Protest and Corporate GIobalization

Multinational Monitor magazine, September 2000


The evidence that recent protests against corporate globalization in Seattle, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere have made a difference continues to mount-making it that much more important that people of conscience denounce the escalating violations of protesters' civil liberties.

First, the good news. In June, the WTO issued a ruling, expected to be made public in September, upholding a French asbestos ban against a Canadian challenge. Canada had argued that the ban was disproportionate because France could achieve its public health goals through "controlled use" of chrysotile asbestos.

Perhaps the WTO dispute settlement panel would have rejected the Canadian position even if the Seattle protests had never occurred. But based on a strict reading of WTO agreements, the Canadian argument was a powerful one. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the outcome of the case was decisively influenced by the Seattle protests, as well as the years of previous criticisms from environmentalists, consumer groups and public health advocates.

It is important not to overemphasize the significance of the French victory. After all, the scientific evidence on the harms of asbestos is overwhelming, France and the European Union are well equipped to defend themselves at the WTO, and WTO rules forced France and the EU to defend the ban on narrow scientific grounds rather than on the principled and political rationale that public health protections should not have to be tested for their compatibility with trade rules. Still, the ruling represents a major concession by the WTO.

Also in June, a UN commission released a devastating attack on the WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

A preliminary report from the UN Human Rights Commission's Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights concluded that WTO rules "reflect an agenda that serves only to promote dominant corporatist interests that already monopolize the arena of international trade." Small reforms cannot fix the WTO, the report finds. "What is required is nothing less than a radical review of the whole system of trade liberalization and a critical consideration of the extent to which it is genuinely equitable and geared towards shared benefits for rich and poor countries alike." The subcommission had similarly harsh words for the IMF and World Bank.

The UN report is explicit in referencing the Seattle and Washington, D.C. protests, and cites an earlier statement from the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that "the political space that is opening up in the corridors of international policy making is largely a result of the spirited work of these NGOs."

The bad news is that a civil liberties-violating crackdown on protesters by law enforcement agencies in the United States is threatening the ability of critics of corporate globalization and others to organize mass demonstrations.

By all accounts, the Seattle police were ill-prepared to handle the WTO protests in November-December of last year. They responded to nonviolent civil disobedience with the use of excessive force, including the massive use of tear-gas without warning.

More worrisome have been massive civil liberties violations by authorities in Washington, D.C. at protests during the IMF/World Bank meetings, in Philadelphia during the Republican Party convention and in Los Angeles during the Democratic convention. The convention protests highlighted a range of issues in addition to corporate globalization. Law enforcement tactics in all three cities followed extensive preparation by police and other enforcement agencies.

* According to credible reports, abusive law enforcement tactics include:

* False arrests of large numbers of protesters not engaging in civil disobedience;

* Closures of organizing spaces on the pretense of fire code violations or other suspect rationales;

* Excessive force in arresting or dispersing protesters, including many not engaging in civil disobedience;

* Targeting perceived movement leaders for arrest, occasionally without regard to their actual involvement in civil disobedience or law-breaking activities;

* Establishing excessively large cordons around official meeting sites;

* Trumped up charges of terrorism and bomb making;

* The demand for excessively high bails for nonviolent protesters;

* Prisoners beaten and treated brutally.

A working democracy simply cannot tolerate law enforcement officers employing these tactics.

Especially troubling is the chilling effect of these law enforcement practices on future speech. Extremist rhetoric from law enforcement officials and others, extreme bails and extreme charges will all deter citizens from speaking out in the future. Particularly disturbing is the use of conspiracy and similar charges in connection with politically expressive activity. Would-be demonstrators are likely to fear the risks of tangential or even accidental involvement with a "conspiracy" that they didn't even know was being planned.

The recent surge in demonstrations has highlighted yet again the importance of organization and protest. As a gathering of economists and central bankers including Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan noted at an August conclave in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the processes of corporate globalization are fragile and politically vulnerable. But so too are civil liberties and the effective right to dissent. Reversal of corporate globalization is going to require, now, aggressive defense of the right to protest.

Transnational Corporations and World Trade

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