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Monday, 19 March, 2001, 17:48 GMT
Protesters target Geneva trade talks
Anti-globalisation demonstrators stage mock protest at WTO
Anti-globalisation demonstrators stage mock protest at WTO's headquarters
by the BBC's Claire Doole in Geneva

As anti-globalisation protests go, it was pretty surreal.

Protestors dressed up as rich businessmen and waving butterfly nets chased other protestors dressed up as giant taps, mobile phones and first aid kits.

Under the GATS no government can be compelled to open up or give up regulating any sector

David Hartridge, WTO
And all of this on the sedate lawns of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, which is beginning a set of negotiations aimed a liberalising world trade in services - in such diverse areas as telecoms, tourism, and financial services.

These negotiations are the first major test since the mass demonstrations in Seattle of the WTO's ability to drive through a trade deal.

The WTO services director, David Hartridge says, "it is too soon to assess the impact of the anti-globalisation movement on striking trade deals."

But he says the movement is certainly a big and costly distraction for governments and that it is in danger of winning the public relations war.

Charges rejected

The protesters believe basic services such as health, education and water are under threat from WTO negotiations on opening up service markets to foreign competition.

Our service sectors are too weak to set up branches in the EU, US or Japan, so we won't benefit, but the big multi-nationals can come to us and put our companies out of business

Martin Khor, Third World Network
It's a charge the WTO secretariat rejects. But the protestors from public service unions and third world development groups are sceptical.

"The WTO says public services are protected in these negotiations, but the language is so ambiguous, the hole so big in their argument you could drive a truck through it", says protestor Jennifer Esposito from the US based International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

At issue is the wording of part of the services agreement under discussion, the so-called general agreement on trade in services or GATS.

The WTO secretariat says the GATS specifically excludes public services supplied by a government.

But the protestors say the wording is so unclear it could mean where public and private sectors co-exist that public services are covered.

Deep-rooted distrust

The argument is however about more than semantics.

Anti-globalisation protestors have a deep rooted distrust of anything involving the WTO.

"It doesn't matter what the text says, it is how the WTO's dispute settlement body interprets the rules" says Mariamma Williams of the Caribbean based Gender and Trade Network.

She is concerned that a government's regulation of a public service could be challenged in the dispute settlement body, which she says would undermine that country's control over a public service.

WTO hits back

The WTO has become so frustrated at what it sees as protestors scare mongering and unfounded fears, it has issued it own booklet to refute what it calls the myths of the protesters.

The head of the WTO services division, David Hartridge says that "under the GATS no government can be compelled to open up or give up regulating any sector".

And he goes on to question why any government would agree to allow themselves to be forced or to force each other to surrender or compromise powers which are important to them.

But for many WTO critics this defence cuts no ice. They argue that weaker countries will come under pressure from the US and Europe in the negotiations to privatise services.

Campaigners say the EU is pressing for access to its companies to water services, while the US is pushing for rights in third world energy markets.

Martin Khor, head of the Malaysian based NGO, Third World Network, says developing countries have little to gain and much to lose.

"Our service sectors are too weak to set up branches in the EU, US or Japan, so we won't benefit, but the big multi-nationals can come to us and put our companies out of business," he says.

His appeal to developed countries to stop ratcheting up the pressure is however likely to fall on deaf ears. The WTO negotiating document talks of progressive liberalisation, the idea that in future more and more new markets are opened up.

But the protestors do have numbers on their side.

Two thirds of WTO members are developing world countries. Many of these governments share the protestors scepticism about the benefits of opening up service markets and question whether this should even come under the WTO's remit.

With a north-south divide already opening up, it is certain these service negotiations will be long and tough.

And even the WTO acknowledges that few want to antagonise the anti-globalisation movement, which shows no sign of giving up the fight.

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27 Jan 01 | Business
WTO on the defensive
30 Jan 01 | Business
WTO heads for Qatar
10 Nov 00 | Business
Campaigners target trade in services
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