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World Economic Forum underway in New York

Kaspar Villiger said a departure from globalisation would only create losers. swiss-image.ch/Remy Steinegger

The Swiss president, Kaspar Villiger, has officially opened the annual summit of the World Economic Forum which is meeting outside Switzerland for the first time in its 32-year history.

This content was published on February 2, 2002 - 15:23

The Forum has moved to New York this year following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre last September. More than 2,000 participants from politics, business, academia and religion are in the city to discuss current social and economic problems.

Before Mr Villiger's opening address, the founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, paid tribute to the city and its people and said the decision to move from the Swiss resort of Davos had been right.

"This is the first meeting of global leaders from all walks of life since September 11," said Schwab. "We are here to show our solidarity with this most remarkable and indestructible city. To roll up our sleeves and to work together in a true spirit of global partnership."

In his opening remarks, Mr Villiger gave a strong defence of globalisation, though he admitted that the process was not perfect and that business had to engage in dialogue with those who were unconvinced of its benefits.

He also argued that globalisation had made the world more open to attack.

Globalisation

"Globalisation has freed millions of people from poverty and enabled them to lead a more decent life. However, globalisation has its drawbacks. Two-thirds of the world's people are excluded from these opportunities. And terrorists and criminals also operate globally. The integrated world has become vulnerable."

But Mr Villiger said there was no going back and that any departure from globalisation would have disastrous consequences.

"A departure from globalisation today," he said, "would have incalculable consequences and would only create losers. In order to solve worldwide problems, we need to harness the growth potential of globalisation."

Earlier in the day, Mr Villiger also launched the conference of the Public Eye on Davos, a coalition of non-governmental organisations which criticises the WEF as a rich man's club and accuses it of excluding civil society from discussions.

Mr Villiger told delegates to the rival meeting that though he disagreed with their views, he welcomed constructive criticism and dialogue.

Terror attacks

At the Forum, he returned continuously to this theme and singled out those that carried out the September 11 attacks. Terror, he said, was the most radical form of the rejection of dialogue.

And he too paid tribute to the city's response.

"We have watched with respect the way in which the people of New York and the United States are coming to terms with this attack in such an impressively calm and resolute manner," he said. "The Swiss government welcomes the sign of solidarity set by the World Economic Forum by making New York the venue, a sign also for dialogue and against the rejection of dialogue."

Mr Villiger, however, said he was looking forward to seeing the Forum return to Davos in 2003.

The Governor of New York state, George Pataki, and the new city Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, also took part in the opening ceremony and thanked the Forum for staging its meeting in New York.

Thousands of police are on the streets of the city to ensure the Forum runs smoothly. Roadblocks have been set up for several blocks around the Waldorf Astoria where the meeting is taking place.

Pitched battles

As well as the terror threat, police are afraid the Forum will again become the focus for violent demonstrations by hard-core anti-globalisation protesters. Zurich police last year fought pitched battles with demonstrators who had been prevented from travelling to Davos.

On Thursday in New York, trade unionists held a noisy but peaceful protest outside the Fifth Avenue outlet of the Gap clothing store. They accused the company of running sweatshops in central America. The main demonstrations are expected at the weekend.

The opening ceremony over, delegates will now get down to serious discussions.

Among those attending are the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan and King Abdullah of Jordan.

The Forum runs until Monday.

by Michael Hollingdale, New York

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