'Working papers' for Seattle?

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 18 Nov 99 -- The chairman of the General Council, Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania has circulated to the members 21 pages of "working papers" on issues and subjects sought to be included in a Ministerial Declaration for Seattle.

But the working papers do not contain anything on "implementation" questions or the mandate for "agriculture". The working papers appear on first reading to be texts prepared by the secretariat after the "green room" consultations held by the WTO Director-General Mike Moore since the last week of October, and to which many members (not invited to the 'green room') have protested in formal and informal meetings, and by a joint letter of several countries.

Though the working papers have been issued by Mchumo "on my own responsibility", according to several delegations involved in the 'green room' process, Mchumo himself had participated only in some of them, and had chaired and held consultations on the action plan for LDCs and technical cooperation.

In his letter dated 17 November (but which delegations got from the WTO only 18 November morning), Mchumo has regretted that contrary to his earlier suggestion (at 13 Nov informal HOD) that he would circulate a revised draft, it had not been possible to do so yet.

This, Mchumo says, is because intensive consultations are continuing on key aspects of the text, "notably on implementation and agriculture without which no revision could be considered balanced."

Mchumo has expressed his hope that "there could be movement towards convergence on such key areas in the very near future, so as to enable him to issue a comprehensive revised text that could be an appropriate basis for decision-making by Ministers."

According to some Third World trade diplomats, on both implementation and agriculture, the various protagonists are so far apart that it was difficult to see any possible agreed text.

Mchumo has said that aware of the need for "maximum transparency" in the preparatory process, and for delegations to brief their authorities on the state of progress, he had decided "to issue on my own responsibility the attached working papers", indicating the "possible evolutions" of various aspects of the work, "based on the intensive consultations both I and the Director-General at my request have carried out so far."

These working papers, Mchumo has stressed, do not represent any agreement in any area nor do they prejudge any delegations position on any aspect. Their only status "is as possible aids" to the further effort at consensus-building. But it was clear to him, as to delegations that no agreement can be concluded other than by consensus on the package as a whole, and "the package must be complete and balanced."

Until then, he adds, "the package of the 19 October text remains the text on the table."

That even working papers can be issued, or presented, with two key areas not addressed at all - implementation and agriculture - shows the extent of disarray in the preparatory process.

With just 12 days to the Seattle meeting, it is now clear that everything in the text would have to be negotiated at Seattle.

Perhaps it will be difficult to find any international conference over the last 54 years of post-war system, and the 51 years of the trading system (the old GATT and the new WTO), where not only the substantive preparations, but even the logistics and other host arrangements are clouded by such confusion and inefficiency.

If a straw poll were to have been held on Thursday, and the media persons who have planned to go to Seattle, and the officials in the WTO secretariat itself, are given a say, they would probably all vote unanimously against the paragraph in the declaration thanking the host country and government for their arrangements.

The US administration which has to meet the extra costs of the meeting, as host country, has to find the funds (according to the Congress) without its being a debit on the US budget. Perhaps everything is being done by the richest country to squeeze the visitors to raise money.

But with less than a week to go, after days of contradictory advise and information from the US visa officials, journalists and secretariat staff going to Seattle have suddenly been advised on 18 November, that they all need "special visas", even if they have other normal visas or agreements between their country and the US, enabling them to visit the United States. And perhaps even more irksome, the media here have to pay for a four-day meeting, swiss franks 70, for an 'I' category visa (normally required for journalists staying and working in the US).

As an exasperated trade official said privately to those complaining, for sheer inefficiency and confusion in the host country, there is nothing to beat this.

Part of the problem is perhaps the failure in negotiating and signing a headquarters agreement with the host country, and for which both the secretariat and members must be held fully responsible. If the WTO secretariat or the host country had consulted any international organization that has been holding conferences at invitation of host countries elsewhere, they would have got some technical advice based on experience on these matters.

As one western journalist, very friendly to the WTO, said Thursday in exasperation, "may be we should shift the WTO meeting in Seattle to Mexico."

There have been efforts to compare the situation on the eve of Seattle Ministerial to the one that prevailed in Geneva just before the 1990 Uruguay Round Ministerial at Brussels and what happened.

At that time, on the eve of the Brussels meeting, Brazil and Argentina, served notice that if there be no movement and agreement in agriculture, they would just pull out. At Brussels, in the final hours, when it was clear that agriculture was in a deadlock, the leaders of Brazil and Argentine delegations went around other negotiating groups and pulled out their delegations, and everything came to a standstill.

The GATT Director-General Arthur Dunkel who had gone out for a dinner engagement, basing himself on earlier reports that things will be resolved, was nowhere in the conference premises, as the USTR Mrs.Carla Hills and others were groping on how to deal procedurally with the situation and continue the negotiations. The next day they did, remitting all the negotiations back to Geneva and to the TNC chaired by Dunkel to resolve.

This worked at Brussels (but not subsequently in Geneva in Nov-Dec 1993) when the US and EC negotiated and improved on their "Blair House" accord to accommodate each other, and even Brazil and Argentina could do little except to fall in line.

But can that Brussels tactics be repeated now?

It is doubtful whether even within the Cairns group (and within them in the Southern Cone of Latin America) there is that unity and determination on agriculture, nor on 'implementation' among the others, including the Like-Minded Group to say at the General Council (when the 'new revised draft' or working papers come up for transmittal) that there is no consensus, and delegations could table their own papers.

But what is perhaps more limiting is that while in Brussels, the ambassadors of Brazil and Argentina could go round the various groups and pull out their delegates, but under the WTO, consensus can be declared in their absence -- because under a footnote to Art. IX of the WTO, there is consensus when those present don't object. Often, it is easier to stay out, than be in and say "NO" in isolation.

It is not even certain that Brazil and Argentina can act together. Brazil is now part of the "shadow group" put together by the EC to draft a declaration (some of those wordings are getting into the 'green room' texts). On the face of it, Argentina is taking a different line on some of the non-agriculture issues in the informal HOD. The two may still be acting in unison, one inside and the other outside. (SUNS4555)

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

[c] 1999, SUNS - All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service without specific permission from SUNS. This limitation includes incorporation into a database, distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media or broadcast. For information about reproduction or multi-user subscriptions please contact < >