by Emad Mekay
society groups have dismissed an attempt by officials discussing a controversial Americas trade agreement to include them in the process as inadequate and a move to "whitewash" the proposal.
Some activists contend that "meaningful participation" would include establishing permanent mechanisms that would give trade unions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other critics of the draft deal a say in how it is developed.
Trade ministers from 34 Western Hemisphere countries (minus Cuba) are gathering in Miami for the eighth ministerial meeting towards the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a common market that would include 800 million consumers and stretch from Argentina to Canada.
Many civil society groups have long opposed the plan, arguing it would give U.S. and Canadian corporations full access to the economies of poor nations and that the proposal does not contain guarantees on protecting the environment, workers' rights or national social programs.
Dozens of those groups were invited to participate here in the Americas Trade and Sustainable Development Forum (ATSDF), a first-time event in the eight years that officials have met to discuss the FTAA, ostensibly to air their views and make recommendations to officials.
Officials say those proposals will be presented to the trade ministers who are gathering here for official talks Thursday and Friday.
A parallel meeting for private-sector executives and business representatives, the Americas Business Forum, will also present recommendations to the ministers later Wednesday.
While some activist groups boycotted the ATSDF, calling it a forum for officials to hype the controversial deal, others refused to attend, complaining the event was conducted "behind the fence" -- within the restrictive security perimeter -- and prohibited public participation.
Those inside the perimeter, dubbed the "inside groups," also say that only about 15 of the ATSDF participants, out of nearly 1,000 people, were invited to a brief meeting with ministers, planned for late Wednesday.
"Input for this meeting was restricted to those who participated in the ATSDF, which cannot represent the breadth and diversity of civil society," said a draft statement from the groups.
Among its signatories are Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the 'Alianza Chilena por un Comercio Justo Y Responsible'.
The groups say the encounter with the ministers has been allocated only 90 minutes, not enough time to articulate a clear position on such a serious issue as the FTAA.
"The interaction with trade ministers will be unfortunately abbreviated, and therefore more a symbolic interaction than an effective engagement with broad sectors of civil society," added the statement.
It was unclear if influential ministers like U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim would attend the meeting.
Civil society groups were further angered at U.S. officials' attempt to portray the invitation to participate as an "unprecedented milestone" and their claim that activists have the same access as business groups to ministers and trade negotiators.
Civil society leaders said they would not even have been invited if they had not taken the initiative and, under the auspices of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, formally invited FTAA ministers to meet publicly outside of the security perimeter.
A small number of ministers have accepted the invitation and were expected to meet publicly with civil society representatives late Wednesday.
"They have said it's an unprecedented historic event that civil society was inside the perimeter," said Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
"Our sense is that even though we were inside, we didn't have much access to the ministers and that it was a fairly restricted process."
WOLA and other "inside groups" have been meeting with other civil society organisations, business representatives and some officials since early in the week.
Gass acknowledged that the debate was "interesting" and that good concrete recommendations would be made to the ministers, but she remained sceptical that the civil society voice would be heard.
"This remains a consultation," she said. "This is not a meaningful or an effective exchange. There's no guarantee that any of the recommendations will be incorporated in the agreement."
November 19, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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