Democracy, transparency don't exist at WTO

SINGAPORE: On paper, numbers alone would suggest that developing countries should have a big say in world trade negotiations, but that would be in a democratic and transparent WTO - and not like the one that currently exists, say observers.

"The problem with transparency and democracy here (in the WTO) is that even within the official process they do not exist. You have a process, they say, that operates by consensus via "Quad" countries," observed Dr. Walden Bello, co-director of the Bangkok-based Focus on Global South, a research centre.

Bello was one of many NGO representatives who attended the Ministerial meeting of the 127-member World Trade Organization (WTO) that ended here on 13 December. The `Quad' countries he referred to are the United States, Japan, Canada and the 15-member European Union (EU).

The Quad made no secret of their desire to liberalize the information technology sector - in which they are dominant - and they got their way.

"The `Quad' countries basically determine which issues are important and come to the floor, and which issues do not come to the floor," explained Bello. "For instance, it was not the majority of the WTO which decided that those issues which took up 98% of their time here - labour standards, investment and competition policy, government procurement, and information technology agreement - were their priorities," he added.

Since the WTO was established two years ago as a successor to the old GATT, the week-long Singapore gathering was the first time that trade ministers of all 127 WTO member states had met.

Compared with GATT which dealt only with trade in merchandise goods, the WTO covers trade in services and trade- related aspects of intellectual property rights.

And if the `Quad' countries have their way, very soon the WTO may also set binding rules in areas like labour standards, investment policies and government tender procedures.

In fact, the industrialized countries would like to have these new areas included in WTO accords without even having first concluded implementation of overlapping GATT issues that are of particular concern to developing countries, like in the opening up of the agriculture market.

This prompted one Malaysian journalist to ask WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero, why so little time was set aside last week to deal with the concerns of developing countries, compared to the time spent on wrapping up a deal on information technology liberalization - as desired by the "Quad".

Ruggiero's answer was simple: "Because we could not discuss areas where there was disagreement."

But there was much "disagreement" as far as freeing up the information technology sector until an agreement was reached on the penultimate day of the Singapore meeting.

In this case however, it was the developing countries that were protesting.

And there had been even more disagreement and objections from the developing countries on investment, labour standards, competition policy and government procurement

"Plurilateral consultations"

Yet, that did not prevent Ruggiero from pushing these or, with Chairman Yeo of Singapore, from holding "plurilateral consultations" on these issues, day and night, during the whole week.

Said Mary Van Lieshout, policy advisor with the British- based development agency, Oxfam: "For the past two years, developing countries have stated to the WTO Trade Policy Review Board that the implementation of the Uruguay Round agreement is highly contentious and problematic at the domestic level causing difficulties for farmers and industry alike. These issues were to be addressed at this meeting, but they were virtually ignored."

Another problem with the WTO negotiation process, say observers, is its lack of transparency. What is said during news briefings and what goes on behind closed doors do not necessarily tally, journalists say.

"It is very clear here that because of lack of direct access to what is happening, you get a very distorted picture of what is really happening," noted Sunil Jain, a reporter for the magazine India Today. A good example of this, he says, was the outspoken manner of Malaysian delegates at press briefings, where they often knocked the `Quad' countries for pursuing their own objectives.

"Yet, if you go by the unofficial comments of WTO officials, as well as other delegates, in fact Malaysia seemed to have played a different role inside...obviously you have no idea of what's happened behind those closed doors," Jain added.

It is a viewpoint shared by Bjarke Moller of `Radio Denmark'. "I find it very frustrating as a journalist when you don't have the access to get the story yourself... you have to take rumours from different delegations."

Viewpoints on the participation and transparency issue

Josie Farah, regional director (Asia-Pacific) of Consumers International, went so far as to describe the secrecy of the closed door meetings as "frightening". "For the last ten years I have closely followed the Uruguay Round (of GATT negotiations), but its been mainly on paper. It's been an eye- opener here. Witnessing what happened in Singapore is frightening," she said.

"We have very little information or we have been mis- informed. For citizens, for consumers, without this information, public participation which Ruggiero sought in his opening speech seems almost impossible. Trying to get information here has been such a struggle," she explained.

Australian Michael Rae, manager for sustainable development projects of the World Wide Fund for Nature, was similarly disgusted with the WTO process. "The negotiation process at this meeting was like a brick wall."

He too believes the industrialized countries bull-dozed over the developing nations by following only their agenda. "The system is not broadly engaging the countries of the world," he said. "One of the questions we should ask ourselves is what did the ministers and delegates of 127 countries do here, when only some 30 countries negotiated the ministerial text."

There would seem to be some merit in that claim, based on an interview carried on Singaporean television in which Mr. Tommy Koh, a seasoned Singaporean diplomat, now heading an official think-tank, who was the principal advisor to the Conference Chairman, Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister Yeo Cheow Tong.

Explaining how the negotiation process worked, Koh said that bilateral meetings were held to determine various concerns. The next step was group discussions to identify "potential common areas" of interest.

Finally, what was discussed and agreed and disagreed were passed on to what was known as a `Green Room' where 30 to 33 countries sat together to hammer out the wordings of any final Declaration.

There is a "very delicate balance between the transparency of the process involving everyone and the need for an effective negotiation process that can yield results," he said.

That may be so, say observers, but in the final analysis if the WTO is not seen to be democratic, then it may face the same fate of many former dictators who fell to popular uprisings.

"By its failure to adequately democratize itself, the WTO is basically trying to commit suicide," warns Rae. (IPS/K.Seneviratne)