WTO compromise less than made out in media?

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 3 July -- Media reports out of Auckland about the compromise for resolving the impasse over the election of the next Director-General of the WTO, with the two contestants taking office consecutively, may be more than the actual outcome of the talks, trade diplomats in Geneva reported this week.

The media reports out of Auckland had said that an Australian compromise idea of the two contestants, Thailand's Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi and the New Zealand's Mike Moore being appointed successively to consecutive terms, had been received favourably by both sides.

There was some indirect confirmation of the talks from a senior Thai official Kobsak Chutikal, who answered questions at a press conference on 30 June. However, said Kobsak, any solution must ensure transparency, equity, fairness and democratic procedures, and must be considered by the trade representatives at the WTO and their regional groups and acceptable to them, and be in accord with rules.

Trade diplomats here, basing themselves on briefings and reports from Auckland, were more cautious about the compromise than it has been made out in some media reports. The idea, they said, has been put to the two candidates, and appears to have been accepted by each "in principle", and that Supachai and Moore have also met directly. Afterwards both have made some comments in response to questions from media.

It is at best a second-best or third-best way out of the impasse, but would be difficult of acceptance to the members if the reported, somewhat inflexible views of Moore and his principal backer, the US are true.

According to the reports, Moore had made a pitch, in remarks at Auckland, for getting the job first, using the argument of the support to him of 81 members, and for a 4-year term, and for the term to continue until the end of the "millennium round" of trade negotiations to be launched at Seattle.

While the US Trade Representative, Mrs. Charlene Barshevsky, was not at Auckland, US officials and trade diplomats are also reported to have taken the same position.

But some of the key countries who have been supporting Dr. Supachai have rejected any such proposal, saying any compromises being talked about in terms of the "numerical support" based on the "consultations" of the General Council Chair and the assessment provided to the members, and challenged formally in the Council, would be a non-starter.

While some of the key countries backing and supporting Supachai have not talked in terms of "developing" vs "developed" country, if there is to be a compromise on the lines sketched out, and given the talk of the next round being a "development" round, it is fit and proper that the next Director-General come from a developing country, one trade diplomat said.

And a four-year or more term for the candidate to be named now, followed by another four years for the contestant, would not be acceptable to other regional groups as well.

It would mean that Latin America or Africa cannot hope to have a person from their regions occupying the post for the next eight years.

While some of the countries from other regions want to bring the impasse to an end, and view an agreed split term as a second or third-best solution, and one with which they could reluctantly go along, they insist on a 2-year term for each, or at best a 3-year term in succession.

Some of them find the talk by Moore of his having 81-members behind him or of the US using similar expressions, and saying that for them any compromise must involve their candidate, Moore, being elected now, is the kind of pre-condition that cannot be the basis for any compromise.

The entire impasse has arisen because of serious doubts and challenges publicly stated by several of the leading countries to the "levels of support" outlined by General Council chairman, Mr. Ali Mchumo, and endorsing it in any way would not be acceptable to them.

If the US and other Moore supporters were so confident of their "level of support", there is no reason why it could be not be tested by an informal head-count in terms of the support for Moore or Supachai -- and not as the question had been posed by Mchumo and his "facilitator," these diplomats said.

No such informal process can militate against the WTO/GATT idea of decision-making by consensus on the substantive trade issues, these diplomats said.

Before recessing the Council meeting in June, Chairman Mchumo encouraged the delegations to hold talks among themselves, rather than through his intermediation.

Trade diplomats say that any informal discussions or negotiations mediated by Mchumo would not be fruitful at this stage, and some of the key countries on both sides, need to talk among themselves and directly.

There have been some informal contacts among some, but the selection process has strained direct relationships and it is going to take some efforts on both sides for the civility of trade diplomacy to resume. (SUNS4469)

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

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