by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 24 Nov 99 -- After nearly 15 months of preparations process, trade diplomats at the WTO abandoned Tuesday their efforts to agree on a draft declaration and an "agenda" to launch negotiations at the four-day 3rd Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization assembling at Seattle on 30 November.

While agriculture and the implementation are two key areas where differences among industrialized countries, and between them and developing countries remain too sharp and deep to arrive at a consensus, other demands of the industrialized world on each other and on developing countries too are responsible for the total deadlock, to be resolved in four days at Seattle.

All that ministers will have when they assemble at Seattle is a 32-page square-bracketed, very confusingly presented text - some formulations, others only the title of proposals to be put on the agenda of a new round of negotiations, if one is launched.

Also to be made available by the secretariat, but without any specific authority, are so-called 'working papers' and "updates" -- formulations on some issues that were prepared at 'green room' meetings and some even more restricted consultations, involving no more than six or eight delegations, and texts prepared by the secretariat.

But the secretariat's or the chairman's authority to send these "non-papers", without any indication of who had proposed or formulated them and where, was even questioned at the General Council, with no satisfactory answer, according to participants.

There have been reports that the Director-General Mike Moore will send a letter, outlining the areas where there has been some progress, and he seemed to confirm at a press conference Tuesday evening that he was considering it, but had not yet written or formulated a letter.

Moore left Geneva Wednesday morning for Seattle and some delegates speculated he would probably work on the draft of his "letter" on the plane, and circulate it at Seattle -- by addressing it to the chair and copying it to members.

When challenged to cite the articles or rules of the "rules-based" WTO that would enable him to formulate and send out such a letter, Mr. Moore evaded an answer, speaking of his using an "appropriate" forum or channel. Article VI of the Marrakech Agreement, which provides for a secretariat, does not have any provision for a Director-General or secretariat to take any initiative or propose anything (unlike in the UN system or the specialized agencies).

This was a deliberate omission. An attempt by then GATT Director-General Peter Sutherland to get a provision for such an authority, was turned down by all the negotiators in 1993 and the negotiators made clear they wanted the secretariat to do only what it was asked to do by consensus by the members.

Moore, who had three of his deputies on the rostrum (along with Mchumo) at the press conference, spent more time in response to the question, in telling about how the organization had become more transparent, than in actually answering the question.

Neither he nor Mchumo were able to say even that this had been sought or authorized by the Council.

A special session of the General Council which finally met Tuesday afternoon, after meetings had been put off several times over the last week, was told by the Chairman Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania: "There is nothing new to propose for transmission to Seattle on the basis of consensus. What will be available to Ministers at Seattle therefore is the text circulated on October 19."

In speaking notes for the informal General Council meeting, that was made available to the media at his joint press conference with WTO head Mike Moore, Mchumo told the members that it was his intention to propose to the formal special session "that the General Council agree that this remains the nearest we have to a complete text for Ministers to consider at this stage."

In addition, said Mchumo, "the Secretariat will ensure that delegations in Seattle have available the working papers circulated by me on 17 November as well as any possible updates. These would be possible inputs into the deliberations of Ministers, but clearly they are not in any way agreed texts. I would emphasize again that no element of any package can be agreed until everything is agreed."

However, at the informal and formal meetings, there were some questions posed and objections raised, over the status of these texts, working papers and "updates" that are no more than formulations put together by the secretariat in the 'green room' and even smaller consultations, some chaired by Moore, and others by his aides and consultants (like former Deputy Director-General Anwar Hoda).

Hong Kong, a participant in some, but not all 'green room' meetings said that any working papers or updates must identify their authorship. Several others questioned their status.

The 32-page, 'restricted', but widely available document, the "revised draft Ministerial text" (officially an informal one and bearing only the number JOB(99)/5868/Rev1), tabled in the name of the Chairman of the General Council on 19 October, has no consensus that it even has all the proposals put forward by the participants in relation to the declaration.

And it is a document putting various proposals and alternatives on the same subject under different heads on different pages - either a case of sheer secretarial incompetence or one aimed at creating confusion among the delegations and their ministers and officials.

The failure at Geneva puts the United States in complete command over the process at Seattle.

In retrospect at least, many trade diplomats who did not want to be quoted came around to the view Tuesday night that the United States administration, with the help of the secretariat, has been manipulating year-long to create this "grid-lock", to enable it to prevail over the rest of the world, in the same way President Clinton has been creating and thriving on "grid-locks" in Congress.

Not all of the 135 WTO members turning up at Seattle may be functioning political democracies, but as Mr. Moore has been mentioning frequently, the ministers are elected and have to face their domestic constituencies and parliaments.

And theories about liberalization and free trade don't sell back home, where people face the realities of the WTO system.

The 3rd WTO Ministerial meeting at Seattle will be organized into four working groups, each chaired by a Minister, to tackle the hard issues of Agriculture, Implementation, Market Access, and WTO rules.

A fifth working group is also being pushed by the secretariat to deal with "systemic issues" - a 20-year ploy at the old GATT and the new WTO to enable the "contracted parties" (the secretariat and its DG) to bring up issues and get power over the "contracting parties", the Members of the WTO.

US Amb. Rita Hayes, told the media who surrounded her after the Tuesday evening meeting that besides the official working groups at Seattle, there would be a continuation at Seattle of the same process as here -- of informal meetings, small groups, 'green rooms' and other manipulative processes to bring out texts and attempt to force a consensus.

While Mchumo said Tuesday that no decision had been reached and "consultations" are still going on about who would chair which working group at Seattle, there were reports that the ministers picked for these jobs are those from Singapore, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa and Switzerland, and that most probably the agriculture group would be chaired by Singapore and the implementation one by Brazil (which has more limited demands in this area than most of the other developing countries).

But whether the United States will be able to turn the confusing situation to its advantage and launch negotiations at Seattle on its "pet themes" or face a certain failure at Seattle, with Ministers having to send everything back to Geneva and the General Council here, remained a very open question.

And trade diplomats would not rule out either scenarios.

The US with its vast "power" -- military, political, economic and trade -- may try to force something on the other 134-members, they said, and it was not certain that even the EC would or could resist. Anyhow, the EC tactics and agenda has left others angry.

Or the entire exercise may end in another spectacular case of US brinkmanship and policy that fails, even when victory is declared, a policy that has characterized the Clinton administration.

The way Washington over the last several days has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to promote the idea of several other heads of states/governments going to Seattle and being on hand to forge a consensus suggests that if the outcome in Geneva had been part of a US manoeuvre to have its way at Seattle, it is now beginning to look for ways that others could share the blame.

There has been persistent talk, and some diplomats confirm their capitals have been sounded, about the possibility of the heads of the countries that were at the October Lausanne meeting to go to Seattle. Several of the countries said that so far there has been considerable resistance - both because several have some prior domestic commitments not easy to jettison for a trip to Seattle, and also because no one wants to be put in a situation where the US could use the media to pin the blame on them.

Right through the preparatory process, even the idea of a "round" beyond the built-in agenda and implementation issues have been challenged and opposed, and there have been specific objections from a range of countries to the idea of a "single undertaking".

Nevertheless, repeatedly at their press conference, Mchumo and Moore spoke of this being a "single undertaking" where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and hence though there has been much progress on individual items, the consultations showed much convergence and no consensus text has emerged because of difficulties in some areas.

Mchumo told the General Council that in agriculture, despite the extensive efforts, it had not proved possible to produce a common basis for consideration and action by Ministers, but that the intensive and constructive efforts have helped to narrow down many of the key outstanding issues. It was hence important, before reconvening in Seattle, that bilateral and plurilateral exchanges be maintained and intensified, including at highest policy-making level, he said.

Key political decisions were not necessary. All the ingredients for a "balanced and comprehensive package of results" were within grasp, but the negotiators here had gone as far as they could. Ministers in Seattle would now have to take the critical decisions to conclude this work.

In giving more or less the same spin to the trade diplomats, Moore added that while they had no choice but to conclude that the 19 October draft remained on the table, "this does not mean that we are going to abandon our efforts to provide Ministers with a clear basis on which to take decisions or that all the tremendous efforts of the last months have been for nothing."

Moore repeated Mchumo's remarks that the secretariat would ensure that delegations in Seattle would have available to them the working papers circulated by the Chairman on 17 November "and any additions or updates to these that it may be possible to produce" and these would be "useful inputs" into the Ministers deliberations, but they were "nothing like an agreed text."

In some comments and observations, Hong Kong raised questions that cast doubts even about the completeness of the 19 Oct text (a revision of a 17 October controversial draft, in which chunks in a 16 Oct draft that found its way to delegations, had been eliminated). What about the proposals before the 17 October draft that had not been reflected in the 19 Oct text, Hong Kong asked, and said any more working papers or updates should indicate clearly the authorship. The 19 Oct Rev1 was not a compilation of proposals, and it was in no way a complete text.

Pakistan too questioned the use of the word "updated texts". He and several others insisted that in any such "updating" there should be full "transparency", and more so on any working papers on agriculture and implementation.

[There has been an effort at formulating an agriculture compromise, at some very small consultations involving the US, EC, and four of the Cairns members - reportedly, Brazil, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand. But the tentative formulation was rejected by Japan, Norway, Switzerland and Korea. And the other developing countries who have their own issues in agriculture were kept out of the consultations.

[In implementation, there have been attempts at formulating texts, in a small group chaired by the WTO 'consultant' Anwar Hoda. But at every stage of formulation, the Hoda text seemed to omit one or more of the developing country formulations, on the ground they were not acceptable to the other side, and at best all these were to be shoved on to a special mechanism set up by the General Council, which would merely report to the Fourth Ministerial, and thus put into a negotiating basket where developing countries will be asked to pay a higher price and take on more obligations for getting relief for their problems with the present commitments.]

The Chairman, in response to some questions, merely reported that he would keep delegations posted.

At the formal meeting, Cuba raised the problem of visas for its delegates to Seattle, and said though they had sought visas since 10 November, they were still to get it. Amb. Rita Hayes could only assure them "you are [not] the only one; there are other delegations too". (SUNS4559)

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

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