1995: "People's APEC"-Two meetings, two views


Radha D'Souza

The summit meeting of the "heads of economies" of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) took place at Osaka between November 16 to 19. This was preceded by the meeting on 'Trade and Worker's Human Rights in the APEC Region' held on November 11, and another meeting, '1995 NGO Forum on APEC' on November 13 and 14, both held at Osaka. The APEC Labour meeting was organised by the Canadian organisation, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, together with the Asia/Pacific Workers Solidarity Links. It was attended by 21 overseas representatives and 7-8 Japan based worker's organisation representatives. The APEC NGO Forum was organised by the NGO forum on APEC-Japan. It was attended by 60 persons from overseas, mostly APEC countries and 68 persons from Japan representing organisations active in a wide range of activities. The idea was to have a parallel "people's APEC summit, to expose the impact of liberalisation and the new economic policies on the people of the region.

The idea of a People's summit in the present context is significant. Increasingly, political heads of state are referred to and act as "leaders of economies". The stated purpose of such a shift in status is to avoid political "problems" that exist between countries, such as the 'three China issue', disputes relating to China, Hongkong and Taiwan, with regard to nationhood. Implicit in it is also the perception that economic concerns relating to liberalisation and the new world order are somehow not related to politics and that there is an urgency about putting into place the new economic order, that makes political issues irrelevant. More important is the implication that as "heads of economies" the political leaders are no longer responsible to the people for the consequences of their acts. In that sense the very fact that "people's organisations" could have a parallel summit is significant. The event underscores the divergence and increasing alienation between the popular political concerns and economic decisions. It is equally significant that the APEC summit in Bogor, Indonesia last year was attended by eight organisations, and this year, the Osaka meeting was attended by 60.

Having said that, a stock taking of the composition of the forum needs to be undertaken. Broadly the types of organisations that attended the meeting could be classified into five types.

Firstly there were organisations that called themselves "Non-Governmental Organisations", but were actually set up under governments grants or in extreme cases under national statutes. The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development one of the organisers of the APEC labour meeting, for example is an organisation set up under Canadian law to promote human rights in the world. Whether such organisations can be called "Non governmental" by definition, and therefore be included in NGO forums is an issue that assumes critical importance in view of the increasing frequency and number of such NGO gatherings. In case of organisations receiving grants, the issue is more problematic. Governments give grants to promote what is in line with governmental policy, in the broad sense. In such cases can the organisations claim to be "non-governmental"?

The second type of organisations at the forum were people's organisations, but which for social and historical reasons have strong links with political parties that participate in the governance of their countries. Prominent among such organisations were trade unions. In the developed countries, strong trade union movements in the past, created a need for political expression of workers' aspirations leading to 'social democratic' and 'labour' parties. Such political parties have been ruling parties in a number of countries and have strong roots in trade unions and similar mass organisations. When in power, the mass organisations tend to support the government's polices and programmes and often lend it legitimacy. When in opposition such unions tend to support the parliamentary opposition. In developing countries, the political party - trade union alliances were often forged during the anti-colonial struggles. Later such parties came to power, and quickly adopted anti-people policies. The leaders of mass organisation like trade unions went along with the governments in doing this. In the case of trade unions a long history of tripartitism has incorporated the unions into the state institutions, to a point the workers they claim to represent are having to train their guns at the unions leadership and organisations first, before dealing with their own situations vis-a-vis the government and employers. How should an NGO forum purporting to represent 'people' deal with such organisations? Can they represent "people", when day after day, people's struggles point to them as one of the principal "problems"?

The third type of organisations were truly non-governmental. Among these were organisations from the "South" countries. Most of them were issue based organisations, doing grass roots organising work and in that sense could most legitimately claim to represent "people". Thus labour groups include, organisations involved in women workers, domestic workers, migrant labour, child labour, informal sector workers, workers in TNCs, fisheries, and so on. While many differences exist in the ideological and theoretical perceptions, on a wide range of questions, in so far as the organisations reflected genuine concerns about people, social change and were introspective and enquiring about issues, they reflected the diverse range of opinions and debates that exist among people today, over issues of increasing complexities. Such organisations brought with them the rich experience of people and gave legitimacy to the meetings.

Among the organisations distant from governments were also organisations situated in the "North" countries. Commanding enormous resources, and organisational clout, such organisations were often involved in complex "Conflict - Cooperation" relationships of patronage and support to the smaller "South" organisations. Often such organisations carry the classical 'white man's burden' of having to liberate the poor and oppressed of the world and to 'civilize' them.

The fifth type of organisation were alternate academic forums. Frustrated by the intellectually stifling environment at universities, intellectuals seeking more meaningful roles and sensitive to social concerns, are coming together to set up institutions and forums for more stimulating and relevant academic work. As the new economic policies turn universities into mega multi million dollar industries, academics with social conscience have to seek other forums to voice their concerns. This explains the proliferation of research outfits and organisations outside the formal academic institutions. Such participants, raise issues articulate interests of people and together with the NGO doing organisational work at grass roots, give legitimacy to the NGO forum.

The composition of NGO meetings is becoming increasingly important. All kinds of organisations now call themselves NGOs. It has become imperative that the term is redefined, and organisers pay attention to the claims and actual work of organisations if they wish to bring together people with common concerns for exchange of ideas and common programme of action. The APEC labour meeting and the 1995 NGO APEC Forum reflected the diverse currents such organisations carried with them. At the APEC labour meeting, where the tensions were most evident, one trend dominated. Given the composition of the organisations this was inevitable. APEC was about trade liberalisation, and its impact on workers. It is becoming increasingly clear that the new economic order is being built on more intensive and extensive exploitation of workers. Faced with increasing attacks on worker rights, and integration of world labour markets to suit the Transnational Corporations agenda world-wide, the labour meeting was divided over the basic stand towards economic liberalisation. The organisations working to organize workers, and the organisations involved in labour research and publications, wanted the meeting to come out with a categorical statement rejecting trade liberalisation and the new economic policies clearly, and call for restoration of workers rights, be it welfare or organisational, and intensification of democratic struggles and solidarity actions and networks. The others, mainly statutory and government funded organisations and established national trade union centres especially from Canada and US resolutely opposed any outright condemnation of trade liberalisation and new economic polices. They wanted riders to be added on to the liberalisation agenda, concerning worker rights. Such basic differences polarised the meeting and neutralised many who did not want to force the issue one way or the other.

This is again a major trend at NGO forums. There is a tacit understanding that the NGOs take a 'consensus' decision. Such an approach is healthy if the composition of the organisations reflects genuine differences in viewpoints that exist amongst people. When there are fundamentally antagonistic class interests, such consensus cannot be arrived at all. The labour meeting ended up a hotch potch of watered down statements. Significantly the statement did not denounce trade liberalisation and the new economic order. On the contrary it stated, " According to the Bogor Declaration, the three pillars of APEC should be "sustainable growth, equitable development and national stability". None of these goals can be achieved without adequate attention to the protection of basic labour rights and the social agenda which must necessarily accompany trade liberalisation."

Contrast this with the declaration of the APEC NGO forum on the following two days, which stated, "we unanimously reject the basic philosophy, framework and assumptions of the model of free market and trade liberalisation embraced by the APEC agenda. This model does not lead to freedom; it negates the developmental and democratic aspirations of the people." The APEC NGO forum was not only larger but also had a larger number of participants from the Asian countries and more grass roots and acedemic organisations.

The seeds of 'co-optation' of NGOs into institutional frameworks lie in the composition of such meetings, which are often a conglomeration of diverse organisations. While the APEC labour meeting saw, incorporation of unions into the APEC process as sufficient guarantee for minimising the impact of trade liberalisation and called for "-(that APEC establish) procedures for democratic participation and input in its proceedings. Not only the business community, but also trade unions and non-governmental organisations involved in the protection and promotion of human rights and in particular labour rights should be formally consulted."

The APEC NGO forum on the other hand called on governments who are members of APEC to " ensure effective people's participatory decision making, transparency and effective monitoring of all aspects of trade and investment."

While the APEC labour meeting did not address any of the major issues confronting workers as a result of the free trade agenda, the NGO forum could come out with a clear statement on the principal concerns.

The APEC labour meeting called on APEC governments to ratify international conventions, especially ILO conventions and "that the APEC Human Resources Development Working Group integrate the question of persistent violations of labour rights into its workplan and begin to devise strategies to ensure that trade and investment liberalisation does not entail a downward spiral of basic labour rights throughout the region".

The APEC NGO forum having refused to recognise the legitimacy of APEC addressed itself to 'the governments who are members of APEC'. It further called on "people's organisation within the region to: take our own initiatives to facilitate economic cooperation among the people; document the consequences of economic and trade liberalisation on the people and strengthen solidarity and networks for resisting injustice and promoting positive economic and social change."

Interestingly neither the labour meeting nor the NGO forum came out with any statement on the geography of APEC. APEC was formed in 1989, and effectively hijacked efforts at regional cooperation promoted and built cautiously by the ASEAN countries. Encouraged by Japan and then taken over by Australia, to allow a full scale entry for the US, the geographical map of APEC was redrawn from being 'Asia-Pacific' regional cooperation to 'Asia and the Pacific regional cooperation'. Such a bizarre redrawing of maps to include continents divided by the largest stretch of ocean, was playing with language to allow US imperialist interests to take over economic leadership of the region. While the essential nature of APEC was discussed both at plenary sessions and the workshops, more focus on the redrawing of natural and cultural boundaries, a typical feature of imperialist domination, might have drawn sharper attention to the essential imperialist nature of APEC and the liberalisation process, raised issues relating to regional cooperation, rather than international cooperation, south - south cooperation rather than north - south cooperation, helped crystalise the features of the new imperialist domination as a principal threat to people everywhere, in the new economic order.

At the end of it one cannot help wondering how much of the agenda of the critiques of the new economic order is set by those setting the terms of the new economic order itself. Even alternate people forums, follow the framework set by the dominant forces of the 'establishment'.

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