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THE RETURN OF THE 'GREEN ROOM'

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 28 Oct 99 -- The preparatory process of drafting a Ministerial Declaration for Seattle resumed at the WTO Wednesday, with an informal heads of delegation meeting on various parts of the 32-page revised draft text put forward by Chairman Ali Mchumo on 20 October.

Along with the HOD process, WTO Director-General Mike Moore (who announced soon after taking over that he was going to ensure transparency), has resumed the abandoned practice of "Green Room" consultations - among a smaller group of countries, invited by him.

By their very nature, they are restricted to invitees, non-transparent except for those present, and even then; and officially for the WTO media office, are non-events.

Last week, the informal HOD discussed the square bracketed texts on agriculture and implementation issues - without any progress in removing any square brackets.

On Wednesday, the informal HOD discussed the paragraphs of the draft relating to Services, and on Thursday was due to take up the Singapore items -- Investment, Competition Policy, Transparency in Government Procurement and Trade Facilitation.

HOD meetings are also set through Sunday: discussion of paras on implementation, least developed countries, technical cooperation (on Friday); review of overall progress and other subjects proposed for negotiations (Saturday); other elements of a work programme (Sunday); and resumption of talks on agriculture on Monday.

But in what seems to be a pattern, after the informal HOD every day, the 'green room' meetings have been taking place on the same subjects -- with those expressing strong views or opposition to particular formulations and issues being invited, along with some 'constants' which include the four majors.

The name "Green Room" consultations came from the colour of the wall-paper decor in the Director-General's Conference Room (when Arthur Dunkel was Director-General from 1980 to 1992). Since then, the colour of the wall-paper decor has changed in the D-G's conference room - to an off-white grey. But the renewed consultations are still being referred to by diplomats as "Green Room" consultations.

When Dunkel was succeeded by Peter Sutherland, the limited consultations and negotiations, among key delegations to conclude the Uruguay Round took place outside - at the instance of one or the other major delegations -- with Sutherland convening 'open-ended' heads of delegation meetings, where members received the texts 'drafted or agreed' elsewhere and 'cleared' by consensus.

Complaints over the limited consultations and negotiations at the Singapore Ministerial in December 1996 (where a few countries were sought to be isolated and pressured to yield on investment negotiations) exploded into the open on the final day of that conference. At that time the Director-General of the WTO, Mr.Renato Ruggiero, said he was going to take measures to ensure greater transparency and participation.

Since Singapore, while the US and EC and the secretariat have been talking of 'transparency' to NGOs etc, there has been little transparency in decision-making. While proposals and some documents are finding their way into web pages for the media and others, the General Council processes have been open to all members - the formal ones also to observer delegations, and the informal ones confined to members.

But in the run-up to Seattle, since about last week, one developing country diplomat commented, "the Green Room" is back again - excepting that the colour of the wall-paper decor of the DG's conference room is no longer green, but perhaps some shades of grey.

The diplomat, who did not want to be named, conceded this was a step back, since the informal negotiations and participation are decided by invitation of the DG. "But we are there," he said, making the point that his own country is represented.

Last week, along with the HOD process (which Moore had chaired while Mchumo was unable to preside, as he was involved in his capacity as Tanzania's ambassador with events and arrangements following the death of Julius Nyerere), Moore also began calling for consultations of a limited number of delegation heads on the drafting exercise, but telling those present that the meetings were not for 'decisions'.

Last weekend, he had held 2 or 3 such consultations on agriculture issues - where there was no progress, but rather a hardening of positions, and with some of the Cairns group members refusing to proceed further without an accord on the parameters of agriculture negotiations.

At the meeting of some 25 Ministers, the so-called 'Friends of the Round' at Lausanne on 25-26 October, a statement by the chair of the meeting had said Ministers had agreed that over the next few days, their representatives would focus on 'identification of issues for negotiations' and then to define the 'parameters'.

The Lausanne meeting was not part of the WTO process, and there were no "official inputs" from that meeting to the WTO, and the resumed informal open-ended HOD process, and the discussions have been as before on each subject and the parameters of negotiations.

But along with the informal HOD, Moore's invited "Green Room" consultations have also been resumed with about 20-25 delegations.

These limited consultations, of invited representatives of about 15-25 countries (the number depending on the issues), was a very prevalent practice under the old GATT, and was used during the Uruguay Round, when a few developing countries, who were opposed to the particular demands of the majors, were generally brought in, isolated and pressured to yield.

At the moment, another Third World diplomat said, these new 'Green Room' consultations have not narrowed differences, and only known positions have been repeated. And the group is not even negotiating accords, but agreeing on subjects to negotiate and the parameters.

Perhaps, there is a marking of time, while the EC and US heads have been meeting Wednesday in Washington. At some point, the two will attempt to clinch a deal, and then will use their joint efforts to make others fall in line.

Agriculture, and how to formulate the parameters of future negotiations is a major divide between the US and EC. However, though the US cloaks itself with the mantle of  'free trade', it is as protectionist as the EC, though the US support to its agriculture, the restrictions on imports, and subsides for exports are done in a different way.

And though the Cairns Group members are at the moment flexing their muscles, they can no more stand up now against a US-EC accord, as they could not in 1993, when the US and EC agreed on agriculture.

One of them privately admitted that they have no inherent power to pry open the EC market and basically depend on the US.

The US clearly wants a smooth launch of a next round of negotiations at Seattle, without too many contentious issues that could wreck that meeting. It has therefore sought to confine the negotiations to the mandated ones in agriculture and services and one or two others. Even here, it may settle for 'constructive ambiguity', to get beyond Seattle, before applying pressure on the EC.

However, at Lausanne, the USTR Ms Charlene Barshevsky, already indicated a compromise that it would strive to strike with the EC -- putting the EC issues (investment and competition) on a work programme, with a higher status than the present study and educative process, and with a Ministerial declaration that would allow these to be taken up for negotiations at the mid-term review meeting of Ministers.

There are some developing countries who may buy this, and the discussions and views among delegations now is also more fractious, and there are strong differences even within some previously cohesive regional groups or issue-groups.

But this would be a repetition of the follies of developing countries in the Uruguay Round - when what they thought had been compromises for limited mandates at Punta del Este (in TRIPS and counterfeit goods) became a full-fledged and highly trade-restrictive IPR regime.

At that time in 1986, and then at the mid-term review of 1989, many developing countries, particularly the Asian tigers, thought that they would not be affected by TRIPS, but only countries like India or some in Latin America. But now they know it is otherwise.

Also, the Punta del Este's vague mandate on the Functioning of the GATT System (FOGS) was used to create an over-arching WTO and a dispute settlement system which, panels and the Appellate Body, have interpreted such as to make obligations of agreements cumulative on developing countries, while a 'coherence' declaration of Ministers, despite denials, is being used to provide 'WTO muscle' to the IMF/World Bank conditionalities to push a neo-liberal state in the South.

Third World observers see dangers of an attempt to repeat this.

But this time around, the developing country negotiators, and their ministers, would not be able to defend themselves as having had to agree to something because of 'ignorance' or not knowing all the facts.

While the EC and US are yet to resolve their agriculture differences, both the EC Commissioner Pascal Lamy (a more suave and smoother personality than his abracious predecessor, Sir Leon Brittan) and Barshevsky, made clear that environment and labour issues would come up and have to be accommodated at Seattle - if not in negotiations, at least as a 'work programme'. (SUNS4540)

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

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