Patrice Riemens on Wed, 25 Feb 1998 08:20:47 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Report on Peoples' Global Action conference, Geneva

Some Impression from the Peoples' Global Action against 'Free' Trade and
the WTO Conference in Geneva (23-25 February, 1998)

By Patrice Riemens

After almost a week of discussion roundtables, seminars, and demonstration
in the streets of the capital city of private fortunes, the 'closed'
preparatory conference for action against the World Trade Organisation
(WTO) ministerial summit on the Multilateral Agreement on Investments
(MAI) (Geneva, May 18-20) started in earnest on Monday morning.  In
earnest? Well, the legendary Swiss sense of organisation seemed to have
deserted the...organisers, with time-tables running awry and mikes nowhere
to be found in the conference hall. But that was only for the better since
this immediately insufled some sort of effective yet relaxed atmosphere
quite typical of similar gatherings in the South which is much more
appropriate to the goals of the conference.

The goals and the delegates.  Because this is a real 'encuentro
intergalactico' as far as the diversity of the attendees is concerned.
The organisers had received over 600 pre-registrations, but of course the
radical immigration procedures of the North (and also lack of funds) cut
that number by almost half.  Yet all continents are represented, with a
very diverse array of organisation, in nature as well as in themes. This
is also, unfortunately, an indication of the difficulties ahead, since all
mutual goodwill and tolerance cannot simply abolish very great - and
sometimes grave - differences in approach and intentions amongst the
various groups represented.  

Indeed, while everybody shares a rightful (and righteous) aversion of the
'new planetary constitution' represented by the MAI, the perceived effects
and scope for opposition vary greatly depending upon whether you live in
the harsh realities of the South or the comparatively benign dispensation
of the North.  This has, to take just one example, quite far-reaching
consequences for the definition of the concepts of civil disobedience and
non-violent opposition.  Since one of the major objective of the
conference is to reach consensus on a globally valid action-oriented
manifesto, one can imagine the task facing the editing committee of the

And so what should have been expedited on the first day, the adoption of a
PGA manifesto based on a prelimaniry draft by the initial organisers, is
still in the dolldrums on the second night of the conference, with, as
far as I can perceive, scant hope of having it presented to the floor
before the conference's close.  Now the organisers had not made things
cosy for themselves by embarking on a wide-ranging and very democratic
discussion of the basic text(s) (check the website at (1).  This was done all day in thematic groups ('peasants',
'indigenous people', 'unumployed', 'culture', to name a few) out of which
came fruitful discussion but little by way of effective consensus within,
let alone among the groups.  Mostly, a daunting mass of amendments and
additions was produced, alongside contradictory recommendations about the
texts's readability. The process is now being further complexified (sic)
by the somewhat arcane working of a disparate redaction group having very
long nights and yet precious little time to come to a solution.

The discussion of concrete, globally coordinated local actions, the
mainstay of to-day's programme, should have been far more easy in
comparison. And it was to a large extent, since, for Europe at last (the
group I attended and translated for) a lot of actions are already in a
fairly far-reaching stage of preparation and publicity, eg the bikers
caravan starting from Frankfurt two weeks before the WTO meeting and
arriving in Geneva at those dates. Yet here also, there is a
proliferation of ideas, brilliant suggestions and fledgeling initiatives,
but co-ordinating the whole thing, and more specifically building up and
maintenaing the momentum will be no mean task. (There is however, an
extremely helpful plan from Honduras, to establish a common, global
calendar of 'events').

These difficulties should however not detract from the fundamentally
positive aspects of the gathering, which have mainly to do with the unique
opportunities to link up between all these various groups, organisations
and individuals, and their activities and viewpoints. With other words,
what all 'ordinary' conferences are about, save that it is not often that
this can be realised in the 'alternative', 'activist' scene.  Sounds like
a shortfall on the ambitious aims of the PGA, but it is very well possible
that what looks like out of the reach of the conference itself will be
achieved in due time, before, but also after the WTO meeting.  For my part
I encountered quite a lot of exiting initiatives and individuals
(including some hailing from...Amsterdam) and was very pleased to see the
newest generation of radical activist, eg 'Reclaim the Streets' from the
UK 'rubbing shoulders' (almost) without problems with stallwart
organisations such as the Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS,
membership: ten million) and its soft-spoken, but very 'tuf' chairman.

To-morrow, we are supposed to discuss the media and network(ing) aspects
of the PGA, but mostly we are expecting the 'definitive' text of the
manifesto.  The new conveneers for the coming two years, and the press
group for the WTO meeting should also come forward, something that does
not look like it will happen easily. It is not clear whether this
reflects a lack of enthusiasm in the gathering's ranks or a
dissatisfaction with a fairly formal format of organisation.  And then we
will (again) take to the streets before closing of with what will be
probably the most spectacularly succesful part of the conference:

Party on.
Geneva, 25 february, 02 15 am

(1) For very basic information. The website had a host (sic) of problems
of its own, and is not very up to date. I am sorry to have perceived among
the organisers a, let say, 'lack of sense of urgency' about both the
necessity and the potential of electronic networking, the 'old sad story',
so to speak.  More about this may be another time.  Suffice to say that
there is a distinctly 'electronic' component to the actions against the
WTO/MAI that have been suggested, some of a quite far reaching nature and
degree of sophistication...


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