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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

US-led occupation of Iraq leads to howl of protests at World Social Forum
By M H Lakdawala

Mumbai: About 800 local NGOs, unions, low-caste activists and mass people's movements have spent the past nine months organising the forum, which opened to a song called Dosti (friendship) sung by the Pakistani pop group Junoon.

The only sour note came from Javed Abidi, director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People. Accompanied by a group of 130 men and women in wheel chairs, the group decided to stay near the entrance of the venue protesting the non-availability of wheelchair-friendly facilities like toilets at the convention centres. "If you want to keep us on the periphery of society we will stay right there," Abidi declared. 

Protests against the US-led occupation of Iraq dominated the World Social Forum, held in Mumbai's Goregaon suburb. As might have been expected, US President George W Bush was the villain of the piece for most of the participants.

"It’s not enough to protest against the war in Iraq ... we must identify these companies and their interests and then put them all out of business," said Arundhati Roy, the author who has emerged as a major critic of US foreign policy. Over 100,000 people turned up at the site. 

Speaking in Arabic, Nobel laureate and Iranian human rights activist Shireen Ebadi said, we are here to announce our commitment to human dignity. "We are here to announce that human suffering from war has no dignity and no future. The WSF is a symbol of hope in a world torn by war, inequality, and injustice," said Iran’s first woman judge. "WSF meet will help us challenge the communal, corporate and corrupt economic and political systems of the day," she said, claiming that there is a "conspiracy to sell the water, land and forests of the country".

The activists at the World Social Forum (WSF) 2004 in Mumbai on Friday seemed to have made a paradigm shift in their focus - from anti-globalisation to highlighting US aggression, especially in Iraq.

However, speakers who outlined the course of action for the forum insisted that the two issues - globalisation and international aggression - were inter-linked." In today's world you cannot divide social democracy from political democracy," explained Mustafa Barghouti,spokesman for the Palestinian National Initiative, a coalition for democratic change in the West Bank and Gaza.

Barghouti asserted that human rights couldn't be different for different sets of people, adding that injustice, apartheid and war must stop. Referring to the unrest in Palestine, he said, "The struggle there is not against Jews, but for peace." He also likened their struggle with India's struggle for independence." The World Social Forum has become a second superpower, may be a better power...It draws its power from you, the people," he said amidst applause.

A leading figure in the Iraqi democratic movement Amir Al-Rakabi said he hoped the movement will be helpful for good of the people of Iraq, adding that he was in Mumbai to discuss the conflict of Iraqi people against the American occupation.

Jeremy Corbyn, a British parliamentarian, felt the Mumbai chapter of the forum should bring unity between the Third World countries against the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and US aggressions. He attributed the collapse of WTO's Cancun summit in Mexico last year to the massive mobilisation of cooperation between Brazil and India.Said former Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Binh, "We have come here to lend support to an equal world where there is social, economic and political equality."

Novelist Arundhati Roy, one of India's best known activists, urged the diverse anti-globalisation conference to focus during the six-day conference on picking two US companies that benefited from the Iraq war and launching a campaign to shut them down. 

Michael Warshawsky, director of the Alternative Information Centre in Israel, suggested that there were no local wars any more in the 21st century. Instead, the world was seeing a global war. 

The price for that resistance is often paid by many ordinary Palestinians... Men like Sharif Omar, a 60-year-old farmer from Jayyous in West Bank who is cheerfully manning the Palestine stall at the WSF. Omar says he attended the European Social Forum in Paris in November last year. But when he returned, he found that the security wall that the Israeli Government is building around Palestinian-inhabited areas had cut him off from 40 acres of his farmland. "I have a paradise," he said, "where I grow olives, 12 kinds of citrus and other fruits. Sharon must be wanting that paradise too!" For his outspoken opposition to the wall, Omar has been denied a permit that would allow him access to his land. "Tell people that we don't need any weapons in our battle. We should be given wings so that we can fly over that wall!" 

Speaking at the Mumbai Resistance, a leftist gathering across the road, that believes the World Social Forum is too moderate, Arundhati Roy said both meetings should work to "make it materially impossible for the empire to achieve its aims." "Iraq is no longer a country. It's an asset," Roy said.

One would have to be incredibly heartless and unforgivably unrealistic not to acknowledge that WSF delegates represent real, urgent problems with the international order. The IMF, as economist Joseph Stiglitz has documented and as the Fund has been forced to concede by member countries, makes its decisions in an extremely rarefied and unaccountable manner. The WTO, Cancun showed, is still unable to deliver the benefits of fair trade to Third World farmers.

Developing countries are struggling to secure their cultural and genetic heritage from western programming and bio-piracy. And negotiating global social and environmental protocols is critical for rich and poor countries alike. Trouble is, gatherings like the WSF, with their rhetoric often floating away from fact and nuance, often appear in danger of slipping to another world altogether, into a commune mentality, as it were. Global financial institutions and superpowers cannot be wished away by painting suburban trains. If the WSF has to improve our world, if globalisation is to be humane, its leading lights must engage with those much-despised financiers and corporates. The future does not lie in a bubble. Abdul Samad, a 17-year-old Burhani College student, says he is not convinced by the rhetoric. "I think capitalism has plus points too which they refuse to talk about. And the speeches are very vague, there are still no alternative or concrete solutions given,’’ he says, adding that he still drinks Coke and wants a corporate job.

Firoz Mithiborwala of Muslim Youth of India, and one of the opponents of the WSF said," NGOs are okay on the side, though.’’ But here’s the sticking point. NGOs are one of the reasons that many from the old left—who have organised a parallel conference called the Mumbai Resistance—oppose the WSF. 

Firoz pointed out that NGOs have grown most in those states where the government has most rapidly withdrawn from education and health services. "For the committed left activists, these voluntary groups, with their lack of ideological commitment, limited agendas and absence of accountability, especially in funding, are almost as unacceptable as corporates’’ he said. q

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