"SHOW BACK ON ROAD, BUT IN VERY MODEST WAY"
by Chakravarthi Raghavan
Geneva, 8 May 2000 -- The "show is back on the road, but in a very modest way", but the fundamental issues and differences that brought down the Seattle Ministerial meeting still remain, though people are talking, the WTO Director-General Mike Moore said Monday at a press conference.
Moore's remarks came as the General Council took some partial decisions on some of the issues identified for priority action as 'confidence building' measures to get the WTO back on track after the debacle of the Seattle Ministerial. Trade diplomats of developing countries said the decisions at the General Council, essentially procedural, had now set up a process to address some of the major concerns of developing countries, and the least developed among them.
But the main work lay ahead. And only actual actions and solutions on the substance, could help in building or restoring confidence of developing countries in the trading system and its benefits, and persuade them, and their domestic enterprises to undertake more obligations and commitments that further negotiations at the WTO, in areas within its remit or new areas would imply, they said. The General Council took procedural decisions on ways to handle implementation issues and transition periods that have expired under various agreements.
Still to be resolved through consultations are ways of agreeing on internal transparency and the inclusive process of decision-making to replace the present opaque informal processes and negotiations and decisions on key issues by a few powerful countries.
The Council Monday resolved the deadlock over the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee by naming Peru's Amb.Jorge Voto-Barnales. The EC and Japan had objected to the committee and negotiations being led by Amb. Celso Amorim of Brazil, a member of the Cairns group.
Peru is a net food importing country. But it is a recipient of large aid from Japan, and is viewed as having a large degree of influence over foreign policy of Peru under President Fujimori.
Third World trade diplomats generally were positive about the decision on implementation, noting that while only procedural, it ensured that the issues would be addressed at the General Council, rather than in individual areas by the subordinate bodies (where it could be more easily bottled up, with no decisions).
While a similar effort is possible at the General Council too, the issues would be dealt with at level of envoys and on a political level, where developing countries could have more leverage by blocking actions on issues of interest to the developed countries.
A statement by the Chairman of the General Council, Amb. Kare Bryn of Norway outlined the progress in the consultations to bring about internal transparency and effective participation in the decision-making process -- one of the issues that have been identified as a contributory factor to the collapse of the Seattle Ministerial.
Bryn claimed that while there was room for improvement, the on-going debate on internal transparency and effective participation had already positively influenced the way informal consultations were conducted. The preparatory process for the General Council had involved a series of consultations by the General Council Chair and by the chair of the Council for Trade in Goods, the Director-General and his deputies and frequent open-ended informal meetings. Based on the papers prepared by him and the secretariat and the discussions so far, Bryn was hopeful that there was a solid framework to pursue the matter.
However, Pakistan in a comment from the floor, said an open-ended consultative process was the best option to be pursued for effective participation, and such a process would be inclusive, and allay apprehensions of small countries who presently felt marginalised from decision-making.
The present system of decision-making at the WTO, Pakistan noted, had come under criticism from the members because of its exclusiveness and failure to engage all members in decision-making. The system lacked transparency and did not permit effective participation of all in decision-making.
Pakistan was encouraged by the recognition of the short-comings of the present system and the broad commitment to seriously address the issue, as well as efforts of the chairman to seek inputs from members.
While these had given a sharper focus to the discussions and provided an indication of measures needed to improve the system, the issue should not be trivialised by pretending they were being resolved. It was clear that the critical issues still remained to be addressed, "particularly the nature of informal consultations, technically within but sometimes outside the WTO halls, and their relationships with the formal decision-making process" Pakistan noted.
This appeared to be a reference to the still continuing practice and process, including on the 'confidence-building' package, of meetings of 'Quad countries' (Canada, EC, Japan and the USA), and their then sponsoring meetings involving others, and the concentric circles of consultations - where those with differing views are more easily identified and isolated - that ultimately are brought up at informal General Council meetings.
"Without addressing these issues," Pakistan said, "we cannot claim that we have made tangible progress on this matter, nor should we seek to give incorrect impression that such progress has been so far."
Pakistan recalled that along with Cuba, Egypt, Uganda and Zimbabwe, it had submitted a paper on internal transparency and effective participation of all members.
"We believe that the open-ended consultative process suggested by us is the best option which Members may pursue in order to ensure effective participation of Members. Such a process would be inclusive, and would allay the apprehensions of small countries who presently feel marginalised from the decision-making process. Equally important, the open-ended process would be more efficient, for the simple reason that the results obtained would be accepted by all and would, therefore, be durable, precluding the sort of breakdown in decision-making process that was most dramatically witnessed last year at Seattle."
At his press conference, Moore was visibly low-key, compared to some of his performances before and at Seattle, and immediately thereafter at some capitals. He also confessed that his own experience of domestic politics as leader of a small country was very different and the process at the WTO was completely new.
The LDC market access package, he said, was a modest move forward. The implementation issue was very important for developing countries and a vehicle had been set up to deal with them.(SUNS4664)
The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.
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