by Martin Khor

Geneva 8 Nov 99 -- A groundswell of concern and unhappiness by many developing countries over the lack of their participation in the WTO preparatory process for the Seattle Ministerial and its increasingly non-transparent nature built up at the end of last week and spilled over into the informal heads-of-delegation (HOD) meeting last Saturday.

Diplomats of many delegations, especially of smaller countries, are now openly and vocally airing their grievances over their not being informed about or invited to the "Green Room" meetings, of a small group of countries, that have proliferated at this late stage of the negotiations towards Seattle.

"The Director-General has hijacked the General Council process," said the Ambassador of one developing country, speaking on background basis. Added another: "It is assumed that a few countries can be invited to resolve the issues, and that the rest of us will accept the results as a fait accompli." The target of the growing criticisms is the series of small-group meetings, called by and usually chaired by the WTO director-general Mike Moore, at which the developed countries and a few selected developing countries are supposed to intensely discuss their respective positions and try to work out new compromise language in attempts to bridge differences in the draft Ministerial Text.

What meetings are being held, which issues are being discussed, which delegations have been invited, what has been discussed, and what new texts on which paragraphs of the draft Declaration have been submitted at the meetings or being worked out, are not known to the general WTO membership.

Except for a few countries, the vast majority are kept utterly in the dark on what constitutes the most vital aspects of the pre-Seattle negotiations.

Those attending such meetings also say that often one or two opposed to the views of the majors and the secretariat are sought to feel isolated, and only a few could stand up against such a process. And on top of it, the meetings are held well into the night, and sometimes till the early hours of the morning - in an effort to get consensus by exhaustion and wearing out.

Last Thursday, at the formal General Council meeting, five delegations for the first time openly complained about the "green room" process, which has not been mandated by the General Council. Neither the Chairman, Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania nor Moore gave any response.

According to diplomats, Moore and Mchumo met with about 14 delegations on Friday to listen to their grievances. But the meeting failed to yield any positive results. Although Moore listened to the complaints, said the diplomats, he failed to respond in any satisfactory way, instead only reiterating that the small-group process could not be avoided.

"He did not even assure us he would find some mechanism of keeping those of us who are not part of the 'green-room' process briefed about what is going on, which is the minimum we expect," said a senior diplomat last Saturday.

"The Director-General and the major countries are making the assumption that only a small group comprising themselves and a few developing countries can resolve the issues, and they take for granted that in the end all the others will be told the results, and we have to accept that as a fait accompli."

Said another Ambassador of a developing country: "The Director-General has hijacked the General Council process. He is behaving like the Managing Director of a company and we the majority of developing countries are being treated like non-voting members because our shareholding is deemed to be too low."

He said that the 'green-room' process in which most Members are excluded has not been mandated by the General Council. He added that the process is also in violation of the Ministerial Declaration of Geneva (20 May 1998), in which Ministers instructed the General Council to prepare for the Seattle Conference with full respect for decision-making by consensus.

(The relevant part of para 9 of the Declaration states that: "We decide that a process will be established under the direction of the General Council to ensure full and faithful implementation of existing agreements, and to prepare for the Third Session of the Ministerial Conference. This process shall enable the General Council to submit recommendations that will enable us to take decisions at the Third Session. In this regard the General Council will meet in special session to ensure full and timely completion of its work, fully respecting the principle of decision-making by consensus.")

On Friday, Moore had sent a letter to the Chairman, which suggested that the 'green room' consultations was in pursuance of a request from Mchumo. On Saturday, there was some reference to this apparently, with some participants saying that Mchumo had confirmed this, while others said that Mchumo's references were more ambiguous and merely said that he had asked Moore to conduct the consultations in Mchumo's absence.

But either way, said a trade diplomat, with some knowledge of the past including the mid-1980 GATT, it was not something that in terms of the WTO and its specific rules could be decided by an arrangement between Mchumo and Moore, but needed authority from the General Council. Also, agreements among a small few as in the old GATT days could not be pushed through in the new WTO, particularly with the public in many countries sensitive to the fact that their own government representatives are not involved in these 'consultations' and only get to know at the end - as they saw at Singapore.

On Saturday, at the opening of the informal HOD meeting, Moore tried to assure delegations on the importance he attached to the transparency of the negotiating process. But some delegations reiterated their grave concerns about the 'green-room' process, and even more delegates were voicing their grievances, including about how the Director-General had failed to provide any solutions beyond mere rhetoric, outside the meeting room.

"There should be no doubt about the importance both you and I attach to the transparency and to the primacy of the General Council in all our work," said Moore. "Let me add however that it is inconceivable that progress can be made without a wide variety of consultations among delegations. Delegations have been working to further convergence bilaterally or in groups. This is both necessary and desirable. Similarly I have been consulting with a wide range of delegations in a variety of formats.

"But it should be clear that nothing is agreed until it is agreed by the membership as a whole, and consensus means all voices must be heard. I understand the frustration of smaller delegations at the complexity of the process. I will work closely with you for maximum possible inclusiveness and openness. Likewise we must ensure all Ministers at Seattle are fully and properly involved in the substance of that Ministerial."

In response, Amb. Alfredo Suescum of Panama said "many developing countries are not satisfied with the level of transparency and openness in the organisation. They are not being notified about what meetings are taking place. They are concerned why there was a limitation imposed on the number of delegations being invited to take part, why a general notice on the meetings was not being given."

He said that if there was a concern that the size of the negotiating groups should not be too big, "our suggestion is that there could be small meetings, but organised differently, where for example those countries that had put forward proposals could be given the opportunity to present them and answer queries. At present, small developing countries making proposals are not even invited and thus could not have the chance to explain them."

He said it was not a good reason to exclude many developing countries on the ground that they are unable to take part in many meetings. "I would rather make the decision whether I want to go the meetings, and each delegation should be able to make its own decision."

He added that any proposal or compromise text arising from the small meetings should be put forward to the general membership by the relevant participant of the green-room meeting, before it could be allowed to be incorporated into a new Draft Declaration. Otherwise there was a danger that some things would go into the text without having gone through a process of deliberation.

Honduras and Cuba supported Panama's position. However, Morocco said it would not be possible to reach agreement unless there were small group meetings.

But perhaps one result of the dissatisfaction with the 'green room' process, and the DG undertaking it without an authorization from the General Council, was that on Saturday when the US and other proposals about 'transparency' of the WTO for outside world, and the so-called 'outreach programme', it met with a lot of opposition -- with some suggesting that it was for each government to find ways of consulting its civil society. And, Panama and others said that the WTO must first resolve the problem of transparency within the organization.

Outside the meeting room, an Ambassador of a small developing country said that his greater fear was that the non-transparent and non-participatory process would be repeated in Seattle, with even graver implications.

"Even in Geneva, where there has been more time for negotiations, the process is already so non-transparent and most of us are blocked from the small-group meetings," he said.

"Imagine what will happen in Seattle, where a large part of the text may still be in square brackets. I fear that we will have a repeat of what happened in Singapore. A few Ministers will be called into small meetings to negotiate parts of the disputed text (and will be sought to be outnumbered and awed by the majors and their supporters), and the rest of the Ministers will be left out. How will they feel? What will we say when people ask about the transparency of the system and the participation of developing countries?"

At Singapore, Ministers of most developing countries were kept out of the small meeting of about 30 countries that met over several days to work out compromise language on several disputed issues. The night before the Meeting ended, an informal meeting of all Ministers was called, and asked to endorse the text agreed on by the small group.

As a result of vociferous complaints by many Ministers (who nevertheless went along with the "consensus"), the then Director General Renato Ruggiero pledged that the non-participatory process at Singapore would not be repeated.

At the high-level WTO symposia on trade and environment and trade and development in March this year, NGOs criticised the WTO's lack of transparency, citing among other things the "green-room" and small-group processes prior to and at Singapore.

Speaking to NGOs, Ruggiero then admitted it was true that the green-room process had been criticised by many Ministers and delegations, but that he had taken note of these complaints. He assured the NGOs that after Singapore, he had stopped holding such small-group meetings and that henceforth all meetings were open to the general Membership of WTO, and all Members were able to participate in the negotiating meetings.

Some of the small meetings were organised outside by the Quad (Canada, EC, Japan and the US) in turn, inviting some others, and Ruggiero also attended some meetings or dinner meetings. But the outcome there had to be owned and presented by one or the other delegations, whereas the 'green room' process is often presented as a "chairman's text".

It is unclear whether the assurances given by Ruggiero were on a personal or institutional basis. Moore could be unaware of what his predecessor had pledged, but it is difficult to believe that the secretariat has no records of this and did not acquaint Moore.

In any case, the present Director General is on to a very different tune, justifying the 'green-room' process that he initiated as necessary and desirable, even as he assures that he shares the developing countries' concerns about transparency.

If the under-currents of grievances about the process are already so strong, the situation may become even more problematic from this week when it is expected that some meetings will be scheduled to be held parallel to others. The problem will be especially acute if a HOD meeting involving all Members is held simultaneously with one or two "green room" meetings.

Delegations not invited to the green room process fear that when this happens, the 'green-room' meetings would then supplant the general meetings as the major countries would then concentrate on the "real negotiations" in the green-room meetings and would pay less attention to what the majority of developing countries have to say in the general open meetings. The general meetings would then be more of a formality whereas the exclusive 'green-room' meetings would, even more than they are already doing, undertake the real negotiations.

Long-time trade observers say that the only way to end this rule-less process is for developing country or several of them to refuse to take even for consideration at the General Council, any document coming out of such a green room process, and force de novo talks.

Meanwhile, developing countries invited to some of the 'green room' meetings face the dilemma of which meetings to attend, as they too may have a shortage of diplomats to adequately cover all meetings.

If this process continues in Geneva and spills over to Seattle, it is anybody's guess how the WTO would then be able to answer public criticisms (let alone the criticisms of its own Member states) about its non-transparent, secretive and undemocratic system of decision-making. (SUNS4547)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.

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

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