Hoping to reverse beliefs that it is secretive and undemocratic, the World Trade Organization today hosted hundreds of its critics in a meeting hall here for a dialogue on trade's impact on development and human rights. The three-hour encounter was polite--even though friends of some of the guests were outside on the street angrily waving banners attacking the Geneva-based organization.

WTO Director General Mike Moore argued that the current world trading system benefits just about everyone. "Over 30 countries--1.5 billion people--want to join the WTO," he declared to the gathering.

But Martin Khor, from a group called Third World Network, had a different view. The consequences of more trade liberalization, Khor said, could be "so negative and serious in the Third World that there will be tremendous political instability over the next five years."

Protesters today smashed windows at a McDonald's restaurant and attacked a Niketown store, while others, protesting the genetic engineering of food, jumped on top of a city bus. Police in full riot gear formed a wall in front the Nike shop to protect the property.

Tonight, protesters attempted to form a human chain around an exhibition hall where WTO delegates were attending a reception. Police blocked them from enclosing the facility.

With 3,000 WTO delegates set to begin new talks on trade liberalization negotiations Tuesday, the meeting was the first step in a program to put a more sympathetic face on the trade agency and make its operations more open.

Since its creation five years ago to police world trade, the WTO has become the target of a diverse international coalition of activist groups that include environmentalists, labor unions, consumer groups and private development agencies. They contend that the WTO has too much power, that it infringes on countries' sovereignty by making them change environmental rules. The critics also complain that an agency that forever praises "transparency" in trade--the establishment of clear rules, the elimination of back-door deals--is notably lacking in the quality itself.

Dispute panels that act as judges when countries have trade disputes operate in secrecy. There is no requirement to make filings and briefs public. Often little is known publicly until the panel issues its decision. The official rationale is that the panels are essentially government-to-government negotiations, and that contacts of this kind always take place in private.

No one in the WTO or in the major industrial powers wants to weaken its authority in dispute settlement--it has established "rule of law" in world trade, they say, and that is only for the better. But on the question of openness, pressure is building for change.

The Clinton administration has come to voice the rhetoric of some of the people in the streets. The White House proposed today's meeting with the advocacy groups as a way of getting them invested in the process. Officials say it marks the first time in eight rounds of trade negotiations over 50 years that the outsiders' views have been sought.

"It's terribly important that the views of civil society not just be heard but incorporated into the work of the WTO," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said after today's meeting. "The openness of civil society is a stabilizing force and lends credibility to the system."

How much success they had in making the other side feel involved was unclear, however.

The meeting is also pitting the rich nations against poor. World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz said rich nations must abandon the "hypocrisy" with which they have negotiated past international trade accords and use a new round of talks to address the concerns of the developing world.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned of a backlash from developing countries against free trade if the current round of world trade talks did not give them a better deal.

The U.S. side is pressing the issue of openness in the trade-dispute panels. The trade representative's office already publicize U.S. government filings, placing them in its reading room in Washington.

"Empty chairs should be reserved for the public" at the dispute panels' meetings, Barshefsky said in an interview earlier today. "Why shouldn't they be able to sit and observe? Why aren't the briefs available to the public. It's astonishing--these are government documents."

One of this week's expected controversies disappeared when Cuban President Fidel Castro announced in Havana that he will not seek a visa to attend the conference. Though U.S. officials had indicated Castro would be allowed to enter the country, he said he was certain they would not do so. "I did not want to be submitted to that humiliation," he said.

Staff writer Steven Pearlstein contributed to this report.