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Supachai and Harbinson endorse exclusive WTO Meetings

Geneva, 4 Dec (Aileen Kwa/Focus on the Global South) - The WTO is widely known for its anti-democratic negotiating practices. Since Seattle, where a revolt took place inside the meeting and developing country governments denounced the negotiating process which excluded them, the WTO has had to work a little harder to justify its practices. Any changes, which are supposed to have taken place after Seattle, have unfortunately been merely cosmetic.

When the negotiations are stalemated, simply because the major powers are loading up the agenda to their own advantage and being totally intransigent on issues of interest to developing countries, negotiations automatically go back into a GATT-style exclusive group of about 20-25 Members. The marginalisation of the majority is ultimately the only way in which the powerful can bamboozle their agenda through and force it upon the weaker members.

At a ‘dialogue’ of civil society groups based in Geneva with the WTO’s Director General Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi and his chef de cabinet, Mr Stuart Harbinson, the issue of anti-democratic negotiating practices/Green Room meetings was raised repeatedly. Unfortunately, these concerns were met with denials by Mr Harbinson that such meetings even exist, and non-committal remarks by the Director General as to whether such meetings would continue. The DG also endorsed the mini-ministerial meetings.

At the meeting, Mr. Harbinson defended his role in the lead up to the last Doha ministerial, and the negotiating process in general. At that time, he was the Permanent Representative to the WTO of Hong Kong China, and chaired the General Council.

Mr. Harbinson told the NGOs: “There is a demonisation of the Green Room phenomena. In the preparation for Doha, I cannot remember having a green room process. We had endless meetings on specific subjects, and endless meetings on implementation. Sometimes the Chair would get a few people in the room and hammer up the technical aspects. I can’t remember how many meetings we had, formal and informal. But there was no central green room process - it did not happen and it is not happening now.”

To the NGOs this was a shocking statement. Clearly, ‘Green Room’ meetings are being redefined, so that meetings of 25 Members, such as the meeting on 5-6 November in Annecy of senior officials (an EC convened meeting) and the Mini ministerial in Sydney (14-15 November) are not Green Room meetings - since they are convened by Members rather than the Director General.

Informal meetings, wherein a select group is invited (such as the consultations on ‘implementation’ issues with some ambassadors held by Dr. Supachai the next day (of the day of the meeting with NGOs, and the many consultations on TRIPS and Public Health by Chairman Motta of the TRIPS Council), and others are excluded and/or not even informed of which consultations are taking place between whom, are also not considered Green Room meetings.

In reaction to this statement, Steve Porter, from CIEL (Centre for International Environmental Law) said: ‘There seems to be a deep misunderstanding on both sides. There is an understanding by many that the mini-ministerial is a legitimization of the Green Room meetings. And it does not give legitimacy to the institution.”

Dr. Supachai on the other hand, did not deny the occurrence of Green Room meetings. However, he avoided responding to the question of whether he would stop these meetings from taking place.

Responding to Cecilia Oh of the Third World Network who referred to the DG’s statement about learning the lessons from Seattle and Doha and Mr. Renato Ruggiero’s commitments at Singapore that there would be no Green Rooms, and asked whether Dr. Supachai would make a commitment to ensure that Green Rooms don’t happen, Supachai said: “we are in the process of consulting with the Chairman. There is an effort that there be full transparency. There are various proposals from EC, the Like Minded Group, India. They are all being taken up...  I don’t know how far they can go. They are consulting with the Members.”

Supachai also asserted: “In Cancun, we will take into consideration the need to be fully inclusive. I am fully conscious of all countries, especially the ones that have been sidelined. We will look particularly in those areas. If we can house everyone, we will do that. The proposal that has been submitted by developing countries about Cancun will be taken on board.”

He went on to say that the deadlines for the Round were very important for developing countries. “If the Round is going to stretch 6, 7, 8 years, I don’t think it will serve anyone including the developing countries since there may be some new means to block market access for developing countries. This is a round in which developing countries certainly will have their say. I keep urging them to be actively involved and to be united. If they are united, they will carry more weight. I don’t think the deadlines will be met if developing countries do not see it as serving their purpose.”

On the mini-ministerials, despite his reassurances about making the negotiating process transparent, Dr Supachai endorsed the Sydney mini-ministerial meeting and took pains to explain why these mini-ministerials were beneficial.  Justifying the exclusive Sydney meeting of 25 Members, and mini-ministerials in general, he said: “I am there to listen to them and they can listen to me so that they can take stock of what is happening and give their analysis and input.  This process is to eliminate surprises (at the Ministerial). They do not all have this opportunity to meet. If they can be briefed about what is taking place, there is a good chance that we will have a good meeting (in Cancun). It is a chance for ministers to fully prepare themselves (for the Ministerial).”

As for Sydney, there were no concrete decisions taken. “We highlighted the health, Special and Differential Treatment, and market access issues, with an emphasis on agriculture. We did go into agriculture substantially. We intended to have a full discussion on TRIPS and Health. In every session, I have tried to reflect the will of the members. It might help to have this kind of stocktaking.  These meetings give us momentum (for the talks in Geneva), but we do not intend for them to bypass the Geneva process.”

This writer suggested that these mini-Ministerials are illegitimate, since they institute an ‘executive council’ of about 25 members through the back door, and that such exclusive practices contravened basic democratic principles. Also, there is a difference between decision-making and decision taking. The mini-ministerial and green room meetings are about decision-making, whilst the majority, presented with the final package, is relegated to the position of being ‘decision-takers’. Many countries excluded from the mini-meetings would find it difficult to reject a final package presented to them given the political costs they would have to pay.

Supachai retorted: “How do we then deal with the process of reaching consensus.  Do you have another way to achieve it? Normally no one is excluded. It is just that the meeting can only accommodate so many.” He went on to argue that the WTO cannot always have full meetings of 145 members. Ultimately, final decisions would have to be taken in the plenary session.

“On ‘implementation’, I call meetings - the people never complain. I cannot invite 145 countries. Implementation is controversial. But again, we need to have a process to achieve the outcome.”

Dr. Supachai tried to reassure NGOs, and said: “It is not like the Uruguay Round anymore. It is not like Blair House (US-EC agricultural accord). ... the process is exclusive if we say that this is the agreement and you take it or leave it.  This is not going to happen.... we should not underestimate developing countries. They fully know what their rights are. You are under-estimating the developing countries. Everyone will have to be fully involved, otherwise, you will not have a round.”

In all these meetings, as in Sydney, more than half of those invited were from developing countries. The Sydney meeting was not really decision-making. It was about stocktaking and trying to alert ministers, enable them to get to know each other better. “You cannot avoid them discussing these issues amongst themselves.  It would be worse if they discussed these matters on the phone, and only amongst the QUAD (US, EC, Japan and Canada). They do it all the time.”

Dr. Supachai cited the issue of TRIPS and Public Health, and said if Sydney was a decision-making process, “how is it that.... I still did not know if the Chair (of the TRIPS Council) would produce a draft or not? Nobody made Sydney a decisive moment.”

However, one delegate who was not in Sydney, speaking in private said that while there was no concrete decision taken in Sydney, Members were more receptive towards the US position on the TRIPS and Health issue after the meeting. The TRIPS and Health talks in Geneva subsequently collapsed, with the African Group rejecting outright the package offered by the developed countries.

“Yet, this decision by the African Group was only determined the morning of the TRIPS Council meeting on 29 November, and only after considerable amount of lobbying by the NGOs actively involved in the TRIPS issue in the last week.”

Asked as to how he could allow a flagrant breach of rules, by allowing his chef de cabinet, Stuart Harbinson (ex-Hong Kong Ambassador) to continue as chair of the Committee on Agriculture, Dr. Supachai responded: “You seem to have a view that the staff is not neutral. You seem to have said that he (Harbinson) would be less of an impartial person than he used to be if he joined the Secretariat and chairs agriculture. I don’t think he would like to do this job (at which point Harbinson nodded emphatically). I think it is mainly in the interest of the whole membership. The rules do not forbid anyone from chairing a negotiating Committee if Members agree to it.”

However, the TNC on 2 February, in bullet point 4 of Agenda item 2 of the TNC meeting, has decided that chairpersons (of negotiating bodies) should be selected from among Geneva-based government representatives in the majority, while other qualified individuals nominated by Governments could also be considered.

Dr. Supachai is at the moment delicately poised on a political tightrope, which he described in these terms: “I have been around long enough to know how much developing countries will have to give in order to get. I am trying to balance as much as I can without losing my credibility. I can’t go out and say, ‘Just stop negotiating’. On all fronts, I would like to see movement.” He cited the example of negotiations on industrial tariffs, and his own emphasis in these talks on the issue of tariff peaks and escalations.

For all his good intentions, Dr. Supachai appears to be clearly limited - either by his own convictions about the benefits of more liberalisation for the South and the WTO’s role in accomplishing this, or the political games he has to play to remain relevant in this power game. Whatever his personal views, it is clear he will not be doing much to stop the undesirable practice of exclusive mini-ministerials, which is now being institutionalised and turns into Green Room meetings of 25 Members during Ministerial Conferences.

In this scenario, no matter how hard members work on substantive issues, it is unlikely that the outcomes will really take on board the positions of the politically weaker majority.

Already two more mini-ministerials are in the pipeline before Cancun;.Japan will be hosting one on 15-16 February 2003, and Egypt has offered to host another, between February and Cancun, in September.

A year on from Doha, the Doha Development Agenda is also not delivering on ‘development’ and the promises made to developing countries are showing themselves up to be empty. The QUAD Members (US, EU, Japan, Canada) have blocked any decisions on ‘implementation’ issues which they promised developing countries would be tackled before the other negotiations. Already the Doha deadline of 31 July 2002 to find a way to provide developing countries with more market access in textiles (the growth -on-growth provisions) was bypassed and postponed to 31 December. Some solution to implementation issues as well as promises to strengthen Special and Differential Treatment provisions were supposed to be provided by 31 December. This deadline is now again going to slip-by.

The US, EC and Japan are also moving backwards on the TRIPS and Health Declaration, which in Doha gained them many brownie points. The US is attempting to narrow down access to medicines to only three diseases; Japan to exclude vaccines; and the EU to put in place a whole host of conditions that will make the export of generic drugs virtually impossible so that most countries without manufacturing capacity will still not be able to obtain these drugs at an affordable price.

If history is instructive, some token crumbs may be awarded to developing countries (during Dr. Supachai’s tenure), but for which they would have to pay dearly - accept the launch of the new issues - investment, competition, government procurement and trade facilitation - in order to attain (on the surface) some balance in agriculture. However, real balance in agriculture is unlikely to be achieved, since the US and EU will be shifting distorting supports into the ‘Green Box’ of supposedly non-trade distorting subsidies, while another round of tariff liberalisation will have to be undertaken by the South.

An expanded new round, with new issues that will lead to the dismantling of domestic legislation that favour national companies over foreign enterprises, will not be in the interests of developing countries, who are in no position to compete. Further deindustrialisation is a likely scenario for the majority. – SUNS5250

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