Protestors To Defy Australia Ban On Anti-WTO Marches

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Authorities in Australia have banned protest marches during a meeting of World Trade Organization ministers due to open in Sydney on Thursday. They expressed fears that radicals are intent on sparking violence.

From Wednesday to Sunday, no street marches will be allowed in central Sydney, said New South Wales assistant police commissioner Dick Adams, adding that this was "because of the threats of violence emanating from an extreme element among protest groups."

Protest groups said they planned to ignore the restrictions and go ahead with demonstrations against the WTO, which the "anti-globalization" movement considers a rich nations' club out to bully the developing world.

Protest websites are promoting a variety of events, such as "direct action to disrupt the city," including actions planned for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Public marches are planned on Wednesday evening to protest the government's treatment of asylum-seekers; on Thursday in the city center "against the war [on Iraq] and the WTO," and on Friday at the WTO meeting venue itself.

Alarmed by reports that school pupils would be participating in protests after walking out of classes, police warned youngsters to stay away, saying protest groups should not use children as "cannon fodder."

Adams said at least 32 activist groups had threatened various types of action during the gathering, including plans to fight against police.

"Our aim is to minimize the risk of any confrontation between police and protesters," he said, but added that "if any protesters behave unlawfully or violently, we will respond accordingly."

While marches have been banned, police will allow those wanting to demonstrate "passively and legally" to do so.

Late last month, Canberra changed the WTO meeting venue from a hotel in an expensive Sydney neighborhood to one located at Olympic Park, where the 2000 Olympic Games were held.

Olympic Park was designed to be an easily-secured site, whereas the original hotel was situated in an area characterized by narrow streets and expensive stores.

Earlier the state government tried unsuccessfully to shut down two Internet websites that were promoting protests it said could turn ugly.

Apart from outlawing public marches, police have introduced other measures, including a suspension of train services to Olympic Park, whose perimeter will also be secured with a three-kilometer fence to prevent protestors from entering.

Adams said there would be "ample police available to respond to any eventuality."

'Government is afraid'

The scene may nonetheless be set for some type of confrontation, however, as protest organizers say they will ignore the ban.

Much of the last-minute organizing and "workshopping" was underway Wednesday at Sydney's University of Technology campus.

Speaking from there, Jarvis Ryan, a spokesman for the main NoWTO protest group, said the planned activities were "most definitely" going ahead.

He said the march ban "reinforces the idea that the WTO's got something to hide, that their agenda is undemocratic. The government is afraid that the agenda of the WTO will become more widely known."

Asked whether he expected violence to break out during the events, Ryan said he knew of no violence being planned by protestors, and that police assertions to the contrary were merely an attempt to "justify their own violence in advance."

"Who knows what the police are going to do? Confrontation will start if the police try to disrupt the march, try to stop our activities."

Ryan argued that it was therefore in the authorities' interests to let the demos go ahead, so as to avoid confrontation.

He conceded that the change of venue and other government attempts to disrupt protests had complicated life for the organizers, but he had no doubt that "thousands" of people would turn up "wherever the meeting is [and] whether there's fencing around it or not."

Among those planning to protest are environmentalists, leftists, students, church groups and NGOs campaigning for a range of causes, from "stop the war" to refugee aid.

Lawmakers from the Green Party have also vowed to defy the march ban.b.

'Don't lecture us'

The meeting Thursday and Friday will bring together 25 trade ministers, including U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, and is an informal get-together within the current "Doha round" of trade negotiations.

The "Doha round," launched in the Qatari capital last year, aims to reduce barriers to global trade, with a deadline for agreement set for Jan. 1, 2005.

Speaking at a media briefing in Canberra, federal Trade Minister Mark Vaile said the WTO was about rich and poor countries working together to improve living standards for all.

"This is not an organization that is made up of the CEOs of all the multinational corporations across the world," he said.

"This is an organization of elected representatives of 145 countries ... focusing on building an open and inclusive trading environment across the world."

Seventeen of the 25 countries participating in the informal meeting are developing nations, including Indonesia, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria and Senegal. Wealthy countries attending include the U.S., Japan and the European Union.

"Lesotho's vote is worth exactly the same as what the USA's vote is worth," Vaile said.

And in a message to would-be protestors, he added: "So don't lecture us about globalization, don't lecture us about what multinationals are doing, this is about sovereign countries doing what they believe is in the best interests of their domestic constituencies as well as building a much better structured rules-based system across the world."

See earlier story:
Minister Wants Websites Banned 'For Inciting Violence' At WTO Meet (Oct. 4, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow