World leaders face Australian blockade

August 24, 2001

Australian university students are planning to protest at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Brisbane on October 5 and at the Commonwealth Business Forum to be held in Melbourne, October 6-9.

A "protest collective" of disparate groups led by the National Union of Students and including Queers United to Eradicate Economic Rationalism, is coordinating attempts to disrupt the meetings. Although the NUS is not supporting a blockade, other protesters will try to stop the 50 heads of state and their 1,500 officials from entering the Brisbane Conference and Exhibition Centre.

The main meeting will be opened by the Queen and will centre on the theme of "the Commonwealth in the 21st century: continuity and renewal". Over the last two days of the forum, heads of government will go to a retreat at a plush hotel on the Sunshine Coast, 60 miles north of Brisbane. Students and other protesters plan to continue their disruption there.

But the federal and Queensland governments are organising a huge security operation to counter the protests. With the Queen, British prime minister Tony Blair, other political leaders and more than 500 international journalists in attendance, there is concern that anti-globalisation groups will seek the kind of violent confrontations that disrupted the World Economic Forum in Melbourne and multi-government meetings in Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa.

A federal government website has identified the Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga as at high risk of terrorist attack during the CHOGM. They are among 46 leaders who have confirmed that they will be attending the meeting.

Security officials are particularly sensitive about India because in 1978 Indian prime minister Morarji Desai was the target of Australia's worst terrorist attack when he was attending the Commonwealth leaders summit. Three people were killed when a bomb exploded outside the hotel where Mr Desai was staying, although he was unhurt.

"We expect thousands of students to be out in the streets in Brisbane, but we will not back a blockade," NUS president David Henderson said.

Mr Henderson said the major reason for Australian students being involved was to highlight the implications for higher education of proposals relating to the General Agreement on Trade in Services. These are to be discussed at the next World Trade Organisation meeting in November.

"The CHOGM conference is used as a forum of the WTO and 40 per cent of the WTO's votes are held by Commonwealth countries," he said. "We want to see the arguments against Gats discussed at CHOGM to make sure the multilateral agreement on public services is not accepted as part of the push for trade liberalisation."

Mr Henderson said the deadline for the beginning of Gats negotiations was missed when 50,000 protesters converged on the streets of Seattle to shut down the WTO Ministerial Meeting in November 1999.

He said the NUS was strongly opposed to plans by some countries, such as America, to have government subsidies for services removed when private operators were also present.

"The WTO is pushing hard to open up public services such as education, health, electricity, water supplies and social security to the free market and competition from corporations. If Gats is adopted it will mean any foreign education provider can supply education services from outside a country to students inside that country and can set up its own institutions inside the country."

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