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TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct14/06)
23 October 2014
Third World Network
 

Save the WTO secretariat
Published in SUNS #7897 dated 20 October 2014
 
New Delhi, 16 Oct (Bhagirath Lal Das*) -- Amidst the currently heated debates in the WTO, we have missed noticing a significant danger.
 
The Secretariat of the WTO is under severe crisis of identity and runs the risk of losing its standing as a useful tool for conduct of business in the WTO.
 
This danger arises out of the conflict in the role of the Director General (DG) as the head of the Secretariat and as the Chairman of the Trade Negotiations Committee.
 
The DG, being the head of the Secretariat, is a part of the Secretariat.
 
Article VI of the WTO Agreement lays down: "... (The DG and the staff of the Secretariat) shall refrain from any action which might adversely reflect on their position as international officials."
 
An important requirement of an international official is that he/she must be, and also must appear to be, totally objective and impartial in respect of the positions and interests of individual Members on any issue in the WTO.
 
Thus when there are differences of opinion among the Members during the negotiation for an agreement, the Secretariat, including the DG, has to keep scrupulously clear of any statement or attitude that may be, or even appear to be, siding with any particular line in the negotiation.
 
The Secretariat, including the DG, has to engage in assisting the process of negotiation as requested by the Members; but the Secretariat, including the DG, has to be strictly and scrupulously objective and impartial in respect of the various positions of the Members.
 
Such objective and impartial conduct should be followed right through the process of the negotiation. After the agreement is finalised, the role of the Secretariat, including that of the DG, is to facilitate implementation of the provisions of the agreement that has emerged and has been brought into operation.
 
When the DG is made the chairman of an inter-governmental body in the WTO, for example, the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), the role is significantly different.
 
Whereas the DG as a part of the Secretariat has to be neutral, whether or not the negotiations result in an agreement, the chairman of the intergovernmental body (in this case, the TNC), has to undertake a pro-active role in bringing about compromises to arrive at a successful conclusion of the negotiation resulting in the final agreement. This is essentially a political exercise as explained below.
 
The chairman of an intergovernmental body has to understand the stands and positions of various countries and assess the possibility of flexibility in this regard. He/she has to gauge the limits to which a government can go. This involves a deep political perception.
 
Then, the chairman uses various strategies to bring the differing positions nearer to one another. This is again an intensely political exercise.
 
In this way, the chairman has to operate as an active political entity with the objective of narrowing down the differences. Sometimes, the chairman assesses what the most acceptable position would be in the whole negotiating group and he/she tries to steer the negotiation towards that end.
 
He/she may have to use his/her political skill and weight to soften the stands of the countries/groups that are widely varying from this stand.
 
The DG, while acting as the chairman of an intergovernmental body like the TNC, has to perform such a political role. And that function then detracts from his essentially neutral and technical entity as a part of the Secretariat. There is thus a clear conflict between these two roles.
 
If the subjects of the negotiation in the intergovernmental body involve widely differing national interests as they normally are in an important body like the TNC, the conflict is accordingly more pronounced.
 
This conflict of roles clearly damages the position of the Secretariat (as DG is a part of it) as a neutral, technical, objective and non-political body. It is likely to erode the confidence of the membership in the Secretariat that is expected to be totally non-partisan in respect of the conflicting stands and positions of the countries.
 
The practice of the DG being the chairman of the TNC has continued for some years. It was there during the Uruguay Round too. This conflict has thus continued for a long time. But now the conflict is getting more and more pronounced.
 
The positions of countries are getting sharply divided on various issues as the WTO negotiations are impinging on policies of vital economic and political interests of countries.
 
The role of the chairman is thus getting more and more into complexities. Perhaps it may also be embarrassing at times, as the DG has to appear to be non-partisan while the chairman has to be fully involved politically to bring about a compromise.
 
In this process, the Secretariat is the entity that is most damaged in its reputation as an effective agent to facilitate the operation of the WTO.
 
In order to retain and protect the effectiveness and usefulness of the Secretariat it may be wise to delink it completely from the political role. And that can come about only when the DG ceases to be the chairman of an intergovernmental body in the WTO.
 
(* Mr. Bhagirath Lal Das is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to GATT and GATT Council Chair in 1982; he was subsequently Director of International Trade Programmes at the UN Conference on Trade and Development. He contributed this comment.) +

 


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