Dressed in power suits and sophisticated black blazers, students from Yale’s various social justice activist camps pretended to represent corporate interests in a satirical protest Friday afternoon to greet the World Trade Organization’s next director-general, Supachai Panitchpakdi, for his campus talk at Luce Hall.
Chanting slogans such as “This is what plutocracy looks like!,” “Free the Fortune 500!” and “Eat the poor!,” approximately 50 students gathered outside Luce Hall to mock the group which they claim really controls the World Trade Organization — large multinational corporations.
Students Against Sweatshops, along with the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations, the Student Labor Action Coalition, and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, organized the parody protest. Students protested the current structure and composition of the World Trade Organization, which they said enables multinational corporations to use the body to further their own interests at the expense of those of developing countries.
“Every social and environmental issue and regulation brought before the WTO has been ruled a barrier to trade,” said Jessica Champagne ’01, a member of Students Against Sweatshops. “That shows clearly that people are being considered secondary to corporations and elite.”
Yale Center for International and Area Studies Director Gustav Ranis, who introduced Supachai at the talk, said he disagreed with the students’ concerns.
“I think that [students have based their concerns on] an inaccurate observation of what the WTO is all about,” he said. “Developing countries welcome multinationals [corporations] because they provide employment, while adhering to codes of conduct about how they should behave. Multinational companies come and stay for the long term, while other more short-term forms of capital comes in and goes out and is very footloose to fluctuations in [market conditions].”
After the protests, students filled the front row seats of the Luce Hall auditorium. But aside from a student coughing “bulls—” in the middle of the lecture in response to Supachai’s claim that the World Trade Organization is not a forum that can adequately deliberate on environmental and social concerns, the activism was limited to the mock protest prior to the talk.
Supachai, an economist and former deputy prime minister of Thailand, will begin his three-year term as World Trade Organization director-general in September 2002. His appointment was opposed by the United States and other advanced nations, who feared that Supachai would promote the agendas of poor countries at the expense of theirs.
He spent the bulk of his talk listing the flaws of the World Trade Organization that hinder developing countries from using the organization to increase their trade gains.
He expounded on the need to reform the World Trade Organization’s current intellectual property laws. Developing countries must jump through complicated hoops in order to import generic copies of drugs during health emergencies, a reason why South Africa, where Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. only recently relaxed the patent for the Yale-invented AIDS drug d4T, is still unable to import generic versions of AIDS drugs.
Ranis, who teaches a seminar on development, said he believes that Supachai’s appointment will help accelerate progress in developing countries.
“Supachai will help promote special and differential treatment clauses, where developing countries will have longer time to make adjustments to [WTO] decisions than developed countries — and ensure that trade sanctions are not used as punitive measures,” he said.
While protesting students said they agreed that Supachai’s appointment is a step in the right direction, they said that his ability to determine the agenda of the World Trade Organization will be too restricted.
“Part of the point he himself made is that he doesn’t have a lot of power as director-general, especially with the rich countries,” Justin Ruben FOR ’02 said.
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