GENEVA — A decade after the “Battle in Seattle”, the United States, China and other top commercial powers gathered once again Monday with tear gas lingering in the streets to assess what role trade can play in spearheading global economic growth.
The arguments in favour and against an international trade liberalization deal remain the same, with supporters saying an agreement to cut tariffs and subsidies would pump billions of dollars into the world economy and help millions of people lift themselves out of poverty.
Opponents say freer trade could worsen global inequality, unless rules are designed specifically to help poorer nations prosper.
As the World Trade Organization started its first ministerial conference in four years, a familiar debate was taking place among ministers and cabinet members from over 100 countries. They are scheduled to discuss efforts to stabilize and rejuvenate commerce in the face of increased protectionism, unemployment and exporting of jobs.
Security was high near the Geneva conference venue, after police over the weekend fired tear gas and rubber bullets at violent demonstrators who burned cars and broke shop windows in the city centre. Geneva police arrested 14 people.
Much more serious clashes have occurred at previous meetings of trade chiefs, but the coming session lacks the specific goals of conferences that sought to conclude or advance a new global trade deal. The last so-called ministerial — a summit gathering all member countries’ trade representatives — was held in Hong Kong in 2005, and came after contentious gatherings in Cancun, Mexico, two years earlier and Seattle in 1999.
The WTO called the meeting of its 153 members to examine major issues at a time when global exports are falling at the fastest rate since the Great Depression and the organization’s long-sought Doha liberalization round is limping into its ninth year.
By moving away from sensitive talks on the round, the WTO had hoped to avoid the acrimony and the sometimes violent protests that have plagued previous gatherings.