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'
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
* 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
* 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
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.
and World Trade