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What Do the WTO’s Critics Want?

November 30, 1999

SEATTLE (AP) _ As if it didn’t have enough trouble, the World Trade Organization must now contend with witches.

That’s witches as in Wiccans _ feminist, neo-pagan lovers of magic and nature. And the WTO, any politically minded witch will tell you, values free trade over the Goddess, making the organization a prime target for the casting of spells.

``We all are connected to the earth and to each other, and we have a responsibility to have a healthy connection,″ explained Marian Doub, one of about 60 San Francisco-area witches in Seattle to protest the WTO.

``We’re saying the earth is important. Individuals and communities are important. Whole ecosystems are important. As far as I know, the WTO is there just to back up the transnational corporations,″ she said.

Doub and her Wiccan friends are part of a diverse parade of activists taking to Seattle’s streets this week. Hard-hatted steelworkers find themselves allied with tie-dyed friends of sea turtles. Salvadoran peasants march alongside anarchists, AIDS activists and Methodist ministers.

The cacophony of complaints can be confusing _ liberal Ralph Nader and conservative Pat Buchanan are both in town to denounce the WTO _ but many criticisms arise from a few core concerns.

High on the list is the fear that the WTO has too much power to advance globalization of the world economy at the expense of local citizens’ right to rule themselves.

The Geneva-based WTO operates on the theory that if countries can trade freely, without competition-stifling import tariffs or other restrictions, then the world economy will grow and everyone will benefit. The 135 nations in the WTO agree to abide by detailed trade pacts worked out at meetings such as this week’s ministerial in Seattle.

Critics complain that WTO pacts can overrule laws enacted by member nations to protect health, human rights and the environment. They also complain that disputes between nations are settled behind closed doors by a panel of trade lawyers, with no opportunity for appeal by outside groups.

For activists accustomed to fighting battles in the public arena, the WTO’s lack of access and accountability are hard to swallow.

``The WTO is a totally nontransparent organization, by design,″ said Phil Bereano, a professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Technical Communication.

He monitors governmental policies on genetically modified organisms, which he fears may disrupt ecosystems unless tightly controlled. Bereano believes such concerns are given short shrift by the commerce-minded WTO.

``It’s not a democracy,″ he said. ``I can’t participate. I can’t get credentials to go into one of their meetings. There’s no public participation or notice as to what’s happening.″

Shut out of the decision-making process, the advocacy groups _ often called nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs _ are trying other ways to get their messages across, through street protests, teach-ins, press releases and Internet manifestos.

A sampling of their concerns:

The War Resisters League says military spending has been exempt from WTO rules, creating dangerous arms buildups in developing countries. Indigenous people from Third World countries say their sovereignty is threatened by a WTO-led push for corporate rule. AIDS activists complain that WTO policies discourage developing countries from producing generic drugs to fight AIDS.

Nader warns that the WTO is a threat to democratically forged protections of health and environment. Buchanan, a Reform Party presidential aspirant, says globalization will usurp America’s ability to protect its own economic interests.

Not all the activists are trashing the WTO. Monday, a group called Working Families for Free Trade sponsored what it called ``the only pro-trade rally″ in town. Spokesman Jason Miller said that by encouraging free trade, the global community can bring nations such as China into line on issues like human rights.

While protesters in the streets chanted ``Hey, hey, ho, ho! WTO has got to go,″ some of the more mainline dissenting groups were invited by WTO organizers to speak Monday at an all-day symposium in the convention center where the WTO ministerial begins today.

``We are not here to disparage the WTO. We are here to reform it,″ Mark van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, told the symposium, a polite, coat-and-tie crowd.

But even he warned that the WTO had better not ignore the protests.

``The WTO needs to demonstrate that it respects core democratic values, including concern for the environment,″ van Putten said.

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