Lessons for Copenhagen from Seattle

By Patrick Bond · 2 Dec 2009

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Picture: Claire Sternberg
Picture: Claire Sternberg

The decade since the Seattle World Trade Organisation (WTO) fiasco on November 30, 1999, taught civil society activists and African leaders two powerful lessons.

First, working together, they have the power to disrupt a system of global governance that meets the Global North’s short-term interests against both the Global South and the longer-term interests of the world’s people and the planet.

Second, in the very act of disrupting global malgovernance, major concessions can be won.

Spectacular protest against the WTO summit's opening ceremony is what most recall about Seattle: activists 'locking down' to prevent entrance to the conference centre, a barrage of tear gas and pepper spray, a sea of broken windows and a municipal police force later prosecuted for violating US citizens’ most basic civil liberties.

That was outside. Inside the convention centre, negotiations belatedly got underway, and African leaders quickly grew worried that further trade liberalisation would damage their tiny industrial sectors.

The damage was well recognized – an OECD study found Africa to be the continent that would suffer the worst net losses from corporate-dominated free trade. The US trade representative, Charlene Barchefsky, repeatedly insulted African elites who raised this point.

With the exception of South Africa's Alec Erwin, who enjoyed Green Room status hence an insider role to promote self-interest, the delegations from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, since renamed the African Union) were furious.

As OAU deputy director general V.J. McKeen told journalists: "They went out to a dinner in a bus, and then were left out in the cold to walk back. To tell you to the extent that when we went into the room for our African group meeting, I mean, there was no interpretation provided… so one had to improvise. And then even the facilities, the microphone facilities were switched off."

Tetteh Hormeku, from the African Trade Network of progressive civil society groups, picks up the story: "By the second day of the formal negotiations, the African and other developing-country delegates had found themselves totally marginalised… African countries thus joined the other developing-country groups in threatening to withdraw the consensus required to reach a conclusion of the conference. By this time, even the Americans and their supporters in the WTO secretariat must have woken up to the futility of their 'rough tactics'."

The Africans' strong willpower at Seattle earned major concessions in the next WTO summit, in Doha, in November 2001. At the same time as the global justice movement began widening into an anti-imperialist movement in the wake of the USA’s post-9/11 remilitarization, African activists were delving deeper into extreme local challenges, such as combating AIDS. In Doha, African elites joined forces with activists again.

On this occasion, the positive catalyst was a South African government law – the 1997 Medicines Act – which permitted the state’s compulsory licensing of patented drugs. In 1998, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was launched to lobby for AIDS drugs, which a decade ago were prohibitively expensive - $15,000 per person per year - for nearly all South Africa’s HIV-positive people (roughly 10% of the population).

That campaign was immediately confronted by the US State Department’s attack on the SA Medicines Act - a "full court press," as bureaucrats testified to the US Congress. The US elites' aim was to protect intellectual property rights and halt the emergence of a parallel inexpensive supply of AIDS medicines that would undermine lucrative Western markets.

US Vice President Al Gore directly intervened with SA government leaders in 1998-99, aiming to revoke the Medicines Act. Then in mid-1999, Gore launched his presidential election bid, a campaign generously funded by big pharmaceutical corporations, which that year provided $2.3 million to the Democratic Party.

TAC's allies in the US AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power began to protest at Gore's campaign events. The protests soon threatened to cost Gore far more in adverse publicity than he was raising in Big Pharma contributions, so he changed sides.

Then in late 2001, even during the reign of president George W. Bush and his repressive trade representative, Robert Zoellick (now World Bank president), the WTO's Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights system (TRIPS) was amended to permit generic drugs to be used in medical emergencies.

This was a huge victory for Africa, removing any rationale to continue to deny life-saving medicines to the world's poorest people.

In 2003, with another dreadful WTO deal on the table in Cancun and 30,000 protesters outside, once again the African leadership withdrew consensus, wrecking the plans of the US and Europe for further liberalization.

These are the precedents required to overcome three huge challenges we face in Copenhagen:

Firstly, northern countries must cut emissions by 2020 by at least 45% (from 1990 levels) through a binding international agreement.

Secondly, they must not rely on carbon markets or offset gimmicks when making these cuts.

And thirdly, they must pay the vast ecological debt they owe to victims of climate change.

Tragically, the adverse balance of forces currently prevailing will not permit victories on even one, much less all three.

Recall that Africa is the worst affected continent. According to UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change director R.K. Pachauri, "crop net revenues could fall by as much as 90% by 2100." The ecological debt the North owes Africa alone is estimated at $67 billion/year (minimum) by 2020.

What response is logical if the North fails to address these three basic challenges? In early September 2009, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi issued this threat about Copenhagen: "If need be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threatens to be another rape of our continent." And in Barcelona, in early November, Zenawi instructed the African negotiators to do just that.

Indeed, that is the main lesson from Seattle: by walking out - alongside civil society protesters – and halting a bad deal in Copenhagen on December 18, we can together pave the way for subsequent progress.

By Patrick Bond. Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.

 Please attribute The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za) as the source of this article. For more information, please see our Copyright Policy.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/392.1.

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16 Dec

No Blank Check for African Despot

As an organization that promotes Human rights, good governance, the protection of the environment, sustainable development, we would like to bring to your attention the abysmal environmental records of Mr. Zenawi

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