New York prepares for the WEF and Public Eye

Security has been stepped up around the Waldorf-Astoria, where the WEF is taking place Keystone

More than two thousand politicians and business people are gathering in New York for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

This content was published on January 31, 2002 minutes

The summit normally takes place in the eastern Swiss resort of Davos but has moved to the US as a show of solidarity after the events of September 11.

In the streets around the Waldorf-Astoria where the WEF has its venue, hundreds of police were already deployed on Wednesday. Roadblocks sealed off several blocks in front of the hotel situated on Park Avenue, and police were carrying out strict checks on those wishing to get into the hotel.

The Forum, which will focus this year on international tension and economic concerns following the September attacks, will be officially opened by the Swiss president, Kaspar Villiger, on Thursday evening.

Earlier in the day, Mr Villiger, will also open a counter-summit organised by the Swiss non-governmental organisation, the Public Eye on Davos. A coalition that includes the Bern Declaration and Friends of the Earth, the Public Eye on Davos is challenging the WEF for the third consecutive year.

Economic globalisation

Its aim, it says, is to give critics of the WEF the opportunity to discuss economic globalisation and to examine alternative paths to a fair and sustainable world economy.

"The annual meeting of the WEF is a meeting where the heads of large corporations invite heads of governments and heads of large financial institutions like the WTO to discuss economic policy behind closed doors," explains Miriam Behrens of Pro Natura.

Critics such as Friends of the Earth criticise the WEF as a private club for the world's foremost corporations that increases their influence and promotes economic liberalisation.

"We do engage in discussion with the WEF as well and Friends of the Earth will be in the Forum too but we realise that we have a limited input from within," Behrens told swissinfo in New York.

Behrens says too few NGOs are invited to the Forum and that they usually find themselves sidelined into less important discussions. But the fact that the Swiss president will open the Public Eye conference as well as the WEF is seen as an important boost.

Civil movement

"It is a very important sign of solidarity with the civil movement from Mr Villiger," says Behrens.

The conference is taking place a few blocks away from the luxurious Waldorf Astoria in the United Nations Church Centre. Its main focus will be on corporate responsibility and accountability.

"We believe it is important that we have binding regulation for multinational enterprises to protect human rights and the environment," Behrens told swissinfo.

As in previous years, there are fears the WEF will become the focus for violent protests from the anti-globalisation movement. Last year, police in Zurich fought pitched battles with protesters who were prevented from travelling to Davos.

Some think that protests may be more muted this year in the wake of September 11, with protesters believing they can only come off worse against a police force seen as heroes for their part in the rescue efforts at the World Trade Centre. Others, however, believe there will be violence.

Street protests

"As in Davos last year, the organisers of the demonstration have not distanced themselves from the violence and we are scared street protests in New York may turn nasty," says Behrens.

This concern has led the Public Eye on Davos to distance itself from the demonstration this year.

The future of the Public Eye on Davos is linked inextricably to the Forum's future plans on whether to return to the Swiss resort. The Forum has already said it will be back next year after the government promised to contribute more to security costs but it has no long-term commitment to Davos as its future base.

"I believe next year will be the last time," says Behrens. "There will be another demonstration next year, that has already been announced. That means strong police action and this is an unbearable situation for Switzerland."

Like the WEF, the Public Eye on Davos ends its conference on Monday.

by Michael Hollingdale, New York

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