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An Activist Amongst The Robber Barons

[Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest managed to get himself invited to a day-long high-level seminar on "After Seattle: Restoring Momentum to the WTO." Speakers included Clayton Yeutter (former Secretary of Agriculture), Robert Litan (former Associate Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget), Lawrence Eagleburger (former Secretary of State), and Luiz Felipe Lamreia, the foreign Minster of Brazil. His fly-on-the-wall report is worth quoting at some length]:

I was disappointed that only one representative like myself from a non- profit organization concerned about the impact of the WTO on food safety regulation was invited. But I was pleased that the door had been opened and I looked forward to [it].

. . . As it turned out, I got a lot more than I bargained for.

The seminar turned out to be a strategy session on how to defeat those opposed to the current WTO system. Apparently, no one knew who I was (perhaps my graying temples and dark suit helped me blend in with the overwhelming older male group of attendees) and I did not speak up until the end of the meeting.

The meeting was kicked off by a gentleman named Lord Patterson who was Margaret Thatcher's Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He began by stating that our number one job is to restore confidence in the WTO before embarking on any new rounds of trade negotiations. So far, so good, I thought.

But he then proclaimed that non-profit groups have no right to criticize the WTO as undemocratic because the groups themselves do not represent the general public. (I wondered which groups he was talking about because organizations that are gravely concerned about the impact of the WTO on environmental and consumer protection, like the Sierra Club and Public Citizen, have hundreds of thousands of members). He then stated That we must never have another WTO meeting on US soil because it was too easy for advocacy groups to organize here and security could not be assured .

. . He added that President Clinton's speech during the WTO meeting in Seattle, in which the president acknowledged the protesters' concerns, Was "disgraceful" and stated that it was also disgraceful that delegates to the WTO meeting in Seattle had to survive on sandwiches and couldn't get a decent meal during three days of social protest. The Lord finished his speech by recalling better times having tea with Maggie, and stating that the staff of the WTO Secretariat ~ should not be balanced with people from developing countries just because of the color of their skin. After a few words with the chairman of the meeting, Lord Patterson added "Oh, I hope I have not offended anyone."

. . . The largely American audience of trade officials and policy wonks took the Lord's pronouncements seriously. The first comment by an American, picked up on the criticisms and asked 'How can we de-legitimize the NGOs?'

The questioner claimed that these groups are usually supported by just a few charitable foundations and if the foundations could be convinced to cut off funding, the groups would be forced to cease operations. Mr. Litan, the former White House budget official, had another approach. He [asked] can't we give the NGOs other sandboxes to play in and have them take their concerns to groups like the International Labor Organization (a toothless United Nations sponsored-group). The representative from the US Trade Representative's office said nothing.

. . . Under the banner of rebuilding public confidence in the WTO, [former Agriculture Secretary] Yeutter concurred with his British colleague's suggestion that the next WTO meeting be held in some place other than the US where security can be assured. He further suggested that the WTO give the public little advance notice of where the meeting would be held to keep the protesters off balance. He said that the protesters' demands for greater transparency in WTO proceedings was a misnomer because the protesters didn't really want to participate in WTO proceedings -- all they wanted was to get TV coverage and raise money for their organizations.

. . . The day ended with the usual Washington reception . . . During desert, the foreign minister of Brazil lamented that if the next WTO meeting had to be held in an out of the way place, he preferred that it be held on a cruise ship instead of in the middle of the desert. He then gave an impassioned speech in which he opposed writing core labor standards into the WTO agreement and defended child labor by describing how in one region of Brazil, more than 5,000 children "help their families earn a little extra money" by hauling bags of coal from a dump yard to a steel mill. He stressed, however, that the children do not work directly in the steel mill. He was greeted by a hearty round of applause.

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