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Protest Groups Want No Deal From Hong Kong Trade Talks


As many as 10,000 protesters are expected to come to the World Trade Organization's (WTO) ministerial conference in Hong Kong next week.

No deal is better than a bad deal, an anti-WTO video sums up what many protest groups hope will be the outcome of the World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong. The aim of many is to derail a WTO ministerial conference for the third time.

WTO talks collapsed for the first time in 1999 in Seattle, largely because of disagreements between member governments, but also because of riots by tens of thousands of protesters. Two years later in Doha, when few protesters were present, trade negotiations went back on track. Then in Cancun in 2003, where thousands of protesters hit the street, the talks were stalled for a second time after trade ministers could not reach key agreements.

As many as 10,000 protesters are expected to come to the Hong Kong ministerial. They are farmers, fishermen, laborers, migrants and other people who feel the trade talks will affect their lives. Their concerns and demands are as diverse as their backgrounds. And while many want to scrap the WTO altogether, some want to reform it.

Mary Lou Malig with the Bangkok research organization, Focus on the Global South, says the starting point of the protest groups is the same: the goals of what is called the Doha Development round are, in fact, profoundly anti-development.

"Right now there is nothing that will help the development of poor countries, there is nothing that will help poor farmers, nothing that will bring people out of poverty," she said. "This round is called the Doha development round but really there is nothing developmental about this deal that's currently on the table, so we want no deal to push through in Hong Kong."

Despite the past record of violence at WTO events, all of the activist groups pledge they will not use violence in their efforts to derail the Hong Kong talks. Instead, in addition to peaceful protests, they are pursuing a combination of strategies.

Joseph Purugganan, with Focus on the Global South in the Philippines, says activists have lobbied trade officials for months to convince officials from of developing countries to block a deal. They have also staged national campaigns in several countries to pressure governments.

"That's part of the inside strategy of derailment," said Mr. Puruggan. "There is also an outside strategy. We are mobilizing people to come to Hong Kong itself to show how big the global movement is against the WTO."

One major bone of contention is agriculture, one of the most politically charged issues on the agenda in Hong Kong.

Critics say they fear the United States and the European Union will be able to maintain massive agricultural subsidies and continue to dump farm products on developing countries. Anti-WTO groups say Washington's proposal for significant cuts in farm subsidies and its push for the European Union to do likewise are not enough.

Indra Lubis is from Indonesia and a member of the international peasant movement Via Campesina. He says agriculture should be left out of trade negotiations altogether, as most small farmers in developing countries do not think of agricultural products as commodities that are traded on international markets.

"For farmers, agriculture is life," he said. "Most of our own products are consumed by ourselves. When they try to make regulations on agricultural markets it is only regulated for 10 percent of agricultural products all over the world."

Many groups also criticize the framework on non-agricultural market access (NAMA). They claim bringing down tariffs will let manufactured goods from rich countries flood markets in developing Southern Hemisphere nations. That, critics say, will lead to unemployment and de-industrialization in poor countries.

They also say proposed liberalization of fisheries will benefit commercial fishing operations, but bring greater hardship to poor independent fishermen.

Other activist groups criticize proposals to speed up the liberalization of the trade in services. They say banks, insurance companies and other businesses from developed countries will put small companies in developing countries out of business.

Migrant workers in Asia also say WTO is bad for them.

Eman Villanueva of the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body in Hong Kong says globalization has forced many migrants to leave their countries to find work elsewhere.

"We used to be peasants, workers or professionals like teachers before we became migrants. Because of these policies of the WTO, particularly the neo-liberal policies of privatization, deregulation and liberalization of the economy forces many of us to work abroad," said Eman Villanueva.

Anti-WTO groups will stage three major protest marches in Hong Kong and hold a number of alternative events during the weeklong conference, which begins December 13.

Although protest groups have said they would not resort to violence, the city is on high alert because of the experiences in Cancun and Seattle. Hong Kong has mounted its biggest security operation ever to prevent problems.

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