What is the Point?
This afternoon one press conference after another was cancelled, indicating intense discussions in flux, with rumours of indications of hopeful signs towards progress - not indications of progress itself, of course.
So there seemed little point in hanging around - better to go to the hotel, get some rest before more meetings in the evening.
|Police & Protestors in the street - M. Kunz
Except: This time the roadblock did not prevent access to an empty street. This time the riot police were engaged in a pitched battle with what looked mainly like South Korean protesters, along with Western anarchists (according to Hong Kong friends).
What is the point of throwing a ladder at a policeman? Will it change anything at the WTO-negotiations? Just behind the battle line the police were friendly: "Be careful, Sir!" And observing the violence, I could not help but have sympathy for the police fighting back. What is the point of venting one's (possibly justified) frustration on a policeman or -woman who happens to be ordered to block a road? The media were there in force, some obviously prepared and ready, with 'riot gear' of their own, helmet, shin guards, ... using the police van as a vantage point.
And in the street parallel to the battle, patient Hong Kong citizens waiting for their buses, which are probably a long time in coming due to the traffic disruption, while behind them the shutters come down on the jewellery shops. Will the commuters and shop owners and shoppers have more understanding for those protesting against the negotiations as a result of the inconvenience? Would the peaceful protest of the 'Korean Mothers' on the sidewalk not be more likely to achieve that? But then, that does not make for good pictures on TV.
All day long the question 'what is the point' was on my mind: The first event on my schedule today was a seminar on the dispute settlement system of the World Trade Organization (WTO), i.e. the rule which allows states which feel that their trade is being discriminated against can lodge a complaint at the WTO secretariat. And if an investigation accepts the complaint, the other party has to rectify the offending regulation, face retaliatory measures, ... It is this mechanism, which sets the WTO apart from other international institutions: The dispute settlements provide the 'teeth' to the WTO rules, something, other global institutions do not have.
However, the speaker (a professor from South Korea) pointed out that the rate of successfully implemented verdicts is declining, that it is the big players who do not comply, in particular the US: Whoever set the rules of the international trading system, is the one who seems to be the best placed to ignore them. What's the point then of having a WTO?
Which made me think of events attended yesterday, under the heading 'GATS mode 4': A German trade unionist reported on how minimum wages in the construction industry there are circumvented (the workers have to pay inflated prices for accommodation and food - provided by their employer). But: Does a faulty implementation make the minimum wage legislation superfluous or wrong? Or is the existence of sweat shops in London or New York cause to lobby for the abolition of labour legislation? Surely, having a legal framework, even if it is not universally and properly implemented, is better than having none?
The same approach, in my opinion, might work best for discussions on mode 4: Is a situation not preferable where a legislative framework is in place which provides 'temporary service providers', i.e. the people who cross borders in order to work in another country for a 'limited period', with some legal avenue for recourse if they are mistreated, exploited, cheated? Rather than having to fear any contact with authorities because they are illegally in the 'host' country and have to fear deportation? The former certainly is not an ideal 'solution', maybe not even second best, but is it not still better than nothing?
QUNO is helping developing countries like the Philippines, which have plans for millions more of their citizens to go abroad and which want an agreement which would allow their embassies to help Philippine workers in other countries: For a long time already, remittances from overseas' workers far exceed foreign aid.
And in view of the convergence of the developing world's negotiating stand at the present conference, the 'G 110' development, is not the same attitude applicable to the WTO as a whole: Far from ideal, but still better than no rule based framework at all? In a world without rules, little would stand in the way of brute economic (and military) power.
And after all: Looking at the track record of the dispute settlement mechanism: That glass is still 2/3 full, i.e. more than 60% of disputes were successfully resolved, although admittedly the 1/3 which were not include some high profile cases like bananas, hurting the poor disproportionately.
Which brings me to my last comment: Even though the conference is taking place in China, that country is almost nowhere on the agenda. For a seminar within the NGO-centre on sustainable development in China, organized by a Hong Kong based Non Governmental Organization, a total of three people turned up. It seems to me that the battle lines of this conference are, in a way, the battles of the past already, no matter whether those heated negotiations behind closed doors will lead to an agreement, or at least a timetable to an agreement, or not.
Martin Kunz serves on the Quaker United Nations Committee—Geneva and is at the Hong Kong WTO Ministerial Conference as a member of the Quaker Office at the United Nations (QUNO) Geneva delegation. Although a member of Germany Yearly Meeting, he lives in London and runs a Fair Trade company.
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