Argentina’s government is taking the wrong approach

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by Hans Dembowski

The WTO benefits from exchange with its critics

Argentina’s government wants to block globalisation sceptics from attending the WTO summit in Buenos Aires this month. This step will harm the multilateral organisation’s reputation.

The Argentinian government has rescinded the accreditation of four dozen civil-society activists who had planned  to travel to Buenos Aires in order to attend the summit. All of them were given permission to do so by the WTO.

Apparently, the authorities of the host country fear that protests might disrupt the event. Such fears are overblown. Foreign activists are unable to mobilise rioting masses. If demonstrations escalate into serious violence, something has gone wrong at the national level. It is true that some foreigners were active in the riots that rocked Hamburg during the G20 summit in summer, but they were not civil-society leaders who had accreditation to attend the official agenda. Moreover, most protesters were German. Indeed, Hamburg has a track record of occasional rioting and it must be said that the police did a poor job. For example, it had withdrawn all officers from the neighbourhood that has often been hit particularly hard and where clashes were to be expected if things got out of control - as they did.

It is true, of course, that the WTO summit in Seattle in 1999 was haunted by violent protests. That was not the result of granting international globalisation sceptics too much access however. On the contrary,  huge rallies indicated many American people’s discomfort with the summit agenda, and the WTO and its member governments proved insensitive to their worries. There was not too much dialogue, there was not enough dialogue. Most evidently, the US government had failed to convince the American public. Adding to the problems, Seattle’s mayor and the local police force were not accustomed to managing demonstrations of the size. The escalation could probably have been avoided.

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri is a free-market liberal. He should take a politically liberal approach as well. Limiting debate is not a way to build confidence, and that applies at the domestic level too. In recent decades, his people have faced considerable hardship because of the devastating financial crisis at the turn of the millennium, and Buenos Aires has seen many protests in many different forms. The authorities need to prepare well for the summit, but keeping foreigners away will not solve their problems.

After the disaster in Seattle, the WTO took a more open approach. Civil-society organisations, including globalisation sceptics, have been involved regularly. Yes, these groups did sometimes briefly disrupt the conferences, but there was no serious violence, and negotiations always resumed fast. To some extent, the protests actually provided a welcome break, and as they often relied on humour and satire, they could even be entertaining.

The WTO knows quite well that blocking critics’ access to the summit reduces transparency and limits the scope for reasonable debate. Civil-society activists’ presence in the conference halls means they can interact with diplomats. They are able to monitor what is going on and hold national delegations to account. This does not mean that the civil-society activists always get their way; most of the times they do not. Nonetheless, the involvement of independent organisations boosts trust.

Lobbying by various interest groups is a matter of course in any parliamentary system. To some extent, it is even more important in multilateral settings in which there is no formal opposition, and decisions are made by consensus of the governments involved. The diplomats all want to save face, and they all want to safeguard the particular interests of their nations. Therefore multilateral decision-making tends to be less transparent than what happens in parliaments. Democratic discourse, however, is about discussing in public the things people do not agree on.

Argentina’s stance on the matter is not helpful. The WTO benefits from granting its critics access to its summits – and that is why the civil-society activists were accredited in the first place.

According to VENRO, the umbrella organisation of developmentally active German NGOs, the decision of the Argentinian authorities is “unprecedented”. Bernd Bornhorst, the VENRO chairman, has asked Germany’s Federal Government to intervene. He has expressed the worry that Argentina may take the same repressive approach next year, when Buenos Aires will be the location of the next G20 summit.


VENRO press release (German):

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