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In fall 1999, Mike Moore, director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), anticipated that the WTO’s talks in Seattle in December 1999 would focus on improving living standards around the world, bettering the environment, providing more resources for health and education, strengthening the global economy, and reducing the risk of future instability and crisis. He characterized the WTO as seeking to advance a new approach to international cooperation based on rules, not power—rules to help manage the powerful forces of globalization to everyone's benefit, the weak as well as the strong.
Instead, the Seattle meeting was sidelined by waves of protests as widely disparate groups voiced strong opposition to the WTO and, more generally, to free trade. Protests focused on the perceived impact of trade on the environment, jobs, human rights, and the balance of power between large economic powers and developing countries. Additionally, the dispute resolution policies of the WTO were placed in the spotlight.
The protests gained widespread exposure and put the WTO representatives on the defensive. As the protests intensified, President Clinton objected to the violent methods used by some protestors but expressed sympathy with their desire to have more openness and accountability for the WTO. After two days of protests, vandalism, and police-enforced curfews, the meetings were suspended.
The case describes the history of the WTO, the protests at the Seattle talks, the role of the internet in mobilizing protesters, the WTO’s dispute resolution processes, and the implications of the failed talks for the WTO and its opponents.
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Case No: IB41