ASEM4 PEOPLE focuses on globalisation, security concerns and human rights
"Real globalisation starts with basic needs." This phrase from the opening speech of well known Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung marked the course of the ASEM 4 PEOPLE forum. "You can be in favour of free trade if it supports basic needs. If not, it is not free," Galtung stated in opening the People Forum of about 300 representatives from Asian and European NGOs and civil society organisations.
From September 19 to 22 the forum in the Danish capital Copenhagen preceded the official fourth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM IV) of the 26 heads of states and governments plus the European Commission. Beside globalisation the discussions and workshops of the forum also focussed on people centred security and social, economic and cultural rights.
Speakers shared experiences with the new security situation after September 11 and complained that the war against terrorism effected people's rights. In its declaration the forum stated that in "Asia and Europe the US led war against terrorism has been used as an excuse to impose restrictive laws on citizens, criminalise peaceful grassroots movements and legitimate opposition."
ASEM was urged to "establish a regular mechanism to enable common visions of foreign and security policy that are based on human security". Any additional security measures "must be subjected to democratic discussions by citizens and their parliaments and respect international Human Rights Covenants and agreements," the declaration demanded.
Against an attack on Iraq
A war against Iraq would even lead to greater regional and global insecurity, speakers feared. ASEM leaders were urged to prevent "any interventionist and belligerent attack on Iraq". In a very qualified plenary the British peace researcher Paul Rogers expressed fear that a provocation similar to the Tonking incident, which in 1964 helped legitimising the start of US bombing raids in Vietnam, would soon be used as a pretext to start a US led war against Iraq.
At the same plenary Tom Reifer, political scientist from the University of California warned that a US strategy of permanent war will only create more terrorists. In his view the US national security complex has little to do with physically protecting lives of US citizens but geopolitical power projections. Nevertheless he sees September 11 providing civil society with the opportunity to make peace and justice center stage issues.
As in the past the People's Forum was a mixture of an alternative family reunion type of meeting with exchanges on more general and highly specific topics. The issues ranged from microcredits and alternative banking to a Burma Summit, a trade union forum, workshops on social protection in Europe and Asia, fair trade, gender rights, the impact of EU agricultural policies to questions of women and migration to just name a few.
Some workshops like the one on "ASEM and neoliberal liberalisation" provided under a broad title a well-researched input on the links between the European Commission and the corporate led Asia-Europe Business Forum. The business bias of ASEM was clearly exposed.
Other workshops were not that well prepared and kept to general views and well known ideological positions. Too many speakers focused on US policy while too little looked into the responsibilities of Asian and European governments, which unlike the US government are represented in ASEM.
Strong Asian participation
Astonishingly the majority of the participants were of Asian origin or even directly came from Asia. Europeans seemed to be in the minority. "Where are all the Danes?" was one of the most asked questions. The local organisers had distributed many ASEM 4 PEOPLE posters in the city. But to the hosts' frustration only few Danish people came to the Congress which took place in the School of Architecture. Danish social movements hardly were interested.
As in former ASEM NGO meetings only very few organisations from Southern Europe were represented. But for the first time NGO representatives also came from Eastern European countries which might soon become members of the European Union.
New trends could also be observed among Asia's participants. For the first time official Chinese and Vietnamese "NGOs", better called GONGOs (Government owned or sponsored NGOs), were represented. They challenged not only verbally, but also with official propaganda leaflets and CDs the views of exiled Tibetans, Vietnamese and followers of Falun Gong. The spiritual sect of Chinese origin, which is persecuted in the People's Republic, had been represented for the first time at an ASEM People's forum.
Nevertheless the very controversial disputes among the Chinese, Tibetan and Vietnamese were carried out in a mostly democratic and orderly manner. "We were able to talk here. Why is this not possible in Vietnam?," one exiled Vietnamese asked. As the next ASEM summit will be held in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, the NGOs will face a big challenge if they want to keep the participation of both sides in a People's Forum there.
Trade Unions and NGOs cooperate
A positive development had been the closer coordination and cooperation with the trade unions. One full day of the trade union forum was integrated into the People's Forum. The last time in Seoul both meetings had been held separately in different locations. But also the trade unions only managed to mobilise their officials to the meeting. Activists from the shop level were absent.
The People's Forum was again accompanied by protest actions on the streets and - organized by Attac - even on the water. But compared to the last meeting in Seoul, where thousands participated in a march, only about two hundred participated in a demonstration which led to the offices of two Danish companies (ISS and Maersk) engaging in unfair labour practices in Asia.
ASEM 4 PEOPLE ended with a protest in front of the Bella Congress Center, where the official ASEM was to take place. But if the Danish public had noted the protests at all, it would most probably have been those of Falun Gong, which only focussed against its repression in China. Falun Gong followers protested right in the city center for many days.
Though the neoliberal Danish government was the main funder of the People's Forum, allowing a strong participation from Asia, right-wing Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rusmussen and his entire cabinet snubbed the ASEM 4 PEOPLE Forum. When in Seoul two years ago NGO representatives had been received on the ministerial level, there was widespread optimism that in Copenhagen there would even be a much stronger contact paving the way for an institutionalisation of social issues and NGO participation in the ASEM process which governments would not be able to turn back in the future.
Need for new answers to old and new challenges
But after the Danish social-democratic government had lost power last winter, the new minority government, which is tolerated by a xenophobic party, changed course. While several Danish Ministers participated in the Asia-Europe Business Forum, as only cabinet representative the Foreign Minister just paid a very brief visit to a trade union reception and later only one official from his ministry invited some ASEM officials for a courtesy meeting with NGO representatives.
NGO reactions were mixed: Some were frustrated from what they regard as a step back, others saw this as a blessing in disguise preventing NGOs from falling into the possible trap of cooptation. One woman soberly said: "We should not let the governments off the hook, but we should not place hopes in them."
At the end of the forum participants noted that the NGOs have to reflect their forms of work and strategies. Doubts were aired whether a People's Forum in the current form would be wise to organise in Hanoi in 2004, where the socialist regime can not be expected in providing a fully open space for discussion.
Brid Brennan from the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, an alternative think tank, also noted new challenges. In responding to economic globalisation the social movements have reacted quite creatively with the formation of the Attac movement and the World Social Forum in Puerto Allegre and its new branches in Asia and Europe, she said. But the question of globalised militarisation has not been tackled both in Asia and Europe. And in regard to ASEM the NGOs should perhaps distance themselves from the timing of the official event and more focus on one field of Europe-Asia relations like privatisation, she proposed.
Later the international organising committee of ASEM 4 PEOPLE decided to contact the Vietnamese government and explore the possibility of a People's Forum in Hanoi. The challenges remain.
(26 September 2002)