Arrogance Of The Elites The Real APEC Tale

By Naomi Klein
The Toronto Star, October 1, 1998

Stack the latest document in the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation scandal on the pile of papers pointing directly at the Prime Minister's Office. "PMO has expressed concerns about the security perimeter at (the University of British Columbia), not so much from a security point of view but to avoid embarrassment to APEC leaders," reads an E-mail from summit organizer Robert Vanderloo.

It's clear the RCMP are intent on pinning the blame for their strong-arm tactics on the Prime Minister while the PM would surely like nothing more than for the whole affair to be dismissed as the actions of a few ham-fisted cops.

Maybe they're both right. The RCMP may well have been out of control and their actions may indeed have violated the protesters' civil liberties. But that was, at least, partly as a result of the fact -- clearly outlined in the documents -- that Ottawa handed the RCMP demands that could not be carried out peacefully. And what exactly is the acceptable means of preventing "embarrassment to APEC leaders?" If the officers looked in their RCMP manuals under "embarrassment prevention," they would have come up empty since causing politicians to blush is neither a crime nor a security risk.

Those are among the questions that the RCMP public complaints commission will be hearing next week as the blame for SprayPEC gets batted around in Vancouver. Outside the scope of this commission however, is the question of why the bodies advancing global trade -- from APEC to the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund -- are becoming lightning rods for so much global discontent.

Beyond the cries that human rights are being sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits, are deeper concerns about the lack of transparency and access to these powerful decision-making bodies. In the absence of opportunities for meaning public participation citizens groups must shout to be heard. As their voices grow louder, it takes increasingly forceful measures to make sure they do not cause a disturbance -- let alone embarrassment. This is a problem faced not only by the RCMP, but by police forces around the world.

Once upon a time, world leaders could have their meetings in peace. Sure, there were a few protesters shouting against nuclear bombs or whaling, but the vast majority of labour, human rights and environmental activists had their eyes focused exclusively on national battles.

That time has decidedly passed. At the G-8 Summit in Birmingham, England last May, 10,000 protesters formed a human chain around the city demanding Third World debt relief. Two days later, when the leaders travelled to Geneva to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the
World Trade Organization, the caravan of students, farmers and the unemployed followed like a long shadow.

It was this ad hoc global network, connected through a web of electronic mail, which generated enough heat over the Multilateral Agreement on Investment that its introduction was stalled last April. But as public concern about free trade mounts, there has been no attempt to create official channels for such grievances to be addressed. In the absence of such a response, surveillance of activists is stepped up and every legitimate demonstration is regarded as a riot waiting to happen.

For instance, when APEC trade ministers met in New Zealand in July, 1996, activists organized a small counter-summit. On the night before the summit, two secret service officers where caught breaking into and rifling though the home of protest organizer Aziz Choudry. His civil case is currently under appeal.

When the leaders' summit was held in Manila in 1997, the police sealed all the exits from a parallel anti-APEC conference, preventing a planned protest at the summit site. In Geneva last month, police raided an anti-MAI seminar and 50 participants were detained without charge.

So, do we have a conspiracy on our hands? I'm afraid it's nothing more glamorous than the garden variety arrogance of powerful people, accustomed to the comfort of closed doors, suddenly facing a horde of uninvited guests. Just ask Sylvia Ostry, Canada's Grande Dame of free trade. "Isn't there some way of monitoring these people?" Ostry asked at a Toronto seminar last November. It sounded as if she was talking about busting a ring of Internet child pornographers, but she was actually referring to politically engaged Canadians who were turning the tide of public opinion against the MAI.

The real question is one which should be leveled at Ostry and other free traders who seem to believe that writing the laws of our shared global government is a private matter and not our concern: Isn't there some way of monitoring these people?

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