APEC: Fellow Travellers Only

Article – Professor Jane Kelsey

There is a long and unpleasant history of security crackdowns and street cleaning associated with APEC. As the road blocs go up in Honolulu this week, I vividly remember the Manila APEC meeting in 1996 where two of three lanes on the main arterial highway …APEC: Fellow Travellers Only

There is a long and unpleasant history of security crackdowns and street cleaning associated with APEC. As the road blocs go up in Honolulu this week, I vividly remember the Manila APEC meeting in 1996 where two of three lanes on the main arterial highway were declared “APEC Friendship lanes” and closed to all but the official cavalcades. Workers stuck in jeepneys and buses who were late for work had their already minimal wages docked. Several locals were killed trying to dodge the speeding cavalcades. It was a PR disaster, as was the pepper spraying of protesters in Vancouver in 1997 and the breach of mega-security arrangements by satirists from The Chaser TV programme in Sydney in 2007. Security overkill is inevitably accompanied by a campaign to remove unsightly evidence of poverty and homelessness from public view. This history may pale against measures adopted when Russian Prime Minister Putin hosts the annual APEC forum in Vladivostok next year.

Security in Honolulu for this year’s APEC meeting is so far low key, although new barriers were erected overnight. Streets surrounding the Conference Centre site of the main meetings are already closed off. Local TV news have reports of frustrated locals unable to get to the shops on foot, bus or taxi and predict it will get worse once the political leaders arrive.

Closures of beaches, roads and public transport routes are bound to irritate ordinary tourists and may see net losses for the tourism, food, transport and retail industries on which the island’s economy depends. Hotels are giving out maps that show half of Waikiki beach and many walkways will be restricted for one to four days, and people are warned to carry personal ID at all times. A family told me their niece’s beachfront wedding, booked six months ago, has been shifted further down Waikiki Beach; the western part will be closed for several days so President Obama can go surfing.

This is the first time APEC has met in the US since Seattle in 1993. Security has become a feature of the APEC agenda post 9/11 as business interests seek to capitalise on its commercial opportunities and minimise new barriers to movement of goods, services, capital and people. With Pearl Harbour around the corner, there is already a strong sense of the military in Honolulu. According to local TV, Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard will be the first-ever foreign speaker at the annual Veterans Day commemoration in Honolulu on Friday in recognition of Australia’s staunch support for US military campaigns.

The US Secret Service has set up a multi-agency communication centre in a secret location to receive “intelligence updates” and monitor incidents, assessing the level of risk. Questions are already being asked about how the US reconciles this with the first amendment right to free speech and the right to protest. Local activists marched to the Convention Centre yesterday to protest the death of local man Kollin Elderts, shot by a security officer from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security who was brought here for APEC after an argument at a McDonalds on Saturday. The officer has been charged with manslaughter.

In 2012 APEC faces a new kind of “threat” that is direct and ideological. “Occupy Wall St” and its offshoots reject what APEC and the TPPA stand for. Eight local participants in “Occupy Honolulu” were arrested on Saturday night for the offence of sitting on the grass after Thomas Square Park was closed at 10 pm. About 20 others remained there camped on the sidewalk. The activists linked the dispersal with APEC with messages “Aloha not APEC”, “People not corporate profit” and “sustainability not destruction”. In the immediate context, they are a handful of dissidents; on the international scale the “occupy” movement may signal something more significant.

Inside the APEC cocoon it is business as usual. The “premium level sponsors” of the APEC 2011 USA Host Committee include Microsoft, FedEx, Dow Chemical, Freeport-McMoran Copper and Gold, Walmart Asia, Procter & Gamble and Visa, many of whom have speaking slots at the accompanying CEO Summit. It is as if there has been no global financial crisis, no threatened collapse of the Euro that is at the centre of Europe’s integration model, no protests and mobilisations rejecting the neoliberal paradigm.

An interesting exception was an indigenous contributor to the panel on sustainable communities at the Business Symposium who observed that many of his community viewed APEC with trepidation, as a spearhead of global corporate capitalism which comes to a community, exploits resources and leaves the indigenous people of that community worse off than before.

At the same time, the influence of APEC Business Symposium should not be overstated. The business forum is basically a networking opportunity in a luxurious location. The APEC Business Advisory Council has repeatedly criticised APEC for failing to adopt a sufficiently radical agenda. It is not clear whether the APEC CEOs’ summit has much greater sting. But they don’t really need APEC as a vehicle: these movers and shakers of the corporate world already spearhead the corporate lobbies that are driving the TPPA.

This corporate myopia aligns with one of APEC’s founding slogans: “APEC means business”. This is a forum for “fellow travellers only”. If you are a critic or you are poor, you bear the consequences of decisions over which you have no say.

Tomorrow, in a very different forum in a different part of town, the excluded will give voice their critique of the APEC/TPPA paradigm and promote positive alternatives based on indigenous rights, social justice and people-centred economies.

Jane Kelsey in Honolulu 10 November 2011

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