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ACP and African Union role in Cancun - some reflections, lessons

Geneva, 19 Sep (Chandrakant Patel*) - The failure of the traditional (for the GATT/WTO) game at ministerial conferences and processes, has spawned a spate of views to blame others, and typical of this is the claim (in the Financial Times of 18 September), that “African delegates walked out over EU’s demands, even though it (EU) had just ditched the most contentious of them”.

Far from walking out or ‘celebrating’ the outcome as some in the Western media have claimed, African delegations left Cancun with a sense of foreboding, acutely conscious of a possible negative fallout from an outcome that has failed to address any of their concerns.

Among the likely consequences of the collapse, many fear, are greater pressure in the forthcoming Cotonou negotiations with the EU, particularly on Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and further pressures to liberalize from the Bretton Woods institutions in the name, to be sure, of poverty alleviation.

The fact is, African (and other developing countries) came to Cancun prepared to agree, first and foremost, on modalities for negotiations on agriculture and start the long process of reforming the current regime that has licensed the devastation of the livelihood of their rural communities, undermined their comparative advantages and distorted global production and trade. In particular, many in Africa had expected some progress on the issue of cotton subsidies, although they had no illusions as to the obstacles and resistance to a meaningful reform of this invidious regime.

In as much as consideration of this and many other issues on the Cancun agenda are now put on hold, there is real concern among many that solutions to their problems have been deferred, if not put off for a long time.

International secretariats (both of the WTO and the UN system secretariats) expected to help developing countries, in particular with technical support and objective analysis, have over time been found by these countries repeatedly to be either misleading in their advice or failing to provide any analysis. This has resulted in the delegations and countries to look to public interest civil society groups for help.

Many of these NGOs, in the North and the South, are also better equipped, technically and in terms of political development economy, to undertake analyses and study tje implications of drafts and provide the hard-pressed and smaller developing country delegations with knowledge-based advice.

The international secretariats, and some of their top officials, now seem to be uncomfortable with this; and there is a campaign of misinformation against civil society groups. But international secretariats have to blame themselves for this state of affairs that by and large their advice is seen as biassed in favour of the majors.

In the process to and at Cancun, the overriding consideration guiding the deliberations in the African and the ACP groups was the desire to have a positive outcome that would have been palatable to their domestic constituencies.

At the same time it was repeatedly stated by Minister after Minister that it would be better to have no agreement than to have a poor one and relive the mistakes of the Uruguay Round and Doha.

Nowhere was the sense of being marginalised and let down greater than with respect to the Chairman’s text (Mexican Minister, Dr. Luis Ernesto Derbez Bautista) that dealt with the four Singapore issues. (Paras 14-17, Job 150,Rev/2).

Not only did this text ignore the views of a strong majority of the WTO’s membership, but it linked progress on issues critical to their livelihood (agriculture and non-agriculture tariff negotiations (NAMA)) to Singapore issues, of only marginal concern to the EU’s public, and called for adoption of modalities. The language used was: “..modalities that will allow negotiations on a multilateral investment framework to start shall be adopted by the General Council no later than [date] Footnote 1.”

The footnote in question states “ The date will COINCIDE (emphasis added) with the date for agreeing on modalities on agriculture and NAMA.”

The alacrity with which the EU (in the green room on Sunday) was ready to jettison the Singapore issues confirmed, if such was ever needed, how marginal these issues are to the EU, its businesses or its public.

Whilst the reactions of African delegations (and most of the other developing countries) were predictable to the egregious text produced by the WTO secretariat, the question remains: how could the Chairman of the Conference and the Canadian Minister, as the Facilitator for the Singapore issues, have so misread or failed to acknowledge the widely expressed views and sentiments of the developing countries, not just on the Singapore issues but also on agriculture, NAMA and several other issues?

The answer perhaps lies in the culture of hubris, secrecy and denial that characterizes the methods of work in the WTO and its secretariat. How else could one explain the setting aside of the carefully crafted Doha Ministerial text on Singapore issues and the need for an explicit consensus to launch the negotiations set out there?

It was left to the Chairman of the Conference to remind the Ministers present in Cancun (at one of the Green Room meetings) that it was indeed they who had decided in Doha that negotiations will take place after “the Fifth Session of the Ministerial Conference on the basis of a decision to be taken, by explicit consensus, at that Session (i.e. at Cancun) on modalities of negotiations”.

The carefully crafted Chairman’s text at Cancun was designed to circumvent the Doha mandate and decisions, but was so palpable that delegations saw through it.

The extent to which the WTO secretariat went overboard in drafting Para 14 on Investment is further indicated by its egregious effort to extend the scope of “... a single undertaking” (Doha, Para 47) by redefining and elevating the concept to the status of a legal norm by christening it as “ the Single Undertaking” (Para 14,bullet two, Job 150 Rev/2).

If the progenitors of this mischief have now been exposed as biassed advocates of the majors, is it perhaps not opportune for member states to make the WTO’s management also accountable for the denouement in Cancun?

Whilst lessons will continue to be drawn from the successes and failures at Cancun, several developments stand out above others.

First, was the remarkable unity that was the hallmark of deliberations in the African and the ACP groups. Several of the Groups constituents were also active and influential participants in the Groups of 22 and 23 on agriculture.

Secondly, the Group’s deliberations were characterized by a great deal of transparency and inclusiveness: those in the ACP Group invited to participate in the Green Room - both the mini Green Room of 13/14 September and the larger Green Room of 14 September - provided detailed briefings to the ACP Group throughout the Conference. Kenya’s Minister participated in both.

More important was the perception the Chairmen held of their role in the Green Room. All of them - the Chairman of the African Union, (Mauritius), the Chairman of the LDCs (Bangladesh) and the Chairman of the ACP (Botswana) acknowledged that their presence in the Green Room was in an ex-officio capacity and as such it was incumbent upon them to take positions and instructions on the basis of the deliberations of the entire Group. Accordingly, it was clearly understood that any decision in the Green Rome was on an ad referendum basis.

This modality in the conduct of their work represents, in many ways, among the more positive outcomes of Cancun. It permitted the smaller delegations to participate and contribute to the deliberations and gave greater credibility and voice to their spokesmen in the Green Room.

Although not holding any formal position in the African or ACP Group, the Kenya Minister took the lead in skilfully defending the position of the African Group, adopted by their Heads of States in Maputo earlier this summer.

If this working procedure is regularized, (it is after all, normal practice in the deliberations of the UN and indeed of the EU/OECD, each with its own consultation procedures) the majors and the WTO secretariat will no longer be able to ignore the deliberations and views of the majority with impunity, as they have heretofore been accustomed.

In organizing the conduct of their work in the most transparent and democratic manner, the African Union and the ACP Groups have sent a wider message: the credibility and legitimacy of the multilateral system will be safeguarded only if it is inclusive and participatory.

If, as a result, the WTO’s deliberations become ‘unwieldy’, it is a small price to pay in order to enhance the legitimacy of the trading system. – SUNS5423

(*Chandrakant Patel, a national of Uganda, represents SEATINI in Geneva. He attended the Cancun meeting where he was an advisor to the Uganda delegation. He wrote the above specially for the SUNS).

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