Back in hiding

TWO YEARS AGO, the tremendous triumph of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Seattle protesters—beyond igniting a global movement—was that it brought the WTO out into the headlines. The arcana of trade policy had, up to that point, mostly left Americans indifferent and ignorant to the tremendously important decisions that were being made by such supranational bodies.

And this week's triumph of the WTO- which just concluded five days of its first full meetings since Seattle in the tiny, oil-soaked dictatorship of Qatar-is that it has successfully crawled back into the shadows.

For months, long before the Sept. 11 attacks, the WTO pointed toward Qatar as a make-or-break event. The divide that opened up between rich and poor nations in Seattle had become a chasm. All summer long, during the negotiations that usually precede such meetings, rich nations were demanding many of the same controversial new agreements that brought out protesters and shattered the Seattle meetings. Poor nations were demanding an evaluation of what the WTO has already done in its six years of existence with an eye toward asking whether it is, in fact, helping or hurting the economies of poorer nations. WTO head Michael Moore was labeling this week's showdown between the two sides as one in which either new agreements would move the WTO forward or the WTO itself would die.

In the wake of protests from Seattle to Genoa, Qatar was selected as the site for these meetings entirely for reasons of security. Qatar has no freedom of press or assembly or speech; no political parties or opposition. Gatherings of more than five people are banned. The Qatari government gave the WTO veto power over visas for anyone trying to get in the country, including journalists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The symbolism of an organization widely reviled as anti-democratic choosing to meet as far from public eyes as possible was hard to miss. Paul Schell must be jealous beyond words. And then the meetings themselves were buried in U.S. media by flashier, but ultimately less important, events: the jet crash in Queens, the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul in Afghanistan.

What did happen in Qatar? The meeting's draft declaration came out of advance meetings attended, by invitation, by only 21 of the WTO's 143 countries, almost entirely the wealthy ones. Its release was deliberately delayed to give poor nations and NGOs as little time as possible to respond. The draft was, in the understated words of Food First's Anuradha Mittal, "sprinkled with clauses that benefit the powerful trading nations," and the question then became whether those nations could bribe enough smaller countries to get the declaration passed by the full body.

The West had promised, in the wake of Seattle, that the Qatar talks would launch a "development round" focusing on those countries' needs and critiques. Instead, coming into Qatar, the same old issues were on the plate for all sides: dumping, especially in the Third World, of meat, grains, sugar, and other food goods; patents, especially on drugs; intellectual property; privatization of the service sector; and environmental protection. Developed countries also proposed that the next WTO meeting include negotiations over the opening up of investment and financial barriers to allow big corporations and their money greater freedom of movement.

Of all of these, the only major concession that developing countries won, in the end, was on drug patents. Over U.S. objections, a deal was reached so countries can now seek a waiver on the patents on public-health grounds, sidestepping the sorts of confrontations that have occurred when Brazil and South Africa sought to distribute cheaper, desperately needed AIDS drugs.

"Globalization" means different things now than it did in 1999. The boom times are over; just before Qatar, the World Bank reported that international trade growth in 2001 was an anemic 1 percent, compared to last year's 12 percent. Oil supplies are at risk with the new war. No Islamic country is industrialized, and their poverty is now a security issue as well as an economic one.

The lack of unity coming out of Qatar may be the end of the WTO as the cutting edge of advancing free-trade policies. The trend since Seattle has been for the U.S. and European countries to negotiate their own trade agreements with poor countries; hence, the proliferation of regional agreements like the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Nonetheless, the WTO is still the world's biggest stage for consideration of these issues. That the stage was, this past week, shrouded in oblivion, can't be good for the people of the world.

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