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World Economic Forum: Davos Under Fire

Public Eye Awards 2009

by Gustavo Capdevila

DAVOS, Switzerland - One of the few indicators on the rise at this time of economic and financial crisis is the level of repudiation expressed about those responsible for the disaster, and about the institutions sponsoring them.

This became apparent at this eastern Swiss tourist resort, the venue for the annual sessions of the World Economic Forum (WEF), one of the arenas which has supported the deregulation policies blamed for causing the crisis.

Socialist Swiss lawmaker Susanne Leutenegger was outspoken in linking the WEF with the crisis. The Davos Forum has been one of the ideological agencies behind these policies, as finance, industry and politics mingled at the Forum sessions, which started 39 years ago, she said.

This was the place where contacts and informal networks were established, while politicians sat "below the salt" and the media were fascinated by the rich and powerful global élite, she continued, saying the Forum was "a fly-by-night lobby operation for the bankrupt neoliberal (free market) business model".

Leutenegger was speaking at the awards ceremony of the Public Eye on Davos, organized by Swiss non-governmental organizations The Bern Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland, where "dubious distinctions" are conferred on companies that have shamefully violated ethical and environmental principles.

As a result of these awards and the political content of the prize-giving ceremonies, the Public Eye has been, since 2000, one of the most critical observers of the Davos Forum.

Back then, the media were in such a frenzy about Davos that they stifled voices of critical dissent calling for a more socially responsible economy with sustainable policies, Leutenegger said.

The global Public Eye award went this year to U.S. mining company Newmont, the world's largest gold producer, for its "scandalous" practices in Ghana, where it has destroyed unique natural habitats, carried out forced resettlement of local people and polluted soil and rivers, according to the jury.

The "prize" for Swiss companies was awarded to BKW FMB Energy, for building a coal-fired thermoelectric plant in Germany. Coal is the most polluting of all fuels, the organizers said.

In contrast, the Public Eye awarded a Positive Prize, in recognition of the efforts of Colombian trade union leaders Jairo Quiroz and Freddy Lozano and their union Sintracarbón to reverse the decision of a transnational coal mining company that had displaced 800 Afro-descendant families to expand their operations in El Cerrejón, in northeastern Colombia.

In fact, the negative awards target two companies that epitomize the social and environmental abuses committed by all the members of the WEF and by large corporations that are the true image of profit motivated globalization, the organizers of the Public Eye said.

The Bern Declaration and Greenpeace sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday, asking him to introduce corporate regulation now.

So far, efforts to impose mandatory international corporate accountability rules on transnational corporations have failed because of opposition from the United States, they said.

The message to Obama requests that in future, all transnational company projects respect the rights of local communities in their area of operations. It also asks for an end to impunity for companies that violate the rules.

The two organizations want the Public Eye to become a rallying point for all critics of the Davos Forum, said Oliver Classen of The Bern Declaration.

The Swiss authorities also came in for criticism for their financial support for the WEF. The Forum is a private meeting, but the Swiss government subsidies it to the tune of eight million Swiss francs (seven million dollars), mostly for security services, Leutenegger said.

She estimated that total spending by the Swiss state on the Davos Forum amounted to some 20 million Swiss francs (17.6 million dollars).

Police from several Swiss cantons and some 5,000 army soldiers are deployed during the week of WEF sessions, while the national air force, in conjunction with that of Austria, secure the air space over Davos.

Leutenegger said that street protests against the Davos Forum are for the most part prohibited. The rights to free speech and free association are practically suspended throughout the country during the WEF, she emphasized.

A demonstration against the Davos Forum, convened by leftwing political and social organizations for Saturday in Geneva, has been banned by the authorities.

Leutenegger remarked that the neoliberal revolution appears to have failed dismally worldwide, and now its "shameless promoters" want to get free money from the state.

However, the Davos Forum, a successful instigator of that economic model, is doing very well, the lawmaker said. According to her estimates, the world's top 1,000 companies, members of the WEF, contribute some 40 million Swiss francs (over 35 million dollars) annually to the Forum.

In total, including the special contributions from financial companies and the fees paid by Forum participants, the WEF, which operates in Switzerland as a charitable foundation, has an annual income of about 100 million Swiss francs (88 million dollars).

Leutenegger also rebuked the left and trade unions for failing to apply the necessary pressure to contain the forces that precipitated the crisis.

Fundamental discussion is needed, especially among the left, trade unions and social movements, about building a post-capitalist system and putting it into practice, she concluded.

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