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Sándor Lau: The Man Who Shut Down the WTO

The Man Who Shut Down the WTO

text and photos by Sándor Lau, October, 2003

It's my first time seriously asking anyone, "So what's your real name." But it seems only appropriate to ask Andy Bichlbaum, aka Granwyth Halutberi, aka Hank Hardy Unruh. And I have to admit I feel slightly uneasy when, in a quiet American accent, he says "I can't tell you."

Of course I wouldn't tell me either if I were the frontman for the Yes-Men, a group posing as the World Trade Organization, both through their website,, and in person on international media and at international conferences.

At a 2001 conference in Tampere, Finland, "Hank Hardy Unruh" addressed 150 representatives of the "textilian" industry, suggesting that abolition of "Involuntarily Imported Labor", as practiced in the American South, was unnecessary. Because market forces would have replaced it anyway with our current system, which is both more humane and of course, more profitable. Under the WTO, Remotely Located Workers (RLWs) in places like Gabon provide the industry with slave-like labour, without the unnecessary costs of providing for the workers' needs or dealing with restrictive US child labor laws. His speech was apparently well received and was praised three times by the master of ceremonies.

Andy, or whatever his name is, is here in Auckland for the Manukau Institute of Technology's Cultural Provocation conference. Merata Mita has just spoken about Hone Heke chopping down the flagpole at Kororareka as an early act of Mäori civil disobedience. When it comes Andy's turn to present, he seems surprisingly anxious to show videos of the Yes-Men files rather than speaking. He's only just showed up at the conference near midday, and his roommate tells me he came in at 4am, after a night of social activism.

I ask him about his first act of civil disobedience, expecting something about organizing a high-school boycott of the pledge of allegiance. While he admits to rearranging his blind uncle's furniture in younger days, he says the distinction between artist and troublemaker is a small one, and his first Russell flagpole came much later in life. It seems pointless to ask his age when I don't even know his name, but he looks to be in his 30s, so I can only guess he was well into his 20s when, in 1996, he planted a picture of two boys kissing into a video game he designed.

While I have not discovered any kissing on, they do have something almost equally as interesting, a deck of hit-list cards featuring the most wanted war criminals of the Bush regime. The site also posts the kind of fun facts that are censored from the corporate news because investigative journalism is neither financially nor strategically profitable for the six corporations who now control most of the US media. In his speech, Andy points out that 30% of US television news is shot and delivered to broadcasters by private corporations, and I wish I could believe that this was just a Yes-Men hoax.

Here are just some of the fun facts from

On September 11, 2001, 3000 people died in the terrorist attacks on the US; 24,000 people died of hunger; 6,020 children were killed by diarrhoea; and 2,700 children were killed by measles.

Which is even more interesting considering the context:

"The UN estimates that poor countries lose about US$2 billion a day because of unjust trade rules, many of them instituted by the WTO-14 times the amount they receive in aid." Kiwis can stand up proud and tall, knowing that Whakatane boy and former PM Mike Moore served as the WTO's director general from 1999-2002.

According to Andy, the Yes-Men's finest moment came in Sydney last year, where before a meeting of the Certified Public Accountants of Australia, he announced the dissolution of the WTO, and its replacement with an organization based on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The implications of the WTO shutdown spread so widely, they were debated in the Canadian Parliament.

With that, though, the Yes-Men downsized themselves into near-redundancy. Shutting down the WTO is not exactly a hoax you can repeat. The website is still going, and the makers of American Movie premiered their new documentary, The Yes-Men, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Bill Gosden, you must bring it to the New Zealand Film Festival next year.

I immediately become suspicious when Andy tells me he had a normal childhood. After a little prodding, I discover that by normal, he means growing up gay in a French-speaking household in the Arizona desert. Andy, or whatever his name is, claims he now lives in Paris, and while I have no reason to think otherwise, I'll believe it when I read in the newspaper that France is going to make reparations for South Pacific nuclear testing and the Rainbow Warrior.


Andy Bichlbaum's reading list:

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991-Eric J. Hobsbawm
The Great Transformation-Karl Polanyi
Two Worlds-Anne Salmond

Full transcript of the exploits of Hank Hardy Unruh in Tampere, Finland in Harpers magazine Nov. 2001


- Contact Sándor Lau at sandor_lau (at)

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