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APEC Summit Will Celebrate Corporate Power. Activists Plan to Shut It Down.

APEC has taken on new importance as a vehicle to reinforce U.S. hegemony and militarism that activists hope to combat.

Protesters march and rally during an action launching the “No to APEC” campaign in San Francisco, California, on July 11, 2023.

Increasing global repudiation of United States complicity with Israel’s genocidal slaughter of civilians in Gaza underlines the stakes for the Biden administration as it prepares to host 21 heads of state and leading CEOs at the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco November 12-18.

This will be the first global summit since the Gaza war began, and thus provides a crucial, strategic opportunity to hold President Joe Biden accountable for U.S. complicity with Israel, and for greater alignment between the Palestine solidarity movement and broader sectors who will be mobilizing in San Francisco against the impositions of neoliberal globalization by transnational corporate elites.

Originally founded in 1989, APEC has taken on new importance as a vehicle to reinforce and project U.S. hegemony and militarism in the Asia-Pacific region within the framework of the “New Cold War” that has been unleashed by the U.S. in targeting China. This reflects a qualitative shift in APEC’s role from its initial resistance to efforts to impose neoliberal globalization through “free trade,” driven by the “Washington Consensus” promoted by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO).

The San Francisco summit has been designated as a “National Special Security Event,” which will in effect militarize the Bay Area under the command of the U.S. Secret Service, including the imposition of measures of mass surveillance and an “exclusion zone” to contain what are likely to be widespread protests. Overpolicing and potential repression are probable responses, together with the targeting of the city’s most vulnerable elderly, migrant and unhoused communities, as well as small business owners who are concentrated in the areas of the APEC meeting sites.

The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has joined together with the Center for Protest Law and Litigation and others to train hundreds of legal observers, backup attorneys and activists to defend the rights to free speech, freedom of association and dissent that San Francisco Mayor London Breed and her allies seek to repress in complicity with federal authorities this month.

Dozens of local, national and international organizations in the Bay Area and beyond have joined together to mobilize a vibrant, community-based response to the summit through a diverse “No to APEC Coalition.” Plans include a “People’s Counter-Summit” at San Francisco State University on November 11 and mass protests on November 12 and 15, which hope to shut down APEC in the spirit of the historic WTO protests in Seattle in November 1999.

Both the summit and the planned protests highlight several converging human rights issues, including APEC’s role as a leading promoter of the kinds of neoliberal “free trade” policies that have undermined labor, women’s and Indigenous peoples’ rights, and helped induce climate crisis and environmental devastation. APEC members include several states — such as the Philippines and Peru — notable for their systematic violation of internationally recognized human rights.

In both countries authoritarian regimes have aligned themselves with neoliberal policies enforced by militarism and terror that promote environmental devastation through extractivism and target Indigenous peoples for repression and dispossession, including the persecution of activists. These increasingly isolated rogue states are seeking APEC’s veil of legitimacy, as well as the embrace of leaders like President Biden and his allies.

Moreover, the security measures set to be imposed during the summit reproduce some of the most repressive features of the free market authoritarian paradigm at the core of APEC’s mission, and of the practices of the states and transnational corporate elites who benefit from and promote it.

APEC overall accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s population; 50 percent of global trade; more than 60 percent of U.S. exports; and an estimated $1.7 trillion U.S. investment, employing 2.3 million U.S. workers as of 2020. APEC overlaps in part with the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” (IPEF), driven by the U.S.’s intensiying alliance with India. Together APEC and IPEF constitute key components of the economic and trade dimensions of the New Cold War unleashed by the U.S.’s militarization of the Asia-Pacific region as it seeks to isolate and outflank China.

“No to APEC” organizers — who include the Palestinian Youth Movement, International League for People’s Struggle, the International Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, the Myanmar Student Union, Black Alliance for Peace, International Migrant Alliance, Haiti Action Committee, San Francisco Central Labor Council, SF Living Wage Coalition, Oil and Gas Action Network, Global Labor Justice and California Trade Justice Coalition, among dozens of others — will be joining together to demand accountability for U.S. complicity in Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza, and for human rights violations in APEC states such as the Philippines and Peru, among others. These will be central themes in the planned protests and the People’s Counter-Summit.

The coalition’s organizers are also seeking to remind the summit’s promoters of the legacy of human rights struggles from below in San Francisco and in organizers’ countries of origin as migrant communities. This includes San Francisco’s 1934 general strike in which the city’s Central Labor Council and longshoremen stood in resistance to the imposition of corporate autocracy, as well as the city’s tradition as a human rights community grounded in the civil rights, antiwar, LGBTQ rights and migrant sanctuary movements. The planned protests also hope to reflect the city’s role as the site of the 1945 founding conference of the United Nations, which approved the UN Charter and laid the foundation for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The 75th anniversary of the declaration — and of all of the ways in which states continue to fall short of its demands in contexts such as Gaza or the U.S.-Mexico border — will be observed widely in San Francisco and throughout the world this coming December. Illegitimate governments such as those of the Philippines and Peru, as well as APEC’s free market authoritarianism, have no place in such commemorations, or in the city of San Francisco.

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