by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 16 Dec 99 -- Members of the WTO were holding several bilateral and plurilateral consultations and meetings among themselves on the Special Session of the General Council due to be held 17 December, on possible scenarios and actions and decisions.

While many delegations, and secretariat officials, envisage a short, technical meeting (without defining how 'technical' it would be) several delegations said Thursday noon, that no clear picture is likely until perhaps just before the meeting, and things may not run according to any script.

An unofficial guidance to the media about possible WTO briefings envisaged two scenarios, depending on the meeting ending in the forenoon itself or being carried over into the afternoon.

Some in the WTO power-structure envisage a short meeting, going through the three agenda items (Budget, Report of the Working Party on Jordan accession, and 'Follow-up to the Seattle Ministerial Conference'). They don't want too much discussion on the Seattle followup (and are trying to discourage members from doing so), except for starting up on 1 January, the negotiations on the 'built-in agenda' (by which they mean only agriculture and services), and have another meeting in mid-January to take further stock and assess.

There are even suggestions that if developing countries raise any issues about the status of the Seattle meeting and outcome or about their implementation issues, developed countries would say 'no' and it may be best to avoid precipitating such questions.

The US and the Cairns Group, for their own domestic reasons, want to ensure that the agricultural negotiations start off on 1 January 2000, even if the talks about what to negotiate take much time thereafter.

The secretariat too has an incentive to get the budget approved.

The US, EC, the Cairns Group and the secretariat may all have a common tactical agenda, but does it serve the countries of the South?

The scenario of agreeing to procedural or other processes looking beyond Seattle, and waiting till the next General Council in January, will put developing countries at a considerable disadvantage and worsen their positions, given that many transition periods end on 31 December. And while there is talk that these could be "extended" retroactively at the January meeting, the major industrialized countries or any one of them (like the US) could say 'no'.

If the US is so keen on kicking off the agriculture talks, and continuing the e-commerce moratorium, there is no reason why developing countries should not demand as a price, the blanket extension of all transition periods, until these issues can be discussed and resolved as part of the post-Seattle process.

And given the partisan way the secretariat plays this game, even holding up the budget, may not be a bad thing.

But it is not clear how many of the members will stand up.

Basic to the holding and transacting of the business listed in the provisional agenda for the Special Session is agreement, implicit in their actions or explicitly stated and brought on record - on the status of the 3rd Ministerial Conference, whether it was legally constituted and run or its procedural failures could be deemed to have the agreement of members 'not objecting' and whether there was any 'decision' at Seattle that the conference has been simply 'adjourned' or remains 'suspended' and everything on the table 'frozen', as Mrs Barshefsky announced on the night of 3 December at the Committee of the Whole and the plenary.

There is much confusion (see SUNS 4573 and 4574) among many delegations about what did or did not happen at Seattle - both at the beginning and at the end. But most are agreed that there was no 'decision' agreeing with the Barshefsky statement. And even some trade officials appear to be veering to that view.

The Rules of the Ministerial Conference (Rule 17) provide for the Chair to open and close each meeting, and (under Rule 19) for any member to move for 'adjournment of the debate'.

There is no provision for the chair to announce 'suspension' and just go away, without any formal decision of the meeting. Rules can be revised by the Conference (and perhaps waived too), but there is no indication or claim this was ever done (excepting for the purported remark of Barshefsky to the delegations that she needed a declaration and she would get one, if necessary, by changing the rules).

Several WTO diplomats who were present at the final COW, recall from their notes, that Mrs.Barshefsky's remarks used both terms - 'suspended' and 'adjourned', but that nothing was formally put to the COW and declared as decided. Even her plenary statement made no such claim.

If the WTO secretariat which is mandated under Rule 31 (to keep summary records) decides the Seattle meet has been adjourned (and provides minutes to that effect), or if the General Council Friday (takes the view implicitly by going ahead with its agenda items, at least two of which it can do only on the basis that "in the intervals between meetings of the Ministerial Conference, its functions shall be conducted by the General Council"), the Friday meeting can deal with Jordan's accession as well as the follow-up to Seattle.

But if the Ministerial is in suspension, any action on these two items will be one of questionable legality, and provide grist to the anti-WTO NGO campaigns in the United States (see separate story below) which want to enforce on the South, through US law and unilateralism, US political and cultural values.

Many delegations, both members and observers, are still awaiting the preparation and circulation by the WTO secretariat of the 'minutes' and 'record' of the Seattle Ministerial meeting, both its opening and its end to get an official version and decide the actual status of the 3rd Ministerial Conference.

In the chaotic conditions, both inside the conference centre at Seattle and in approaching and reaching it, many Geneva-based officials of member country delegations, who are familiar with the WTO procedures and practices, were not even present at the formal plenary when it began.

When the formal ceremonial opening of the Conference at Paramount Theatre Hall in Seattle could not be held, with protestors and demonstrators surrounding the entire area, and some invading the hall itself, many delegations and ministers were advised to stay wherever they are and not come to the theatre hall in view of the conditions, and that they would be advised.

Some got advice that the plenary meeting would be held in the conference centre in the afternoon, but that the formal opening had been abandoned. Some others did not get any direct advice, but learnt from TV screens (inside and outside the conference centre) and went to the conference centre where, by the time they queued up and got through the security, the plenary meeting had already begun.

Amb. Nathan Urumba of Uganda was one such and says his minister and delegation remained at their hotel, and did not get any word, but that knowing from others that the plenary would start at the conference centre, he went there, but by then the meeting had begun and Moore had finished his remarks.

Some of the working group sessions, formal and informal also had already begun or were due to begin at the same time, and trade negotiators of the Geneva missions, had gone to the meetings to 'staff' them. But from others, particularly the observer delegations, who were present inside, a clearer picture was emerging.

One of those present inside the hall, and one who, as a former representative to GATT of his country is familiar with the practices, was Mr. Munir Ahmad, Executive Director of the International Textiles and Clothing Bureau (ITCB), an intergovernmental body of developing country exporters, with observer status at the WTO.

Munir Ahmad recalls that at the conference centre itself, inside the plenary hall, WTO Director-General Mike Moore took the chair and kicked off the meeting, with the statement that the Chairperson, Mrs. Charlene Barshefsky was on her way but had asked Moore to start the business.

The Provisional List of Representatives for the Seattle conference, lists Mrs. Barshefsky as Chairperson, and lists as Vice-Chairpersons Colombian Foreign Trade Minister, Mrs.Marta Lucia Ramirez de Rincon, Burkina Faso Trade Minister Abdoul Kader Cisse, and Pakistan Commerce Minister, Abdul Razak Dawood.

The WTO rules of procedure for meetings of WTO bodies (dated July 1997), under Rule 12 of the rules of the Ministerial Conference: "During the course of each regular session a Chairperson and three Vice-Chairpersons are to be elected from among the Members. They shall hold office from the end of that session until the end of the next regular session."

The Geneva Ministerial Conference of 1998 was itself beset with demonstrations, with a plenary at the Assembly Hall of the main UN Geneva office complex at the Palais des Nations, and working group sessions at the WTO. Holding the 3rd Ministerial at the US was accepted, but no date or venue was set (only the General Council did so much later). Whether or not any of the Officers were 'elected' at that meeting, the Chairman of the Geneva meeting, the Swiss Federal Minister for Economic Affairs, Pascal Couchepin, announced at the meeting that the next ministerial would be chaired by USTR Mrs. Charlene Barshefsky, and three vice-chairs were Ministers of Colombia, Burkina Faso and Pakistan. The WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero announced to a press conference that Barshefsky had taken over the Chairmanship of the next Ministerial Conference.

Rule 13 of the Conference Rules, provides that if the Chairperson is absent, one of three vice-chairpersons shall perform the functions of the Chairperson, and if no Vice-Chairperson is present, the Ministerial Conference shall elect an interim Chairperson for that meeting or that part of the meeting. It is not known whether, when the plenary was sought to be kicked off on 30 December, any of the vice-chairpersons were in the hall. But the rules don't provide for either the Chairperson asking someone else to conduct the meeting or for the WTO head to do so.

But Moore announced that Barshefsky had asked him to start off the proceedings, and then used a fast gavel (amidst much good-natured laughter from delegations) to declare the agenda adopted as also the 'agreement on organization of work' set out in the proposed order of business of the conference - WT/Min(99)4/Rev.1, and asked the General Council Chairman (Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania) to make a statement on the report of the General Council. This was followed by plenary statements of Ministers.

The provisional agenda for the conference - WT/Min899)/W/1 dated 26 Oct 1999 (Rule 3 of the rules though, require the secretariat to communicate to Members the provisional agenda for each regular session "at least five weeks before the opening of the session") - does not list what is required as first item (as required under Rule 5), "the first item of business at each session shall be the consideration and approval of the agenda."

The provisional agenda lists:

1. "Overview of Activities of the WTO";

There is an explanatory note that under this Ministers would have the opportunity to review the operation and functioning of the multilateral trading system, general statements related thereto pursuant to para 8 of the General Ministerial Declaration of May 1998, and that they could further pursue their evaluation of implementation of individual agreements and the realization of their objectives, and mentions as a document a report of the General Council on activities of the WTO in 1999.

2. Action by Ministers;

This carries an explanatory note that Ministers are expected under this item of the agenda to adopt a Ministerial text and take any other action which they may deem necessary for the future work of the WTO.

3. Date and Venue of the Fourth Session.

4. Election of Officers.

On the final day of the Seattle Ministerial Conference, one of the British NGOs put out a statement quoting the British Trade Minister to the effect that the Seattle meeting was a mess.

Clearing up the mess, requires that the WTO, a rules-based organization, should first recognize that there is a mess and the way out of the mess cannot be by further improvisation but by getting back to the rules and following them. (SUNS4575)

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

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