WTO Protests in Seattle, 1999
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At the end of November 1999, Seattle saw major governments meet at a WTO ministerial meeting to discuss various trading rules. Seattle also saw free speech cracked down on in the name of free trade. Enormous public protests ensued. There were many differences in the perspectives of developing and industrialized nations on the current reality of free trade and how it affected them. It resulted in a WTO failure1 to agree on many issues, without adopting any resolutions. Developing countries were sidelined2 and one delegate even physically barred from a meeting, according to the previous link.
On this page:
Once more, the mainstream media coverage in the US about such a major event was very much lacking. It was pretty much corporate led and therefore concentrating on the sensationalism of the violent aspects of the protests, without really looking at the real issues (such as the corporate domination with lack of accountability). However, a large group of independent media organizations worked together to provide alternative coverage.
For critique on media coverage and links to other media related sites for Seattle see the following:
- These collection of articles3 from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) examine the role of the US media and the quality of their coverage (or lack of!)
- Prattle in Seattle4 also from FAIR
- Nearing Global Summit, WTO on High Media Ground5 by Normon Solomon.
- Where’s the Media on the WTO?6 by Peter Phillips, from Project Censored.
- The Rumble in Seattle7 by Stephen Van Esch.
- Learning from Seattle8 reflects on the media’s role in Seattle.
Many journalists were also caught up in the much criticized police actions9 that eventually saw the Seattle police chief resign10. At least one journalist was even arrested for just reporting what the delegates in the meeting were actually talking about. (Check out this link, a students first hand account of what he believed was a provoked violence response11.)
Enormous Public Turnout Despite Police Crackdown
Estimates ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 protestors12. Protesters came from all over the world, not just the developed countries. They ranged from human rights groups, students, environmental groups, religious leaders, labor rights activists etc wanting fairer trade with less exploitation. Even right-wing protectionist groups were there also arguing against the current corporate-led free trade, (although the protectionists were there for very different reasons).
The fact that 50,000 to 100,000 people turned up in the pouring rain, through all the police crackdowns etc indicates the sheer number of people who are concerned at the current issues, as obviously not everyone could be in Seattle. How many more would have turned up had it not been raining so bad!
While the majority were non-violent protestors, a small group started some violence and looting that led to the Seattle police and National Guard declaring a state of emergency (it was even termed as Martial Law by the Mayor of Seattle at one point). This led to the issuing of curfews, arresting, tear-gassing, pepper spraying and even shooting rubber bullets at innocent, non-violent protestors. This became the mainstream media’s major coverage focus often portraying all the protestors as
loony leftists or violent groups with no clue as to what they are talking about. (Remember, the mainstream media is corporate-owned as well and certain media conglomerates make up some of the largest multinational corporations that directly benefit from the current form of free trade)
The media’s portrayal of protestors interfering in global trading missed the point that as history has shown, progress has also been made thanks to a variety of public protests: women’s rights, civil rights, civil wars and revolutions in Europe, in Latin America and other former colonial countries such as, India, East Timor, and so on.
Most Protestors Were Not Against International Trade
Most people were pro-democracy13 activists protesting at the dangerous unfairness at the current model of free trade, while agreed that international trade is beneficial to everyone, if it is fair. Instead, the mainstream media preferred to distort the protestors’ concerns14 saying that they were all anti-trade etc and concentrated mainly on the motives of the right-wing protectionists from industrialized nations. (The previous link has some detailed examples from the US).
This misconception that all who are against the current system of the WTO must automatically be against international trade etc is unfounded; the issue at Seattle was about protesting the current rules and implementations of these ideas. Most will agree that international trade will be beneficial and help developing countries raise their standards of living. Many will also agree that international trade can promote peace through internationally agreed standards or rules of that trade, helping reduce the likelihood of tragedies such as World War I and II which arose through trade battles between the former imperial countries, whose greed got the better of them.
However, that then doesn't mean that any form of international trade is acceptable without any thought! Protestors are concerned at the corporate15 drive in international trade where national safety standards, laws and rules are often deemed as barriers to trade and a largely unelected set of WTO officials can make these decisions. Criticism is also towards the corporate influence on the way the actual rules of trade16 are made (and what the rules are), as corporations are not democratic and yet the rules that they are pushing forth via the WTO affect everyone. Coupled with the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies making developed countries dependent17 upon industrialized countries, this is a concern as the beneficiaries of global trade in its current form is seriously skewed.
Both developing and developed nations could benefit from international trade. However, currently only the developed nations have really benefited18 (and that has also been at the cost of rise in poverty in their own nations). This has meant that those who have benefited (including enormous global media conglomerates) urge the same formula to continue—after all, if it works for you, why change it?
As developing countries have been increasing their frustrations with the WTO, many are alternatively suggesting19 that the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade And Development) would be a far more inclusive and democratic a body to house global trade issues.
Seattle saw President Clinton and others suggest that the WTO include core labor rights and sanctions and so forth if these were violated. At first glance, this seemed like a remarkably enlightened suggestion, especially for all those activists who have been campaigning on these things for years. However, a question of why the US would want to do such a thing is natural, given that past records on economics and trade do not suggest that there are many humanitarian concerns!
In fact, many in the developing countries saw this as reeking of protectionism and that it would be too costly for the poorer nations to be able to afford such dramatic changes given the poverty and dependency they are in. It would also make it look as though the poor countries are the culprits and not hold any accountability to the foreign multinationals who demand these conditions before
investing in that nation. As we see in the structural adjustment20 section on this site, the conditions are such that capital can pick up and go elsewhere if there are such conditions.
While in the mainstream media’s eyes the developing countries were looked at negatively for their
incomprehensible reaction, a number of commentators in developed and developing countries did raise better perspectives, and a couple are quoted here as an example:
And from the South Centre: