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FOLLOW-UP TO A MINISTERIAL MEETING THAT NEVER (FORMALLY) WAS?

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 14 Dec 99 -- As bemused delegates, most weary, bleary-eyed and sleepless for 24 hours, if not more, trooped around midnight of 3-4 December, into the meeting room of the 'Committee of the Whole' (COW) on the fourth level at the Seattle Conference Centre, WTO-accredited NGOs were holding imprompto press conferences announcing a 'victory'.

The NGOs, particularly the ICFTU-AFL-CIO groups and some of the environment groups crowed that street protests (most in a sense, organized and manipulated by the various wings and allies of the United States administration), and resistance inside the Conference to the manipulative process, had thwarted the US and the WTO secretariat moves, and that 'democracy' had won. Only a few among them privately voiced the view that, at best, the WTO power structures had lost a skirmish, and there will be a re-grouping and an attempt to strike back.

The Seattle meeting or process ended in 'confusion' at the Seattle Conference Centre -- with a confused meeting of the COW, followed by a plenary and a chaotic press conference (by USTR Charlene Barshefsky and WTO head Mike Moore), followed by another press conference of the EU (with three EC commissioners).

And soon after the press conferences ended, the WTO and US media officials, as also other WTO officials, disappeared from the scene -- and unavailable for any clarifications.

Clarification on what exactly happened or did not, and what documents, formal and informal, have been issued has been eluding everyone since then.

As one trade diplomat put it caustically after returning to Geneva, "a meeting that never formally began at Seattle on 30 November was over on the midnight of 3-4 December without any formal decision... The Conference of the 'rules-based' organization began in a 'rule-less' way and ended in a 'rule-less' way around mid-night of 3-4 December."

Some trade ambassadors said Tuesday that their inquiries suggested that even at the 17 December special session, Moore and the secretariat are unlikely to offer any clarification or provide clarity on "the great deal" achieved and the gaps "narrowed considerably" and "the remaining areas" where creative ways to bridge the gap have to be found.

Moore arrived back in Geneva and was at the WTO secretariat on Monday 6 December, and an aerogram dated 7 December went forth to WTO missions, convening a special session of the General Council for 17 December, and with a 3-item draft agenda.

The third item listed said: "Follow-up to the Seattle Ministerial Conference."

A press statement was also issued by Moore, dated 7 December, but appeared as a press release in the media room at the Palais des Nations UN complex on 8 December, announcing that a "great deal" was achieved by Ministers at Seattle, that "Gaps were narrowed considerably" in a number of important areas; that Mrs. Barshefsky as Chairperson had announced "the meeting has been suspended", and had directed Moore to "consult" with delegations, discuss "creative ways" to bridge the remaining areas in which consensus did not yet exist, develop an "improved process, both efficient and fully inclusive", and prepare the way for "successful conclusion" of the Ministerial Conference.

Within four calendar days of the end of the "Seattle process", the WTO and its manipulative processes appeared to be back in business.

As one trade diplomat put it, the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization that was never formally constituted at Seattle on 30 November, nor ended or suspended formally, is now to have a "follow-up", if Moore has his way.

Trade diplomats say that in response to their enquiries, the secretariat was advising that they expect the meeting to be short.

And trade diplomats, who have been consulting among themselves on what happenned or did not happen at Seattle, are agreed on a few things:

1. The Seattle Ministerial was never gavelled to order and never began formally.

The formal opening ceremonies set for the morning (local Seattle time) of 30 November had to be abandoned in disarray, when protestors managed to take over the Paramount theatre hall (where the ceremonies were to have been held), and delegates (ministers and high officials) could not get to the place.

2. The formal opening and the official plenary to follow, it was announced that both would be combined, and the meeting would take place on the afternoon of 30 November at the Conference Center.

3. But the Ministerial Conference never formally met even then, was never called to order and convened, no draft agenda was approved as required in Rule 5, and no Chairperson (and 3 Vice-Chairpersons) were officially elected (as per rule 12 of the Rules of Procedure of the Ministerial Conference).

4. Mrs Charlene Barshefsky took the chair, and began running the proceedings as she wished, but there were no formal, orderly meetings where she could be challenged and this put on record. And she got away with it, almost when she had to acknowledge failure and suspended the conference without any consultations with anyone except Clinton at the White House. As one participant put it later, it was not clear at the beginning, nor at any time during the week at Seattle, whether Barshefsky spoke and acted as USTR or as Chair of the Conference.

But she announced at the outset that she (presumably as host-country) needed a declaration and was determined to get one, and that she would make the rules and run the meeting towards that outcome.

As "Focus-on-Global-South", an NGO electronic mail news letter published from Bangkok put it in its "chronology of events" in Seattle, in an address to members, Barshefsky said that 'I need a declaration and you can bet your bottom dollar that I will get it, even if it means changing the rules of this house'."

No one at the meeting placed a bet, neither top nor 'bottom dollar'. Barshefsky and Moore did plenty of changing the rules every hour during the Seattle meeting, and yet they both lost and the Seattle meeting ended without a declaration and in confusion.

5. The chair or co-chairs (the WTO media office gave out only chairs, while Barshefsky announced at a press conference, co-chairs) were announced for five working groups; they met, while other unannounced 'informal green rooms' went on at the same time.

The approach to the constitution of working groups and rules was illustrated by the sudden announcement on 2 December, of an Ad Hoc Working Group chaired by the Costa Rican trade Minister, and Moore's response on the night of 2-3 December, to a number of delegates of small economies who complained of the non-transparent procedures and asked which group was looking at the portions of the draft declaration on principles and objectives.

As one of the ambassadors involved told this writer, "Moore immediately offered to constitute another working group to be chaired by one of the ambassadors who met him.... Perhaps he hoped to keep us and our ministers busy on this."

Ministers, senior trade officials and ambassadors of member countries accredited to the WTO, and observers, gathered at very short notice (sometimes as little as 10-15 minutes) every day and night at the conference centre and met in 'formal' working groups, 'informal green rooms' and other 'informal consultations' at the Seattle Conference centre over the next three days.

But there was never a formal meeting of the Ministerial Conference that was gavelled into order; Mrs.Charlene Barshefsky was never formally elected to chair the meeting and did not take over the gavel from the General Council Chair, Amb. Ali Mchumo, nor did the meeting 'end' around the mid-night of 3-4 December, either at the Committee of the Whole or at the open plenary thereafter.

That would have required a formal decision to 'suspend' put by the chair to the meeting and adopted by the meeting by consensus and gavelled into a decision. This never happenned.

In terms of the decision of the General Council on 23 November, the only document that the Ministerial Conference had was an informal 32-page square bracketed text, a draft declaration put forward by the Chairman of the General Council on 19 October.

In the course of the very large number of confused 'consultations', there were texts, of 'evolving' compromises in some key areas that were being 'floated' by the secretariat and the 'chairs' of the working groups and 'informal green rooms'. These texts or reports or summing up of the state of play by the working group chairs, were challenged sometimes in the committees of the whole, as lacking in objectivity or authenticity. Various versions of revised draft declaration texts (without even the job numbers that informal WTO documents carry for identification) were circulating among delegates and journalists, some often having only a time and a date.

Mrs.Barshefsky announced at a press conference -- in as a unilateral a way as the US exercise of unilateralism (whether at the UN and the use of military power over Iraq or Kosovo) or under S.301 of its trade laws -- that 'everything' on the table was frozen, and this she announced included a version of a draft on labour and trade.

When the Costa Rican trade minister held the ad hoc working group on trade and labour, the members present challenged the validity of the constitution of the working group, refused to address her as the chair, and only addressed her as Minister. Her consultations quickly came to an end, and so did some plurilateral consultations convened by the EC. Neverthless, two texts 'evolved' and were 'reported' on by the Costa Rican chair at the final COW, and this too was converted by Barshefsky into the papers on the table that have been frozen on which "Mike" will hold consultations.

The Marrakesh agreement establishing the WTO, and its rules on the DG and the secretariat, do not provide for any power or initiative of the DG or the secretariat, only what the membership asks them to do.

The statements of Mrs.Barshefsky as the chair, and her direction to the WTO head (in whatever capacity she gave it at the press conference) provides no authority to Moore or anyone else to proceed in a "follow-up". And only the General Council may, but that too, only when it gets back to the rules.

A repeated charge and challenge to the WTO at Seattle, and in many countries, has been its "lack of legitimacy" and its functioning as an instrument of transnational corporations.

The rule-less way the Seattle Conference was run, and the way forward sought now by the WTO head and the secretariat, would make the WTO, in the public eye, including in the eye of Parliaments and legislatures everywhere, even more illegitimate, unless the General Council asserts itself now, takes back the power and authority to itself. (SUNS4573)

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

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