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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 11: 99: Battle for Free Trade
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Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 14:25 GMT
Protesters gather in Seattle
The last round of trade talks led to widepread protests in Europe

By the BBC's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Tens of thousands of protesters allied with pressure groups from around the world will descend on the World Trade Organisation's meeting in Seattle decrying what they see as the detrimental effects of globalisation.

Groups with wide-ranging interests including labour, the environment, human rights, women's rights and development have launched a well organised effort to pool their interests and their efforts for the protests.

Pressure groups are mobilising
The level of organisation for the demonstrations could rival that of the trade talks itself. The pressure groups have held training camps for protestors, set up purpose-built web sites and plan to hold regular press briefings in addition to the street marches and other actions.

Long list of concerns

The protesters have arranged for demonstrations around a different theme on each day of the ministerial meeting.

The issues include environment and health; human rights, women's issue, and food and agriculture.

It will be a critique of the WTO's impact on daily lives of people, how it affects their jobs, their families and they way they live in a global marketplace, said Patrick Woodall with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

"The coalition of critics of the WTO keeps growing almost geometrically, because it is having direct real, tangible negative impact on people's daily lives," he said, adding, "there could easily be more than 50,000 (protesters) in Seattle."

Stealth attack

One member of that coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is the Sierra Club, a US-based environmental pressure group.

"We are concerned that countries are using the trade rules to mount stealth attacks on the environmental laws of other countries," said Dan Seligman, the head of the group's Responsible Trade Campaign.

He points to the case of US law designed to protect sea turtles. The law required shrimp boats to install a device that would prevent endangered sea turtles from becoming fatally tangled in shrimp nets.

The law also restricted the import of shrimp harvested in a manner harmful to sea turtles.

The WTO ruled against the law and "hamstrung vital conversation efforts," Mr Seligman said.

US government responds

The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), which negotiates on trade matters for the United States, said the government was not forced to bow to the trade organisation on environmental regulation as NGOs have alleged.

"The report did not find any fault with the environmental objective or the law but with the implementation of the law," said Amy Stilwell, a spokesperson for the USTR.

The countries that filed the complaint against the shrimping law complained that they were not given realistic time to comply with the law and that the law was not evenly applied to all countries, Ms Stilwell said.

She added, "our implementation does not in any way diminish the stringency of the rule to protect sea turtles, which is something you would never know if you were simply to talk to some of the NGOs."

Sympathy for environment

Ms Stilwell said that the administration understand that this is a time of enormous change in the US as it transitions to an information-based economy.

"The US is undergoing a period of economic prosperity, but workers in traditional fields are being displaced in the transition to a high-tech economy," she said.

She said that administration views the protest as a natural part of the dialogue. "It is healthy that these issues are being raised."

But the USTR will counter the claims of the protestors with information of its own. It has set up a website that addresses each of the concerns that the coalition of NGOs will raise.

President Clinton recently announced that the US will carry out an environmental assessment of all trade legislation, demonstrating the real political impact of the protests.

Commercial control

But the coalition of NGOs argues that the WTO benefits corporations and not common citizens.

"The reality of the WTO is that it is not merely about tariffs, duties, quotas and licenses but putting commerce ahead of all other considerations."

Mr Woodall said that the WTO's record since its creation five years ago has been abysmal. "That is why this ministerial is so scary," he said, because the trade organisation is set to extend its power into more areas that cover more products.

When the WTO was created, Mr Seligman said, there was little public debate, adding, "it is a debate that is long overdue."

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