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General Council to run Doha preparatory process

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 8 Mar 2001 - - The preparatory process for the Doha ministerial conference of the WTO should be under the charge of the General Council, and run by its chair, in a transparent and inclusive process, with no last minute surprises or issues for ministers, and any delegation or groups of them having proposals have to bring them up and discuss them in the Council and get the consensus of the members.

This appears to have been the overwhelming view that emerged Thursday at the informal General Council, when it  discussed the Preparatory Process for the 4th Ministerial Conference of the WTO to be held at Doha, Qatar (9-13 November).

The discussions at the informal General Council had centred around a list of six questions that had been circulated to the members by a meeting of the General Council and the discussions were on the preparatory process, with members giving their views on six questions (see SUNS #4851) posed by the Chairman, Mr. Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China (HKC).

In summing up the outcome of the discussions and the ‘wide ranging views’ at the informal, Harbinson noted that in a sense the preparatory process for Doha had already begun.

The overwhelming emphasis about the preparatory process at the informal meeting, he said, was on need for transparency and inclusiveness, with members attaching high importance to the implementation issues as well as the mandated negotiations.

By July they should have  a benchmark or indication of a possible agenda, and the level of ambitions for Doha, and there was a need to have the elements of a Ministerial Declaration before the summer break (usually August) at the WTO. It was still to be decided whether it would be useful to come out with a skeleton of a declaration before attempting a first draft. Any detailed drafting should be on the basis of convergence.

Since his meeting with a few trade ministers on the sidelines of the Davos World Economic Forum, and the General Council setting the dates and venue for the 4th ministerial, WTO Director-General Moore has been vigorously canvassing support for launching a new round (with new issues), and promoting meetings outside by interested delegations to canvass support - - on investment, competition, government procurement, trade facilitation, industrial tariffs and environment.

Led by the EU and Japan, these meetings appear to involve some 30-40 delegations (though some key countries, having strong views against the new issues, have not been involved or invited). According to some delegations, some secretariat officials were involved or were present.

This has created a backlash of sorts among the others, that there is an attempt to repeat the kinds of manipulative processes that led to the Seattle fiasco.

Though there were suggestions that the General Council chair could take the help of the Director-General and ‘friends of the chair’ to hold consultations on particular issues, there were apparently only a couple of delegations who specifically suggested  a role for the DG. Many said that they did not want to be overwhelmed by ‘too many friends of the chair’ holding discussions on different issues at the same time, nor have the outcome of the discussions outside ‘parachuted’ into the General Council.

While WTO Director-General Mike Moore and other trade officials, and some proponents like the EC and Japan, have been promoting the view of an emerging broad consensus for launching a new round of negotiations at Doha, judging by the viewpoints and the discussions at the informal General Council Thursday, trade diplomats said that, at least at the moment, it was difficult to project the Doha meeting as one where a new round will be launched.

While the European Communities said that the only purpose of the Doha meeting was the launching of a new round of negotiations, many others who spoke refused to link the Doha meeting with the launching of a new round.

There was perhaps broader support (though this could change over time) for the view put forward by  the Mexican ambassador, Alejandro de la Pena, that the preparatory process should be “neutral” on whether or not there should be a new round of multilateral negotiations.

At the outset, the WTO Director-General, Mike Moore, said in a statement that he had initiated and had been holding consultations with the proponents or demandeurs on new issues -  he mentioned government procurement, investment, competition and trade facilitation (the so-called ‘Singapore subjects’) plus industrial tariffs and environment and had encouraged those advocating particular subjects or issues to hold consultations and reach out to members.

Moore claimed that these initiatives of his had been ‘positively received’ and that there was now a great deal of activity among members to broaden the dialogue .

But the views of several members at the informal General Council made clear that they have not received these moves and initiatives favourably; that while delegations had a right to hold meetings and consultations on any issue, the secretariat could not be associated with them;  that the Council for the preparatory process could not take cognisance of discussions taking place outside nor should the chair become a conduit for the General Council consideration of such proposals.

Trade diplomats said that at his meetings with the African Group and the Caribbean countries, some of the remarks and statements of Moore (in speeches in various countries and media interviews), were subject to sharp critical  questions. But Moore explained them away as due to incorrect reporting.  But, it was not clear which particular report had misquoted him.

However, there has been sharp criticism, for example, of the views attributed to him in an interview of his with the Japanese news agency ( the report was included as the first item in the WTO’s daily journal of press clippings distributed to the delegations), where he was asked whether Japan’s position on agriculture could be a stumbling block for opening a new round.

Strangely, diplomats noted, Moore had said: “It is not just Japan - - developing countries have to show some space and understanding ... so I would not single Japan out.”

In the interview report (which mentioned, attributing it to trade diplomats, the discussions of the six areas at the ‘friends meeting'), Moore was also asked about ‘integrating’ the agriculture, services negotiations (mandated negotiations taking place at the WTO), the implementation of previous meetings and the ‘friends meeting’ in the new round.

Moore responded: “We’ve got to keep them separate for a while. If we bring them together too soon, they will be traded off against each other, We have to have separate rails for all these issues, but ...  eventually, we have to bring them together.” The Japanese report also spoke of diplomats not being clear on when to integrate the ‘friends meeting’ into the official WTO process, and spoke of the hope that the countries involved ‘could report to Moore in April about the progress they have made.’

Many of the comments and views at the Thursday informal, both in terms of insisting that the preparatory process be against any attempts to ‘feed’ the outcome of what Moore had called ‘proponent-driven process’ being fed into the General Council and its preparations, and the insistence that those with new proposals and subjects must bring them before the Council (and not through the GC Chair or the secretariat), where discussions are held afresh and consensus sought and achieved.

Both in relation to the preparatory process and the meetings at Doha, Zimbabwe, as chair of the African group, told the Thursday informal that they did not want to be “ambushed” by small groups meeting outside, while Uganda said that the GC chair should not become “a conduit” for meetings outside and proposals at such meetings should not be ‘transplanted’ into the preparatory process, nor should issues be brought in “that aroused passions and would create problems” for Doha.

Jamaica said they had problems enough with existing commitments and they were not looking forward to taking on new commitments.

At the outset, Moore reported on his efforts (since the Council meeting on 8 Feb that set the date for the Doha meeting and set in motion a preparatory process), as he put it, “aimed at facilitating and encouraging dialogue among delegations” to improve an understanding on the range of issues facing the WTO. He spoke of his meetings with ‘groups of members’ having a particular interest in advancing work, including negotiations on various issues, and mentioned the six new subjects. His meetings had been with the demandeurs or proponents, but did not mean he identified himself with their positions.

All these consultations of his, Moore explained, had followed ‘a similar format’, and that he had asked proponents to work among themselves to clarify and agree on their approach, and consult with others having different positions. Moore noted that there had been a good deal of activity among delegations, that the secretariat was not “directly involved in this activity, but we are keeping in touch with progress and we are keen to facilitate understanding among delegations” and that he had suggested to the proponents to have ‘open-ended meetings’ with all delegations as soon as possible.

In a reference to this, India said at the informal that delegations could call a meeting of their own, but the secretariat officials could not be associated with it.

Trade officials said after the informal General Council that everyone was agreed that Seattle should not be repeated, and that the General Council should run the process.

There was some divergence on how the separate processes on implementation (in special sessions of the General Council) and the built-in agenda negotiations should be brought in.

A large number of members made clear that if other issues are to be brought forward for discussions, it should be in clear and transparent ways.

Pakistan and Egypt insisted that the so-called Singapore issues (which Moore said were already on the WTO table), which were only for ‘study’ at the WTO, should not be brought up for negotiations without a prior consensus. Mexico said issues should not be ‘parachuted’ into the Doha meeting at the last moment.

While most members seemed keen on setting a cut-off date in July for members to bring up proposals before the General Council, Japan said the doors should not be closed in July. The US and EC wanted ‘flexibility’ --  presumably to enable them to bring up issues any time after the majors have reached understanding among themselves. In addition, the US does not want to raise any controversies or issues until the administration gets ‘fast track authority’ from Congress.

There was broad agreement too that the text to go to Ministers at Doha should be clear and clean, and not a ‘heavily bracketed one’ as at Seattle.

Pakistan also warned that attempts to bring labour issues into the discussion would be a ‘recipe for disaster’.

A number of developing countries, including members of the like-minded group, made clear they did not want to ‘link’ implementation issues (covered in paras 21 and 22 of the Seattle draft) to other questions, but insisted that considerations and actions on them had to be completed before Doha, and not kept for Ministers at Doha.

There were several interventions from delegations about their willingness to work towards a round, but the term appeared to have different connotations to different members - - with India, for example, pointing out that the mandated negotiations (under way) on services was referred to in the GATS as a ‘round’

[Some developing country diplomats have reportedly told Moore in his consultations that if he wanted to put the services, agriculture and other built-in agenda talks together and call it a round and launched when he was head of the WTO, they would not mind, but that they could not accept his promotion of a ‘new round, with new issues’.]

Paraguay, speaking for the Mercosur countries (and Bolivia and Chile), said they were ready to work towards a new round, provided there would be benefits for all member governments. Also, it should be decided by July whether or not to launch the new round at Doha.

Pakistan insisted that the General Council was engaged in a preparatory process for the Doha ministerial, and not for the launch of a new round, and the impressions to the contrary being created should be corrected. The General Council should be the place for the process, and chairs of subsidiary bodies, where some negotiations were going on (agriculture, services etc), could help the GC chair. The issues that are not on the agenda (for negotiations) should be brought to the General Council only after there is a consensus first.

Mexico said that while it continued to favour a new round of negotiations, the preparatory process could not prejudge whether or not to have a new round. The process should be ‘neutral’

The EC said that substance should have priority over process. For the EU, Doha should see the launch of a new round. They should not, in drafting a declaration, attempt to negotiate an outcome.

For India (and a number of developing countries who spoke later, endorsed this view), a solution to the implementation issues was the most important. Anything to be agreed for inclusion in the Doha declaration had to be by consensus. As for a ‘round’, India was not even sure about the concept and its meaning. The built-in agenda of services’ (in Art XIX.1  of GATS) spoke of ‘successive rounds of negotiations’ in pursuance of the objectives of GATS for further liberalization.

Malaysia said the process should be in the General Council, and meetings in small groups should be minimised. Malaysia agreed with Pakistan and India that implementation issues have to be resolved before the Qatar meeting.

In agriculture and services, Norway said, there should not be any effort at a new mandate at Doha for these two, but rather a ‘political impetus’ to the negotiations. -SUNS4852

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

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