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Prelude to Doha: An untransparent, manipulative process; a biased and imbalanced text

With the approach of the Fourth WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, developing countries have been at pains to make it clear both within the WTO General Council and at international and regional meetings that they are firmly opposed to the launching of a new round of WTO trade negotiations involving new issues. Instead, they have been calling for a review of some of the WTO agreements, a resolution of their problems in implementing some of these agreements and a reform of the WTO decision-making process. Despite this, the developed countries, led by the EU and the US, have been bent on launching a new trade round by one means or another. A reflection of this determination was the manipulative process employed by the WTO officials to secure the transmission of the draft of the Ministerial Declaration which is to be issued at the Doha meeting and which will, in effect, set the work and mandate of the world trade body for the next couple of years.

by Martin Khor


A SITUATION that is highly disadvantageous and potentially threatening to developing countries has arisen in the WTO. The Doha Ministerial Conference is being set up by the WTO Secretariat and the major countries (particularly the US and EU) to pressurise developing countries into accepting a new round with negotiations for new agreements in such critical but inappropriate issues as investment, competition and government procurement as its centrepiece.

In the past few weeks, the WTO has been subjected to incredibly manipulative practices:

·        the late distribution (on the night of 27 October) of a biased, one-sided draft declaration prepared by the Chairman of the General Council with the assistance of the WTO Director-General favouring the major countries and ignoring the views of most developing countries;

·        the allowance of only a few days for reading and responding to the draft before the one and only General Council meeting on 31 October to debate and decide on the draft declaration and three other documents;

·        the refusal of the  Chairman of the General Council to agree to demands from many developing countries that their opposing views on various issues be reflected in the text or in an annex,  and his insistence on sending on to Doha the disputed ‘clean’ text without getting a consensus or the agreement of the General Council;

·        his refusal as well to indicate the differing views of the WTO Members in the covering letter dated 5 November accompanying the draft declaration that was ‘transmitted’ to the Trade Minister of Qatar, who will be hosting the Ministerial conference.

Although the Qatari leaders hosting the event have stated they would not allow a repeat of the untransparent and undemocratic Seattle process, there are indications that the WTO Secretariat and the major developed countries will attempt to have a non-transparent and exclusive process in Doha, with ‘Green Room’ meetings of a few pre-selected countries to work out texts on specific issues, which will then be put to all Members to accept - a repeat of the process in the 1999 Seattle Ministerial Conference that caused such an uproar and led to that meeting’s collapse.

Developing countries’ officials and NGOs are hoping that the Qatari leaders’ pledge will be met, but fear that the major countries and the Secretariat will muscle their way into conducting the meeting using the usual ‘Green Room’ and other manipulative techniques.

Onslaught on new issues

The developing countries have a lot at stake in Doha.  They do not want the conference to launch negotiations for new WTO treaties (especially on investment, competition, government procurement, trade facilitation) that would enable large foreign companies to take over the business of local firms and citizens and curb the right and ability of governments to devise and implement development policies.

They have been facing an onslaught from the major developed countries, especially the EU, the US and Japan, which are using many tactics to pressurise them into agreeing to a new round with the ‘new issues’ at its centre.

Despite months of consultations at the WTO during which major disagreements emerged between developed and developing countries, especially on the new issues, the Chairman produced a first draft declaration on 26 September that was already biased against the developing countries’ views.  But at least the draft provided two options each (either to start negotiations or to continue to study the matter) for two of the new issues, investment and competition.

For another month, consultations continued at a frenzied pace, but the WTO Members came no closer to agreement.  It was then expected that the differences would be reflected at least in key areas of the subsequent draft. To the shock of developing countries, the second draft ignored their views, with even the study option removed for investment and competition:  the draft commits Ministers to negotiate new treaties (with only a ‘concession’ that the negotiations be preceded by two years of pre-negotiations!).

Thus, the draft may be ‘clean’ in not reflecting divergent views, but it is manipulatively deceptive, as it conceals the views of a large number of countries, and favours one side at the expense of the other. 

Developing-country criticisms

The WTO’s General Council meeting on 31 October and 1 November was the only occasion where the delegations had the opportunity to give their views on this revised draft Ministerial Declaration (and other documents) before Doha. A majority of developing countries that spoke at the General Council were very critical of the process by which the draft was issued and its contents. The main criticisms were that: 

(1)  The draft does not take into account the views expressed and submitted by developing countries but reflects the views of the developed countries, especially on the launching of negotiations on new issues and industrial  tariffs, and on a broad work programme to be managed by a Trade  Negotiations Commitee in a new  round. The draft is thus biased and one-sided.

(2)  The draft is untransparent and deceptive, as it deliberately does not set out the differences of view between various delegations. This is especially so in the paragraphs on the new issues of investment, competition, government procurement and trade facilitation. Even WTO officials admit that the WTO Members are ‘split down the middle’ on these new issues. Although developing countries do not want any negotiations to begin, the text commits the WTO to start negotiations on all four issues (in the case of investment and competition, it commits the WTO to begin negotiations in two years’ time after the 5th Ministerial; thus the next two years will already see pre-negotiations or in effect the first phase of actual negotiations).

(3)  The draft does not provide a level playing field, as the majority of developing countries will have to argue their case without their position being reflected at all in the important operative parts of the text.

(4)  The draft (especially the text on ‘organisation and management of the work programme’) contains several elements for launching a new round with a comprehensive negotiating agenda, with a ‘single undertaking’ (all issues to be decided in a package) and the establishment of a super organ called the Trade Negotiations Committee. Many developing countries had criticised this section when it appeared in the first draft but their criticisms and alternative formulations were totally ignored in this revised draft.

Finally the developing countries are frustrated and extremely upset at the process by which the Chairman of the General Council and the Director-General of the WTO Secretariat are transmitting the draft to the Doha Ministers’ meeting.

(1)  The draft was transmitted to Doha despite the absence of agreement or consensus on the text. Many delegations in their statements had demanded that their views in areas of disagreement be reflected in a revised text, or at least that their views be noted in the text or an annex or cover letter.  However the Chair made clear he would transmit an unrevised text. This process of transmitting a one-sided text with no indication of divergence of views was heavily criticised by many delegations in their statements.

(2)  The Chair’s letter of 5 November under cover of which the draft declaration was transmitted to the Trade Minister of Qatar does not explain the differences of view, even in the important sections. This was done despite the clear requests made by many delegations that their views should at least be reflected in his covering letter.  Thus the worst fears of the developing countries have been realised.  The process has been discriminatory and extremely non-transparent. 

The developing countries that spoke up critically in the 31 October Council meeting included Tanzania (on behalf of the least developed countries group) and Zimbabwe (on behalf of the Africa Group). The total number of countries in both groups is about 50. The two groups do not want negotiations to begin on the four new ‘Singapore issues.’ Several Asian and Caribbean/Central American countries are also not in favour of negotiating the new issues.  Prominent among them are India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Barbados and Jamaica. The LDCs and most African countries also do not want negotiations to start on industrial tariffs; they suggest that a study process in a working group be initiated, and its work should conclude before the commencement of any negotiations on industrial tariffs. 

It is thus clear that a majority of developing countries are not in favour of negotiations on the new issues, or the broad-based work programme that is contained in the draft text. And yet the draft text to be brought before the Ministers at Doha would have us believe that there is a unanimity of views that negotiations should start for new issues in a new round.

Uphill battle

The conclusion that any objective observer would draw is that the pre-Doha process has been cleverly (and deviously) manipulated so as to set up the Doha Ministerial in a manner that enables the major developed countries to push through their unpopular agenda of new negotiations in a new round, against the wishes of a large number of other Members.

The developing countries thus face a big and uphill battle, one which is much more difficult than the one they faced in Seattle.  Although the Seattle process was most undemocratic (with only the Ministers of a few countries invited to take part in exclusive Green Room meetings, whilst the others were left to wait in their hotel rooms), at least the draft declaration contained the different views of the Members, making it more transparent to everyone what the differences were.

With the cards stacked against them, the developing countries have to insist on their right in Doha to a democratic and open decision-making process, in which all countries have the opportunity to have their views expressed and more importantly to have their views reflected in a final declaration.

Will democracy triumph over the manipulations of a few? Given the untransparent processes so far in Geneva, and the poor record of previous WTO Ministerial meetings, especially in Seattle, we cannot be too optimistic.  But miracles can happen.

About the writer: Martin Khor is Director of the Third World Network.

 


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