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Time ripe for WTO transparency, inclusiveness, orderly procedures?

Geneva, 6 Aug (Chakravarthi Raghavan) - “We are vitally affected, and yet we have not been consulted or involved in the negotiations”, was a complaint voiced all over the place on 31 July. “This is a catastrophic management of the negotiations... It is a scandalous way to negotiate,” was another complaint on 29 July.

Civil society groups? Representatives of some small developing economies, with no weight in international trade and being irresponsible? Take a guess, and you will be wrong.

The bitter complaint over not having been consulted or involved (over the provision on the ‘export competition pillar’ for rules and disciplines on State Marketing Boards) was voiced all over the place, as one key ambassador put it this week, from Canada on 30 and 31 July including at the informal General Council and the earlier ‘green rooms’.

The ‘catastrophic management’ and the ‘scandalous way to negotiate’ complaint, came on 29 July from the Swiss Ambassador to the WTO, at a media briefing of the G10 at the Centre William Rappard (the WTO headquarters building.

The previous day, the Swiss President (office held this year by the Swiss Economy Minister Mr. Joseph Deiss) bitterly complained at the Swiss Mission (outside the WTO premises) about the negotiations on an agriculture annex taking place at the US Mission to the WTO amongst the ministers of the Five Interested Parties - Australia (for the Cairns Group), Brazil and India (both representing the G20), the European Communities (for the EU-15) and the United States.

Canada is a member of the Cairns Group, and of the socalled Quad (Canada, EC, Japan and the United States), and the Quad met among themselves and decided (on the basis that they were the four leading weights in international trade), for example, on the final outline of the Marrakesh Agreements including (at Canada’s instigation, and aimed at killing UNCTAD), for a WTO and forcing everyone to sign and join all agreements.

After Marrakesh too, and until the Cancun collapse, Canada was a mover and shaker and decision-maker, having commandeered the post of Director of the Division of the rule-making WTO’s Star Chamber - the Appellate Body under the Dispute Settlement Understanding.

Post-Marrakesh, and certainly post-Singapore, the Quad, at level of senior capital based negotiators, were periodically convening and hosting meetings of capital based negotiators of some 15-20 countries to push the Quad views and influence the others to agree.

Switzerland, as host country, and through the privilege of having provided two Directors-General of the GATT, and then by itself has been a permanent invitee to the ‘green rooms’. Only at Doha, it already found itself on the out so to say, complaining that it had not been consulted on some of the environment-related mandates in the Doha work programme.

Japan, another key country, has been dominating the running of the WTO as a Quad member.

But the cast of characters have changed, temporarily or more permanently is not yet clear. Nor is it clear whether the new decision-making will be confined to agriculture or expand to other issues too.

At Singapore (1996), Post-Singapore and Geneva (1998), the same manipulative and secretive ‘green room processes’ and meetings outside the WTO continued merrily.

And, to add insult to injury, the heads of the WTO began the process of going around the world, talking to heads of government and trade ministers in the capitals of developing countries, ignoring their accredited representatives here and often complaining against them.

After the collapse of the Seattle Conference, the General Council in Geneva tried to pick up the shattered pieces and, under the patient guidance and lealdership of Norway as chair of the General Council, adopted a decision in May 2000, agreeing on a series of confidence-building measures for internal transparency and inclusiveness in decision-making, and agreeing on a step-by-step approach.

But the next year, with Hong Kong China’s Stuart Harbinson in the chair, all this was quickly forgotten and swept under the rug, and the old game of the Quad, and the mini-ministerials all over the world, and giving guidance and advice started again.

Whether the US President George W. Bush and his administration could have anticipated and prevented the 9/11 attacks, shock and the death toll or not - reading the report of the 9/11 Commission and in between its lines, a nagging question remains whether it was something more than mere lack of foresight and care - within days of that event, the USTR Robert Zoellick and the EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, both pals, joined hands to orchestrate and hold the Doha conference, under the threat of an imminent war on Afghanistan, and the gathering armada in the Arabian sea and the Gulf.

Thus came the outcome of another manipulated decision-making process and the Doha Declaration whose full records were held back from publication for a few weeks; and even now the understandings and assurances from the Chairman of that conference are missing from the WTO’s publication, ‘Doha Declarations’, widely distributed by the media office and used as the reference by even delegates.

Even then, there was no real attempt to accommodate and negotiate, and the work programme was kept stalled as the two majors attempted again to rewrite the mandate.

And, learning from Doha, the developing countries, in the Like-Minded Group, formally put forward a proposal for internal transparency and inclusiveness in decision-making, and for orderly procedures at the General Council and at Ministerial Conferences - procedures that are accepted without question and practised in all international organizations and, followed even by boy scouts associations for their meetings.

But not so, at the WTO.

Canada, which was chairing the General Council, conducted some consultations, but said no agreement could be found on some of them; and subsequently, when Uruguay was in the chair, Canada even suggested that proposals that had no consensus should drop off the table!

The LMG proposals are still on the table.

And even so, under Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, who was able to get the post, only because of the insistence of key developing countries, the tactics continued.  The DG began to attempt to under-cut them, with some of his top aides and key officials, travelling first to Georgetown for the G90 meeting there, and more recently to the Mauritius meeting, to try and split the G90 and the G20.

Just before Cancun, an attempted coup d’etat of sorts, by the US and the EC, in agreeing between themselves and tabling a framework package on agriculture (accommodating each other at the expense of the developing countries), became a putsch - when Brazil and India brought together quickly a coalition of developing countries with offensive and defensive interests in agriculture and leading to the formation of the G20 and their counter to the US-EC package.

Some discussions were held pre-Cancun between US, EC, Brazil and India - when the EC chief negotiator, Peter Carl - angrily denounced the two developing countries, who remained unfazed.

At Cancun, the G20 talked with the US, and separately with the EC. And a broader unity and coalition emerged - with the G20, the G33 and the G90 (LDCs, African Group and the ACP) joining together and making clear they would not be bull-dozed.

The US and EC decided to scupper Cancun, rather than yield on agriculture. And post-Cancun, acting in tandem, the two attempted to divide the developing world.  They had some minor successes, but the G20 would not be split, and it became clear that direct talks and negotiations with the G20 was inevitable for any modus vivendi.

This led to the talks among the FIPs - first at level of ambassadors and senior officials in Geneva, then at the OECD in Paris, followed by Sao Paulo (on the sidelines of UNCTAD-XI), and again at Paris (hosted at the Brazilian embassy) and in Geneva at ministerial level at the US Mission.

The other earlier movers and shakers were out in the cold, and found themselves without leverage, and complaining bitterly.

Just before and during the week of 27 July, as the key talks were going on and negotiations taking place among the FIPs on the agriculture text, and many NGOs were assailing Brazil and India for not involving others, the Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim remarked that it was better for Brazil and India to negotiate with the US and EC, rather than allow, as in the past, the two to decide and force their agreement on others.

And to cap it all, on the night of 31 July, after some hard negotiations and green room meetings, when weary delegates turned up for final meeting at night, and got the text WT/GC/W/535 (the final version of the Oshima-Supachai draft decision and its four annexes), a Counsellor at the Indian Permanent Mission to WTO dealing with agriculture, Rajesh Aggarwal, found that something that had been negotiated and decided after much debate in the Ministerial Green Room, and the corrected draft that had been seen by those at the Green Room, had not found its way into the final official text.

One related to a point which the Indian Minister had insisted on, namely, that de minimis ‘support’ provided by the developing countries for their subsistence and resource-poor farmers will be exempt from cuts.

In the formal text, the ‘support’ had become ‘programmes’ - which would have led to endless litigation, since it is virtually impossible to design and draw up, fund and administer a programme to provide help only to subsistence or resource-poor farmers, though this is feasible in terms of funding and administering a support programme and see it is available to such farmers. Hence the Green Room language of ‘support’, which are specific budgetary amounts easily tracked or changed.

The second related to para 34, where a formulation sponsored by Japan and Switzerland, which would have enabled them to continue to keep out sensitive imports through the TRQs had not been accepted, and a clear formulation on how substantial improvement in market access on sensitive products restrained by the developed countries would be achieved.

But the official text carried the Japanese-Swiss formulation.

If the erroneous text had been adopted, and the error discovered only thereafter, “all hell would have broken loose” in developing countries, one trade ambassador remarked later. Fortunately, it was all discovered and corrected in time, he said.

According to the information provided later by several delegations, after some brief consultations, the Indian delegation brought it to the notice of the G20 and other key developing countries and its implications. It was suggested that the Indian delegation should go and meet the Chairman of the General Council and the DG and sort it out. However, India did not agree and said it would raise it in the full meeting.

Two from other key G20 negotiators met the Chair to point out the error, but found some reluctance for change. India made it known that it would object and refuse a consensus on the text at the General Council.

A little later, a WTO official decided to ‘take responsibility for the error’ on his shoulders, and a corrigenda to the official text (WT/GC/W.535/Corr1) was issued and distributed to all the delegations inside the room, before the General Council could be called to order to adopt the decision.

This episode seemed to surpass, the attempted obfuscation of WTO records after the Seattle fiasco, when Chairperson, USTR Charlene Barshevsky’s closing statement, carried on TV, was not available with the WTO; and after the Doha conference, the understandings from the Chair of that conference before adoption became a problematic one for the EC (and its Singapore agenda), and was not issued for many days.

Perhaps it is time, when the members come back to work, after the August vacations, and while the efforts to resume the Doha negotiations have to await the US elections and the change over at Brussels (whether one likes it or not), for the WTO members of the General Council could have a new look again at the LMG proposals for orderly procedures.

Perhaps this time, even Canada, Japan and Switzerland could join with India, Brazil and others.

Orderly procedures, some inclusive process of negotiations and decision-making, and a strict observance of the WTO’s own 24-hour rule, providing for a 24-hour delay between distribution of a text and a decision (so that capitals can be consulted too) can be put into force.

It will harm no one’s real interests - only pf those who do not want to put them out on the table, or believe that they could manipulate and get away with decisions.

It would have the added benefit of enhancing the credibility and accountability of the WTO to its member-governments, and through them to the public. - SUNS5632

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