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WTO in a tizzy, Qatar ready to receive WTO

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 18 Oct 2001 -- With the Emirate of Qatar reported to have decided not to withdraw on its own Doha as the chosen site of the 4th Ministerial, and with its representatives here reported to have either already conveyed or about to convey to the WTO Director-General, Mr. Mike Moore, the Emirate’s readiness to receive the WTO’s 4th Ministerial Conference, assuring full security for all the ministers and delegates, WTO officials seemed to be in a tizzy Thursday.

Apart from the mess already created on the substantive questions, the WTO (the secretariat and its leadership) have landed themselves in a political mess, and the first order of business of the membership (but one that they may be prevented from applying their minds) would have to be to ‘straighten up’ the secretariat and make it accountable, as also to ensure that a fully transparent and fully participatory democratic decision-making process is put under way.

A rules-based organization must at all times, and the secretariat and its officials even more so, act and function only on the basis of explicit rules and act as the Marrakesh Agreement intended - that the WTO secretariat (unlike that of other international organizations) has no powers, and could only undertake the tasks that the members (collectively) ask them to do. The secretariat was never intended to be anything more than a servicing organization - and by and large lacks any professional competence to act otherwise.

The Emirate which has probably reacted thus because of the way they have been dealt with, and consultations about alternative venues held behind their backs and against all norms of diplomatic and polite behaviour of countries to each other, has done so after also advising other developing countries and seeking their understanding.

The Arab countries, the Islamic countries and several of the non-Muslim, key developing countries of Asia, and the like minded group, appear to have assured Qatar of their understanding and support - though they are all being accused of taking this stand in order to kill the round, to which many of them are opposed.

The Arab group which met Thursday morning also agreed to support Qatar, and the members of the Organization of Islamic Countries, also due to meet this evening, are expected to do the same.

While these could be shrugged off as ‘Islamic reactions’, the members of the Like-Minded Group of developing countries also appear to have agreed to support Qatar’s stand. Some of them said that given their own positions on the issues for the 4th Ministerial, and the way organizationally and substantively, these were being handled by the secretariat and the majors, they had not wanted to make an issue about Doha - though India, one of the key leaders of the group, had said even at Singapore that they had no problem about going to Doha.

The general view among several developing countries (particularly in the light of the reports they have now got from those who were at Singapore, or their capitals) is that if, for any reason, the WTO ministerial cannot be held at Doha, the chosen venue for the 4th ministerial, there should not be any attempt to find an alternative venue, and the meeting should be held at the headquarters. If Switzerland, the host country, has problems about organising such a meeting, the only alternative is to hold a meeting of the General Council in Geneva, at the level of ambassadors or officials from capitals who choose to come, and carry out (in terms of art. IV.2 of the Marrakesh Agreement that enables the General Council to exercise all the functions and powers of a Ministerial Conference when the latter is not in session), transact the most urgent and important business, and leave all substantive and controversial issues for a normal ministerial conference two years later.

The WTO would still be in being and, as a permanent negotiating forum for WTO agreements, there would be no standstill on trade negotiations, mandated or others that would be agreed, by consensus. These could go forward without any problems, one trade expert noted, questioning all this unnecessary fuss and expenditure for a meeting of ministers.

One Third World diplomat said that if other important international meetings, like the Rome Summit of the FAO for fighting hunger, and the World Bank and the IMF and other fora could either cancel or postpone their meetings, there was no reason why the WTO secretariat should be so insensitive, and its leadership attempt to use the situation to pursue their own agendas.

After the ‘orchestrated’ Singapore meeting of 21 countries,(chosen and invited clearly by the WTO head, the majors and the host country) and the declarations by the Singapore Trade Minister George Yeo about the near consensus on 70-80 percent of the draft, there has been considerable resistance growing up (even before Qatar decided not to allow itself to be rolled over) to hold the next 4th ministerial meeting at Singapore, with Minister Yeo and Moore assuming that Yeo would automatically chair that meeting.

It had been assumed here by the WTO secretariat, western media, and leading western countries, and even by many Third World ambassadors who were not at Singapore and had no knowledge (beyond press reports) about what actually happened over dinner and on the sidelines, that following the outcome of the Singapore meeting, both on substance and the views reportedly expressed there by the US and EU and others about the venue and ‘security considerations’, that Qatar would just bow to the two majors and withdraw voluntarily.

However, since then, other Third World delegations have come to understand that, after having been assured several times (after 11 September), including by the US and EU members, that they would be ready to go to Doha and participate, Qatar was told for the first time at Singapore by the Singapore Minister and the US and EU about the ‘security considerations’ that had arisen.

Even the Emir of Qatar who had visited Washington and New York had received no hints that alternative venues for the 4th ministerial set for Doha were being considered by the US, EU and the Quad, or by the WTO head with some key countries. The Emir or his close advisors would appear to have raised the issue (and been told that the security issues were being assessed but that the US would participate); Mr. Lamy too was insisting that the meeting at Doha and launching a new round with a comprehensive agenda was the best answer to ‘global terrorism’.

The Qatar minister was thus shocked to hear at Singapore for the first time about the attempts to change the venue and that Singapore, which had been sounded out, would come forth and offer to host a ‘scaled-down’ version of the ministerial and that, at that time, the WTO would graciously thank Qatar, praise it (perhaps including about its facilities and conference facilities) and then accept Singapore’s offer for the meeting.

None of those (like the US) with security concerns for their leaders appear to have talked till then directly to Qatar, at Geneva, Washington or at Doha.

Some of the participants at Singapore said Wednesday that neither they nor their ministers had been able to get a clear idea from Singapore as to what was meant by a ‘scaled-down version’ - the number of days, meetings or the participation etc.

And when at Singapore, the Qatar minister told the dinner meeting that his country had spent so much money and was ready to receive the WTO members and all the delegates and participants and could assure full security, and when India said as far as it was concerned it could go to Doha, though they understood the security concerns of others - those who had planned the Singapore meeting were surprised. Some of the majors wanted Moore to go to Qatar to persuade that government to voluntarily withdraw the invitation, and ultimately it was decided to leave it to the General Council. The Qatar minister and the ambassador would appear to have undertaken some consultations, and the government (according to reports from Doha) decided there was no need for them to consider the issue, unless some one made a request to them in the appropriate diplomatic way.

That the ‘tiny’ oil-kingdom of Qatar, is not so agreeable to putting on a nice ‘Arab face’, smile and be polite to visitors, and allow itself to be told that they should ‘withdraw’ their invitation and enable the meeting smoothly to be held elsewhere (despite praises for its golf course and other facilities) has come as a shock to many, including some delegations who had cancelled their plane bookings to Doha, and redid bookings to Singapore. (The secretariat itself does not have such problems, because the host country arranges for planes and their travel and other costs).

These officials and diplomats, and even some of the western media, are now surprised that “nothing has changed, that Qatar is not voluntarily ‘withdrawing’, showing understanding for the suddenly discovered security considerations” of some ministers (who till other day were publicly exhorting everyone to meet as scheduled), and that they have a bigger political and economic mess on hand.

They are still to come to grips with the fact that this state of affairs is largely due to: the distance of the secretariat and its senior officials and staff (this is true also these days of many other UN system institutions) from the thinking of ordinary members; the secretariat functioning not on behalf of the 141-members but for advancing the interests of a few and on the view that what is good for the US-EC and corporations must be good for all; and that power-equation is all that counts and should prevail in a rules-based organization, more so when supported by the western media.

This latter view is because of a self-delusional idea of what happened at Seattle - that delegates wanting to, and meeting there, to launch a new comprehensive round had been prevented from meeting by street protestors, and that the differences between the US and EU could not be bridged in time for the two to exercise their power and force other members to fall in line.

Meanwhile, adding to the confusion and growing resentment among the large number of Third World delegations are reports that the Chairman of the General Council, whether on his own or under pressure from the majors and the WTO head, will be issuing a revised draft of the ministerial declaration on 24 October (Wednesday late evening) or 25 October, well in time for the EU’s 113 Committee (Committee of EU member-country representatives at Brussels) weekly meeting on Friday, for them to okay it.

According to several responsible Third World delegations who are not given to any loose talk, and some of whom (individually or on behalf of some regional or sub-regional groups) appear to have had meetings with the WTO Director-General or his officials on one or another matter, have been told by the secretariat that the next draft to be issued by Harbinson, will be a cleaned up version, with little or no alternatives formulations, and that after an informal or formal General Council meeting to hear views, the document would go without alteration to the Ministers at the 4th Ministerial Conference, and any differences would have to be sorted out by ministers.

While no one wants to repeat the Seattle history, no responsible delegation and ambassador here, is ready to abdicate defense of the country’s “national interests” at the WTO, on the basis of some spurious economics that a new trade round or liberalisation is the remedy for the global recession or that they should keep quiet in the interests of the “global war on terrorism” and allow a new round with a creeping, comprehensive agenda to be launched with a declaration and mandate suitably modified on key points of interest to the US and EC - just to suit their political interests.

Several of the delegations who were not even at Singapore and have not been made any wiser by all the briefings this week - either about all the discussions there (including over dinners and lunches of ministers alone) on substantive issues as well venue etc for the meeting - are awaiting also advice from their capitals.

Some of them find it inacceptable that the Chairman of the General Council, at an informal ‘information’ meeting of the Heads of Delegations to the WTO on Tuesday (16 October), should seek their understanding and for waiver from members of the “10-day agenda notice rule” for documents to be placed before the Ministers, and at the same time, working and planning with the WTO secretariat to issue a new draft without clearing it first with them, or placing their alternative formulations put forward at consultations since 3 October, and then taking it even as a chairman’s informal text to the Ministers, daring anyone to get up and say no.

“We may be very insignificant international traders, but we too have national interests to defend, and we can’t be asked to commit harakiri to oblige the majors, and waive all rules and rights,” an ambassador of a small economy observed, confessing that the statements he was hearing at informal meetings from other ambassadors, and the way they are presented outside by the media, by the US and EU (and at Singapore by that host country) made him feel that they were all on two different planets.

Several of the developing country diplomats said that the Qatari stance in insisting on being the host could be explained and understood from the impression they had gathered by talking to other Arab diplomats (who were perhaps more in the confidence of Qatar) that Qatar feels it has been dealt with duplicitously in behind the scene talks among the majors, to which the WTO head was probably privy, for shifting the venue from Doha to Singapore and that this has been going on for several days, even before the US began its bombing of Afghanistan, but that Qatar itself had been kept in the dark.

There is no easy way of formally getting confirmation for these reports, and some of the recent explanations and statements from or on behalf of the WTO head Mike Moore, including the latest last Tuesday about the ‘Singapore’ meeting, appear to have shaken the trust and confidence of several Third World delegations, who are no longer willing to accept secretariat statements or explanations as the truth. – SUNS4991

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

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