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Indigenous Leaders Forum Meets In Seattle During World Trade Organization Meetings – Challenges Civil Society

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From November 29-December 03, 1999 the attention of the world focused on Seattle and the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This normally secretive assortment of drab fiscal bureaucrats and negotiators were thrust into the forum of public opinion amidst a backdrop of massive street demonstrations and dramatic footage of police attacking demonstrators with tear gas, pepper spray and plastic bullets. The intent of this meeting was to set the so-called "Millennium Round" of negotiations for the WTO expected to lead to a world wide free trade zone by 2010. The intent of the protests was to focus attention on the lack of protections for labor rights, environmental safeguards, and human rights within tribunal rulings made by the WTO – rulings which are binding on the member states. Demonstrators called for the inclusion of "civil society" in the WTO to ensure a greater level of accountability. This call was reinforced by a march of 50,000 people organized by international labor. U.S. President Clinton, who owes a heavy debt to organized labor, was quick to speak out for the inclusion of "civil society" in the WTO and for a more democratic process. WTO President Michael Moore, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, seemed not to understand the demonstrator's concerns and in one testy interview exclaimed that all poor countries wanted "was a chance to compete"! At the end of the week it appeared the protests had accomplished something. The WTO negotiators did not emerge with a clear agenda for the next round of trade talks. However it must be noted that there was much division going into the meeting and a lack of consensus and agreement already on several key issues so this may have been the case anyhow. One thing that was definitely accomplished by the demonstrators was to publicize the existence and role of the WTO. However what must be kept in mind in assessing the impact of The Battle in Seattle is that most of the work done by the WTO, and the most significant work, is done by tribunals who rule on specific trade disputes and this will not change in the absence of a clearly defined agenda for the next few years. The scope will be more limited than it might have been otherwise. Some working groups have been established such as a group on the status of genetically modified foods in Europe and this work will continue apace. There is also been a successful shift of some areas of concern within the WTO and a move to deflect dealing with labor concerns by shifting these over to the International Labor Organization – this has been accomplished with the participation of the Civil Society Forum. There is also significant work continuing in collateral forums and bodies which aid and abet the work of the WTO and the advance of the neoliberal agenda such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), patenting discussions and Bio-safety protocols under TRIPS, and ongoing discussions on benefits-sharing at the Convention on Biological Diversity meetings

One of the concessions made by the WTO prior to their meetings was to convene a "civil society" Forum. This process was very problematic in that there was no clear process for accreditation for the meeting, no attempt to clearly communicate about it with a wide variety of stakeholders, and an intense security screening process for participants, which excluded many of the natural opponents of neoliberalism. The Civil Society Forum was actually composed at 66.4% business and commercial organizations, 8.5% environmental groups, 4.1% human rights groups, 3.3.% foundations and 2.6% labor representatives. Of these 44.7% were from the United States, 8.8% from Canada, 6.5% from Belgium, and 5.8% from France. In this equation the interest of the Third World and of Fourth World Nations, where many resources are concentrated, can only be marginalized

Besides the obvious problem of the preponderance of friendly interests in the Civil Society Forum in Seattle there is a larger problem of exclusion from this rubric of indigenous peoples. Civil Society as conceptualized by Gramsci and others visualized modalities within state structures creating avenues of discourse and change with a view to transforming the body politic. It assumes a vested interest in state structures (and perhaps in a contemporary sense trans-state structures) and thus by definition excludes Indigenous nations who neither find their legitimization in the state and who more often than not choose voluntary exclusion from the economic, social, cultural and political structures of the state. Many of the players in Civil Society are also vested in a worldview rooted in universal assumptions based on the definition of rights as inherent in the individual and thus at odds with nations who define their rights on a collective basis. While Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's), organized labor, faith groups, environmental groups, and others in Civil Society have a clear role to play in defining the public interest of their constituents they must realize that their constituency does not include Indigenous Nations. For example; defending environmental rights is not the same as defending Indigenous rights and this assumption has led to many instances of grave tensions and rifts between environmental groups and Indigenous people from the blockades of Temagami and Lyell Island, to the Makah whale hunt, to the demarcation of Indian lands in the Amazon

In articulating the difference between their concerns and for the assertion of their rights on a different basis than the Civil Society participants Indigenous leaders are asking for a separate and parallel forum for their concerns and interest to be negotiated under international agreements, be this economic., social, cultural, environmental or political. Many of the resources which will fall under the aegis of the WTO are in the lands and in the bodies of Indigenous peoples. From our DNA, to our labor, to our water and lands, we have consistently stated that we are not for sale. We cannot entrust our survival to anybody other than ourselves. There was no opportunity in Seattle for Indigenous people to speak of their concerns and there was no space provided in the Civil Society Forum. The result of this has been a tacit complicity between the forces of neoliberalism and the Civil Society participants to continue the pattern of exclusion and disenfranchisement of Indigenous people that has existed in the Americas for the past 500 years. This cannot continue any longer and we invite those who truly want change to join with us in righting this situation.

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