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Shenanigans at Presidential Suite 11 at Doha

by Rammanohar Reddy

Doha, 15 Nov 2001 - - When the stakes are high and it comes down to the wire, the World Trade Organisation returns to its old non-transparent and bullying ways.

A few shenaningans, mentioned by a number of officials, ambassadors and ministers from rich and poor countries not all of whom wanted to be quoted, about what transpired behind closed doors. WTO officials initially said that Doha would be the first ministerial without the notorious“green room” process of the former GATT, when ministers from a dozen or so rich and (a few of the) poor countries used to be called in to be brow-beaten by the U.S. and the E.U.  behind closed doors and the results then sent to the larger assembly of all WTO members to be rubber-stamped for approval.

With no agreement in sight, November 13 - the scheduled last day of the conference - ministers from 20-odd countries of the 142 WTO members were called in at 6 p.m for closed door negotiations in Presidential Suite 11 of the conference centre.

That meeting went on, with one brief interruption, up to 3 a.m on November 14 as the E.U., the U.S. and the WTO Director General, Mr. Mike Moore, sought to impress a recalcitrant bloc of developing countries to agree to the launch of a new round.

“Wearing us down with fatigue is the typical tactic of the powerful at the WTO,” said a minister from a developing country.

Those not invited had to wait outside to be briefed on the results of the talks.  That was the end of the transparency initiative at the WTO. Uninvited government officials who tried to enter the decision-making room were asked to leave. This was what happened when Mr. Yash Tandon from the Uganda delegation tried to participate in the meeting.

A little later a Minister Counsellor from the trade delegation of an (African) developing country (who handles the actual negotiations in Geneva) and wanted to be present to advise his minister was refused permission to attend.

On issues of content too, pressure was applied.“At 3 a.m. on November 14, the European Union suddenly sprang a completely new proposal on the environment,” said a developing country official, referring to how one of the most contentious issues at Doha was being dealt with.

“Tanzania’s minister said he could not understand the language and could he please have some time so that he could refer the issue to his officials outside.”

[It is not clear what advice and how much time he actually got, but the final position that the Tanzanian minister ultimately took, of supporting the documents, other African LDC delegation officials told media persons on the morning of 14th , was contrary to the mandate given to Tanzania as the LDC spokesperson at Zanzibar, and without Tanzanian having made any reference to or consulting with other LDC ministers.]

It was not only the developing countries who were subjected to such actions. A WTO ambassador from a European country, not a member of the E.U. said that his country was upset with changes that the U.S. suddenly proposed on anti-dumping duties. “It was neither explained to us nor could we understand why new phrases and conditions were added at the last minute. Yet our consent was demanded immediately.”

During the tense negotiations, ministers on more than one occasion lost their cool. But the ones who used strong words were usually the representatives of the rich countries. On one such event on November 13, angry with the tone of the admonishments from cabinet members of two of the developed countries in the Americas, Mr. Munir Akram, Pakistan’s WTO ambassador, walked out though his minister remained in Presidential Suite 11. Next day, one of the senior-most officials of the WTO, anxious to launch a new round, showed his irritation with a commerce minister from Asia. It was left to junior WTO officials to subsequently apologise for such behaviour.

One senior ambassador from a developed country said what was witnessed at the WTO was going to harm the WTO as an institution. “Some countries and WTO officials will go to any extent to get approval for a new round. But the way they are going about it is damaging the very foundations of the WTO.”

With India emerging as one of the most important players at the WTO conference, it was India’s time on the last few days of the Doha meeting. Even the satire had an Indian connection to it. The NGOs had pasted the walls of the convention centre with copies of a 1995 cheque, issued by the “WTO Bank of Geneva” to the developing countries for income from faster growth of developing country’s exports, greater market access and trade concessions. But the cheque was stamped “dishonoured”. The inspiration came from the Indian Prime Minister’s speech to the U.N General Assembly, last week when he likened the previous GATT round’s promises to the developing countries to “a bounced cheque” made.

There was a dark side to the expression of the India connection too. Tempers frayed and acerbic statements were occasionally made. A pressperson told Mr.  Anthony Gooch, E.U. spokesperson, on the tense morning of 14 November - when it seemed as if the conference was going to collapse - that Mr. Murasoli Maran had told him that there was no ministerial declaration. (What the Commerce Minister meant was that there was no agreed statement). Mr. Gooch was quick to turn to an Indian journalist who was present and abrasively said: “If you have the draft declaration, why don’t you give it to your Minister who seems to need a copy?”

Misinformation and manipulation ran riot during the conference, as ministers were wooed, pressure applied on Governments and alliances broken. The focus of the attention seemed to be the alliance among India, the Africa group and the least developed countries. On November 12, Kenya announced at a meeting of the Africa group that India had decided to join the E.U. and the U.S. bandwagon; so the Africans should forget about any developing country unity. Somewhat mysteriously, a U.S. reporter got a call at the same time from the U.S. press office informing him that Kenya was to give shortly a briefing where it was going to make an important policy announcement. Fortunately, the Indian delegation got wind of the Kenyan statement and issued its own statement reaffirming its position. There was no press briefing by Kenya, but as subsequent events showed the damage to the alliance had been done.

And a senior WTO official observed in highlighting the events at Doha: “WTO joins China, WTO isolated by India.” Whatever one might say about who decides things at the WTO, one thing was clear. The focus at Doha, for very different reasons was on the world’s two largest and most populous countries.

(*The writer, Mr. Ram Manohar Reddy, is the Deputy Editor of the paper and was present at Doha. The above, is reproduced from two of his articles, with acknowledgement and consent of The Hindu, a leading, independent daily newspaper in India.) – SUNS5012

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