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PACKING BAGS, MENTAL AND PHYSICAL, FOR SEATTLE

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 22 Nov 99 -- Trade diplomats still meeting in small and big groups to negotiate a "draft ministerial declaration" for the 3rd Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, are more busy packing their 'physical and mental, personal and official' baggage for Seattle than negotiating to find solutions.

They have given up any hope of any agreed text for Seattle.

A meeting of the General Council scheduled for Monday afternoon, first at informal heads of delegation (HOD) level, to be followed by a formal meeting to agree to forward texts to Seattle, was put off till at least Tuesday.

The General Council is 17 days behind on its schedule of producing a draft declaration text for the consideration of capitals. And with just 8 days to go for the Ministers to convene in Seattle, there is discord on almost everything.

In almost 40 years experience of following international conferences and preparations, this writer has not come across such confusion on almost everything (not excluding the host country arrangements for Seattle). And the blame rests squarely with the two majors, the United States and the European Union, both pushing the interests of their big, greedy corporations, and thus their mutually conflicting agendas, as well as a near-convergent common agenda vis-a-vis the markets of the developing countries.

The Ministerial Conference at Seattle is to be chaired by the US Trade Representative, Mrs.Charlene Barshefsky, and will have four working groups, each to be chaired by a minister, to tackle respectively, agriculture, implementation issues, market access and WTO rules.

The work of the conference to be split into four working groups, to agree on the agenda and mandate for negotiations and further work programme (that has been under discussion in Geneva for over a year now), will stretch developing country delegations and their human and physical resources.

The General Council at a Sunday meeting agreed to this structure, but balked at the secretariat's attempt to set up a fifth working group to deal with what the WTO's head, Mike Moore, called "systemic issues".

Splitting into four working groups to discuss the parts of the draft is tolerable, provided all these negotiations will be in meetings open to all members, and not a cover for further secretive 'green room' processes, one African delegate said Sunday.

"But we are afraid that all our attention and energies will be spent in staffing such meetings (where a consensus can be declared in our absence), while small groups will be convened to enable the US and the majors to force developing countries to yield to their demands," another delegate said.

And while the US and EC (and now the WTO head) talk of systemic issues and how to ensure "transparency" within the organization and of the organization outside, according to all reports, at the Seattle conference centre, the access of the media to the lobby of the conference halls, and their ability to meet delegates, seem likely to be even more restricted than ever.

Moore explained to the Sunday meeting that the systemic issue to be tackled relates to the issues of "transparency" and how to manage the work at the WTO, and how to deal with the problem of 135 (and growing) members, and negotiations, in an institution where decisions are to be by consensus.

But trade officials admitted later that the group could also tackle "coherence" issues.

In the year-long preparatory process, the secretariat has been repeatedly attempting to bring up its own agenda -- for expanding its remit and power and suzerainty over the developing world. Each proposal and idea have been shot down by a range of developing countries. But the secretariat keeps bringing up the same idea under different names.

India and a few other countries on Sunday did not agree on the need for a separate working group at Seattle on these issues, since any event these could not be 'negotiated' at Seattle ministerial.

At Punta del Este, where the Uruguay Round was launched with what seemed an innocuous item without a specific mandate, "the Functioning of the GATT system (FOGS)," the subject was turned into a catch-all for many far-reaching issues and proposals and decisions -- including the establishment of the WTO and its Dispute Settlement Understanding.

The secretariat appears to be engaged in a similar effort now.

Through the week-end and on Monday morning, there were meetings still in small informal groups and sub-groups on the issues of "agriculture" and "implementation" -- where the attempts appears to be to put together some text or the other with alternatives to enable ministers to negotiate at Seattle.

There is no real negotiations to evolve texts or reduce areas of contention and discord, but rather efforts by protagonists on various sides to ensure that their own viewpoints don't get jettisoned by the secretariat which is putting out compromises and texts.

Some of these meetings are being chaired or led by the Director-General Moore, others by former deputy DG, Anwar Hoda who has been brought in as an advisor or consultant and chairing the consultations on 'implementation', and others like principles and structure of the draft, by the new deputy D.G. Mr.Miguel Rodriguez from Venezuela

In the implementation group, one of the participants said, at every new version, some thing or the other of the developing country points on decisions at Seattle gets jettisoned and pushed away to a post-Seattle process, with no certainty that it would be settled even then by 2000. All that is being suggested is that implementation items not resolved at Seattle, and others already envisaged for consideration post-Seattle, will be remitted to a "special mechanism" under the General Council, which is to make recommendations to the Fourth Session of the Ministerial Conference for consideration and adoption.

This will be a recipe for rolling the "implementation issues" into a new round, and for developing countries (complaining of the existing inequities, imbalances and lack of benefits in the system) being asked to pay a price, and take on more obligations and provide more rights for redressing past imbalances. And given the range of demands on them across the board, and in new areas, the "development round" will end up by foreclosing even more their development prospects or cry for equity.

In the group chaired by Dy. DG Rodriguez, discussions on a secretariat draft showed opposition from the US and others even to mentioning the idea that the WTO and the globalization and liberalization has resulted in marginalisation. "We would be sending a wrong message," was the view against such mention.

Even more, it was sought to be made out that the WTO has brought in trade security for businesses everywhere, and ensured there would be no unilateralism. Even the EC negotiators found this too much, and pointed to the endless, and still unsettled, arguments and controversies over whether 'trade sanctions' for purported non-compliance with the WTO recommendations should be by a unilateral determination of the US or subject to a multilateral scrutiny (which the US has spurned).

There is not much surprise in the secretariat draft and presentation. In a new precedent, after taking his job as Deputy DG, Rodriguez issued a "mission statement" that he had not come to the WTO "to seek an early retirement.... (but) to make a contribution to the strengthening of the multilateral trading system."

And in what must be seen as a counter or slap to the year-long demands and complaints of developing countries about implementation and WTO decisions and actions to remedy the imbalance and marginalisation, the Venezuelan added that he was convinced that the interests of developing countries would best be served by a strong multilateral trading system and said: "We need more rules, not less. It is the effective implementation of all countries' commitments, not less compliance that will make the system work better." (emphasis added).

This is almost similar to the views of the US about "implementation".

In agriculture, a mandated area of further negotiations to be launched in 2000, it was reported that the US, the EC and the Cairns group have agreed on some formulations, with some square brackets, but that some others (Norway, Switzerland, Japan and Korea) have not accepted yet.

The new text removes the references to the 'multi-functionality' of agriculture, but seeks to address this by talking of negotiations having to take into account 'non-trade concerns'.

The demands of some of the developing countries on special and differential treatment and flexibility from rules and disciplines to address their concerns including food security, rural development and poverty alleviation, still figure in square brackets, i.e. areas of discord.

Trade diplomats are worried that with everything relating to the draft deadlocked, almost everything would need to be negotiated at Seattle.

There are some last-minute efforts to find a language on agriculture to paper over differences in mandate for the negotiations. But it is not certain. And if it does, the US, Cairns group and the EC as well as Japan will join to pressure others on other things. With disagreement on almost everything, the trade organization has never been confronted with such a situation in its 51 year history -- both of the old GATT and the new WTO. (SUNS4557)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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