Thais confirm term-sharing talks on WTO leadership

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 30 June -- A top Thai official confirmed Wednesday reports of the compromise talks to end the impasse in the WTO leadership selection, by the two contestants to take the job in turn, but insisted that any solution must ensure transparency, equity, fairness and democratic procedures in the WTO and the multilateral trading system, and in accord with rules.

The Director-General of Economic Affairs in the Thai Foreign Office, Mr. Kobsak Chutikul, who was holding a press briefing on the arrangements for UNCTAD-X next February in Bangkok, was answering questions at a press conference on reports of discussions and possible compromise to the WTO leadership crisis.

Kobsak confirmed that there had been a one-to-one meeting at Auckland, between Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister, Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi and former New Zealand premier, Mike Moore. There had also been discussions at Auckland on the side lines of an APEC trade ministers meeting there, as well as contacts and discussions among some capitals.

Reports out of Auckland said that a compromise was likely to be reached by which the two candidates will take consecutively one term each.

Whatever solution is found has to be decided by the WTO membership and acceptable to them, and not the result of a "back- room deal", Kobsak said. Any compromise solution should be "transparent, equitable, adhere to democratic procedures and made in the interests of the membership as a whole, principles for which Thailand had contested the election," the Thai official added.

The talks for compromise was coming closer to a conclusion, but they had not reached the stage of discussing who should take the job first, he said.

Thailand would be willing to accept whatever compromise the membership agree upon, but the process should be brought back to Geneva and discussed by the permanent representatives and ambassadors of various groups.

There was a Bangladesh proposal on the table for the two candidates to take a 3-year term each in succession, while other proposals (and one favoured by the US) called for consecutive 4-year terms with Mr. Moore taking the first term. There were also proposals now for 2-year terms.

Though Thailand had been opposed to such compromises, it was willing to accept whatever members favoured so as to bring the impasse to an end.

But any such compromise would have to be examined whether it is possible under the WTO rules and the Agreement for the General Council to designate in advance who would take office next time.

"But it cannot be a back-room bargain among key players, but one that members have to discuss and agree upon. We would then accept it, and we showed our good faith by seeking a vote, which would have been the most clean and democratic process, and agreeing to abide by its outcome," Kobsak said.

Everyone was agreed that the process of selection had gone on far too long, and to the detriment of the WTO, and the ministerial conference to be held in Seattle end-November and the launching there hopefully of a new millennium round. The role of a Director-General of the WTO was important, and the selection process should be brought to an end as soon as possible.

But Dr. Supachai did not fight this battle to seek a job - he already has one - but on matters of principle: the need for the WTO to be transparent, equitable, adhere to democratic processes, and be a member-driven organization functioning in the interests of all its members.

The Thai official said discussions on bringing the impasse to an end had been held in various capitals, and some consultations on the sidelines had been held at the APEC meeting. The APEC accounted for 80% of the world trade and of its 21 members, 16 supported Supachai, Kobsak said.

Various proposals for compromise had been put forward, but these have to be brought back to Geneva and discussed among the members, and in the light of the rules and regulations of the WTO.

"But we are coming closer to a conclusion. Everyone seems to be agreed that it is not fair or proper to bring in a third candidate at this time. The two candidates have gone through an inspection and lobbying process.... to restart the process will put the WTO into uncharted waters, with no assurance that the new process can be concluded by end November or even the start of a new round. There is hence a general agreement not to reopen the process and start all over again, with bad feelings all around."

Kobsak said that Washington continued to maintain that it would not block Dr. Supachai if a consensus were to emerge around him, but "we are saying that no consensus can emerge so long as the US actively and aggressively campaigns for the other side".

There was thus a contradiction in the US public position.

A solution acceptable to the members here had to be found.

On the claims of level of support for Moore and Supachai, and the figures being bandied about, the Thai official said it all depended on how the question was posed to the members. Thailand's own assessment was that there were about 80 member-countries who were willing to go along with either candidate. If the question were posed to them whether they were willing to accept Moore, there would 80 saying yes. And if the question was posed whether they would be willing to accept Supachai there would be again be about the same number.

A fair question to be posed to the members would be whether they would support Moore or Supachai. Hence Thailand had been asking that such a question should be posed, with witnesses from both camps present about how the question is posed and how the results are tabulated.

If this was done, Thailand was sure it would get 80 votes. To show its good faith, Thailand had said it would accept the outcome whichever way it went. But the other side did not seem willing for such a process. (SUNS4467)

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

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