QATAR: Should we stay or should we go?

Issue 

BY SEAN HEALY

The decision to site the World Trade Organisation's next ministerial conference in the repressive emirate of Qatar wasn't only intended to prevent mass demonstrations. It was also designed to split opponents of a new trade round into "moderates" willing to engage with the trade body and radicals who want to abolish it.

The WTO and Qatari authorities have made it clear that they will welcome the participation of critical, even oppositional, non-government organisations — provided they agree to the unstated understanding that there will be no public protests.

The WTO and rich country governments have also sought to lure NGOs, and Third World governments, into a new round with promises of focussing deliberations on the "development" issues of concern to them.

So far, they have had only limited success.

Their most notable accomplishment has been the position taken by the Global Citizen Initiative (CGI), launched on March 24 with the backing of militant French farmers' leader Jose Bove, famous around the world for driving his bulldozer through a McDonald's in provincial Millau.

The CGI has backed a new round, on the grounds that it is "inevitable and logical", that Southern governments can now use it to wring beneficial concessions out of Northern governments and that, in Bove's words, it is "much more important to negotiate within a multilateral organisation like the WTO than to have a free trade zone such as in the US".

Northern governments are also hopeful that major union bodies, like the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, will back a new round in exchange for concessions on certain labour rights issues.

But most of the groups which were part of the protests in Seattle have firmed in their opposition to a new round.

Sixty representatives of such groups met in Geneva on March 27 to formally adopt the slogan "No New Round of Negotiations". They also wrote an open letter to Bove criticising his stance as having divided the movement and strengthened the WTO.

The opposition of grassroots movements to a new trade round is also solid, especially in the Third World. On March 20, 100,000 small farmers filled the Kisan Ghat in New Delhi to protest against WTO-enforced agricultural policies and the prospect of further negotiations.

Many campaigners have also backed a complete boycott of the Qatar conference itself. Prominent anti-debt writer and activist Susan George wrote on one NGO e-list on February 16, "My personal view is that we should totally reject Qatar as a destination for protest and treat this venue with the scorn, contempt and ridicule it deserves while pushing forward our own agenda ... DON'T GO TO QATAR, [it] is definitely not worth it and even counter-productive."

One concern within the anti-WTO movement has been to ensure that the tactics chosen are those most likely to strengthen the hands of the Third World, the principal victim of the WTO's "free trade" regime.

Bove's change of stance is motivated by a belief that this can best be done within the WTO, but others are far more intransigent in arguing that it will be massive worldwide protest which will ensure the best outcome for the peoples of the South.

Indian eco-feminist and activist Vandana Shiva, in a February 23 letter seeking to strengthen campaigners' resolve, was unequivocal: "Anyone calling for a new round and for expansion of the free trade agenda is calling for more starvation, more displacement, more suicides and more unemployment in the Third World. North and South, we need to continue the Seattle process, no matter where the decision making apparatus of globalisation moves."