WTO will suffer bigger blow if SMC process is repeated

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 15 March -- If the current preparatory processes for the 3rd Ministerial, and the Seattle meeting itself, commit the same mistakes as at Singapore and Geneva, the WTO will suffer the same fate as other institutions and systems that are illegitimate and undemocratic, the High Level Symposium on Trade and Environment was warned Monday.

The warning came in a statement issued by the Third World Network, addressing the issues of Transparency, Participation and Legitimacy of the WTO.

"The WTO is probably the most non-transparent of international organizations," the TWN statement said. Most of its decisions are worked out in informal meetings, and in most cases only a few countries are invited. "Where these meetings took place, when, and who attended, as well as the positions taken by various countries, are not made known. When these small informal groups work out decisions among themselves, these are taken before formal meetings and made into decisions."

Most times the 'major countries' get decisions they want, and a few big countries are able to vet issues and decisions they don't want, even if the vast majority of countries agree with them. "In fact, often, when the US and EC do not want an issue to be raised, it does not even come before the formal sessions," TWN said.

The vast majority of developing countries have very little real say in the WTO system. Many lack of the financial and human resources even to adequately participate in formal meetings, let alone informals to which they are not invited. "Sometimes pressures are exerted on selected developing countries to get them to go along with decisions or positions which they may have originally opposed. Especially vulnerable are the developing countries that are indebted, and rely on bilateral aid or IMF and World Bank loans."

Pointing to what happened at the Singapore Ministerial meeting, where new issues (investment, competition and government procurement) which did not enjoy consensus, but in fact opposed by many developing countries, found their way into the Ministerial via a "small informal group". The criteria for selection of this group, and what transpired in these meetings over several days, was not known to the public, or even to WTO members. Ministers of most developing countries were not invited to participate in negotiations that produced the key points of the Declaration.

"The undemocratic, non-participatory and non-transparent nature of this process was obvious to NGOs, the media and the public, and the Ministers and officials themselves, and was a blow to the credibility of the WTO system. What the Ministers endured was similar to the experience of their trade diplomats at the WTO in Geneva."

Though the WTO head, and the Chairman of the Singapore Ministerial, promised to take steps to reform the decision-making system, "in reality the situation has basically remained the same, if not worsened."

"The non-transparent and non-participatory systems of decision-making among WTO Members is at the heart of the undemocratic nature of the WTO system. This reality is in stark contrast to the image of equal participation by all through 'consensus' that the WTO tries to project.

"Unless this inequitable system which is so unfair to developing countries is reformed, it would be an eyewash to claim that the WTO is becoming more transparent simply by having some dialogue sessions with civil society or Geneva-based NGOs getting briefings from WTO officials, or making more documents available."

Any improvement in transparency and participation would entail:

* the processes of consultation, discussion, negotiation and decision-making being made truly transparent, participatory and democratic;

* proposals for changes in rules, or new agreements or commitments on countries should be made known in draft form to the public atleast six months before to enable civil society (including labour, business, consumers, environment, health and other interests) in each country to have full opportunity to study them and influence their parliaments and governments;

* all discussions and negotiations at the WTO should be made known, and all Members allowed to be present and participate, ending the present practice of small informal groups making decisions and bringing them to formal meetings;

* parliaments and parliamentarians in all countries should be kept constantly informed of proposals and developments at WTO, to enable them to make right policy choices; and

* civil society should get a genuine opportunity to know issues being discussed, status of discussions, and given genuine opportunities to express their views.

"Up to now," said the TWN statement, "the public in WTO member countries have been kept in the dark about the negotiations, and public knowledge even about existing Agreements (and their effects) is most inadequate. Should the same mistake be made during the preparatory process and the 1999 Ministerial, then the credibility and legitimacy of the WTO system will suffer an even bigger blow. And it will suffer the same fate as other institutions and systems that are illegitimate and undemocratic." (SUNS4396)

The above article was originally published by the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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