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Anti-US sentiment pervades Davos

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad criticised US policy (swiss-image.ch) Sebastian Derungs

The Bush administration has come in for strong criticism at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.

This content was published on January 24, 2003 - 17:38

Opposition to war in Iraq dominated Friday's main session, with the most scathing criticism coming from Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad.

The US attorney general, John Ashcroft, used the session to defend American policy, declaring that US actions were guaranteeing liberty around the world.

But he failed to convince many participants. A former Swiss cabinet minister, Adolf Ogi, who spoke to swissinfo after Ashcroft's speech, said many in Davos were seriously worried about US policy.

"I felt somewhat that the Americans and their way are not supported by all," he said.

"We are all very much concerned because if we have a war in Iraq, we will have problems not just in Iraq but all over the world. The economic leaders here know that clearly."

Disquiet

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of US-based Human Rights Watch, said that he had never encountered so much opposition to the US at a WEF meeting.

"This time the economy is not a focus [at Davos]," Roth told swissinfo.

"The dominant issues are clearly the possible war in Iraq and the ongoing fight against terrorism, and in each of those cases there is much disquiet about the way Washington is moving.

"I only hope that the US government representatives pick that up."

Observers on the second day of the six-day summit could have been forgiven for feeling like they had been transported to one of the alternative public forums running parallel to the WEF meeting.

Speaking out

Political and business leaders repeatedly appeared prepared to stick their necks out.

"I think people are more free here in Davos [to speak out] than they were in New York," said Ogi.

"The WEF has always been dominated by Americans, especially last year when Americans were on all the panels. This time it's not the same and maybe others feel a bit more free to give their point of view."

The anti-Washington tone reached a crescendo when Mahathir bin Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister, warned that US attempts to "out-terrorise the terrorists" would lead to a protracted period of hatred, revenge and greed.

Poverty and despair

Mahathir suggested that suicide bombers and hijackers, such as those who attacked the US on September 11, 2001, were driven by poverty and despair.

"People do not tie bombs to their bodies or crash planes into buildings for the fun of it," he said.

"The weak have now hit back in the only way they can. Groping for the enemy, the strong hits out blindly in every direction, in every part of the world."

Mahathir's comments came after the Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, bluntly warned the US against taking unilateral military action against Iraq.

Both men drew hefty rounds of applause from many of the more than 2,000 corporate, political and non-governmental leaders taking part.

Unusual atmosphere

The anti-American tone that has infused this year's summit is unusual, particularly given the WEF's history and the large numbers of North American participants.

Kenneth Roth pointed out that in previous years the event had celebrated US entrepreneurialism and business philosophy, but this time around there were no economic successes to boast about.

"This time there is not a celebratory tone about the economy, both because it is intractable and because of the financial scandals of Enron and WorldCom," he revealed

But this year's shift is not just confined to a change in tone.

Many of Europe's most important figures have shunned the gathering. The absentee list includes the heads of government of Britain, France and Germany.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber, special correspondent in Davos

In brief

The World Economic Forum summit opened this week in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos.

The focus of the sessions, so far,has been on a war with Iraq and fighting against terrorism, rather than on economic issues.

The atmosphere is said to be tinged with anti-American sentiments.

Switzerland and Malaysia were among the countries that criticised the United States' policy on the Iraqi regime.

Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, warned the US not to launch military strikes against Iraq.

Many significant figures, such as the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, are absent from this year's proceedings.

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