontations between police and protesters. But by and large, the mood in the streets was one of festive resistance to the WTO and what it represents to millions of workers, farmers, and poor people throughout the world: an undemocratic institution that primarily benefits large owners of large corporations, international investors, and the governments of the wealthy countries where the global corporations are based.
The drama inside the Convention Center reinforced those views. Starting out from a draft proposal with which few negotiators were happy, the WTO meeting limped through its first four days, with frequent reports it would end in another "collapse," i.e. a meeting without a concluding agreement. By the end, negotiators for developing countries which had withstood USA and EU pressure at the previous WTO Ministerial were unwilling to apply the brakes and risk blame for failure.
The final document, reached through all-night negotiations, included minimal promises by the wealthy countries in exchange for a stepped-up pace of negotiations on global rules for the service sector. Now the negotiators will return to WTO headquarters in Geneva, further from the light of public protest and scrutiny, with the aim of concluding a comprehensive agreement by the end of 2006.
The services talks pose a whole set of dangers. The wealthy countries, led by the EU, are pushing for developing countries to accept trade rules favorable to trans-national companies that want to market water, health care, construction, travel and tourism, banking and insurance, and every other service you can think of, on a global basis. The services talks are also likely to touch on controversial areas of government purchasing and domestic regulations. As Public Citizen has shown in its recent report on GATS and zoning, local land-use planning in the United States is just one area where the authority of democratic governments at all levels could be jeopardized by WTO rules.
That is why the protests in the streets are so important. Inside the hotels and convention centers where negotiators meet, it is too easy for them to forget the voices of their own citizens. As the negotiators return to Geneva, it will be important for WTO critics to keep their eyes on the process and find new ways to make their voices heard.
And by the way, those 100 gas masks were purchased for the use of reporters covering the protests.