Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Dec17/04)
Geneva, 11 Dec (Chakravarthi Raghavan*) - The 11th Ministerial Conference of the WTO (MC11) got underway Sunday in Buenos Aires, after the inaugural opening, preceded by several press briefings and conferences, including a joint one by WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo and Conference chair, Ms. Susana Malcorra.
The Conference continued to be roiled by the Argentine government's high-handed actions in banning WTO-accredited NGO representatives, despite attempts of the WTO to put the controversy behind it and focus on MC11 (but without resolving the problem).
The issue figured even at the opening press-conference of WTO DG Azevedo and Conference chair, Ms Malcorra.
Some of her remarks seemed to strengthen suspicion of civil society groups that at some level, the WTO, as well as the EU and several of its trade ministers, while publicly critical of Argentine action, may have had a hand in the exclusion of those viewed as strong advocates of developing country concerns, and against such new issues as e-commerce negotiations at the WTO.
[On Saturday, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell had told his press briefing that the WTO disagreed with Argentina's decision. "We didn't have the same perspective, but we're now moving on," he told journalists. However, despite his or Argentina's hopes of burying the controversy and "moving on," the issue continued to reverberate across global public opinion, raising questions about the legitimacy of the WTO and any decisions MC11 might reach.
[Reacting to Rockwell's remarks, Deborah James, coordinator of the OWINFS (Our World Is Not For Sale) network, said: "We have to address the banning of civil society from the Ministerial. We still have peaceful advocacy groups ... including two persons actually deported in the middle of the night. None of these organizations (and persons) have any history whatsoever of violence. Instead, they are CSOs with a long history of advocacy for a just global economic system. They were banned for their political views and beliefs. But we see the International Chamber of Commerce, DHL, UPS, the World Economic Forum, PHARMA, the European Services Forum, and other corporations and corporate lobby groups are permitted. Keith Rockwell said "Now we are moving on." But the banning of accredited participants to an international meeting of a multilateral organization de-legitimizes that meeting... DG Azevedo has unfortunately failed to display the required leadership to guarantee the integrity of the Ministerial. And we condemn this political repression by the Argentine government." SUNS]
More than 300 NGOs have signed a letter denying the liberalization of electronic commerce, including the free exchange of data.
On the other hand, they want a special safeguard mechanism (SSM) for developing countries and a permanent agreement on the holding of public agricultural stocks, an issue that WTO members are supposed to resolve in this ministerial.
The OWINFS coordinator denounced the US blocking of the WTO's appellate jurisdiction that could threaten, according to some, the maintenance of the organization. NGOs would not oppose the institution if it took more account of developing countries. "We want to change the existing rules of the WTO. And stop its expansion," said James.
According to a report by Telesur (Latin American TV network), Argentina blocked two European activists from entering the country, and deported them from Buenos Aires airport in the middle of the night.
One of the deportees, Sally Burch, a British activist and journalist for the Latin American Information Agency, said in Ecuador (where she is based) that Argentina had already revoked credentials given to her by the WTO, but she thought she would be able to enter the country as a tourist.
"They found my name on a list and started asking questions... supposedly I was a false tourist," Burch said on Radio 10. "It's not very democratic of Argentina's government."
In her statement, Burch said: "I have participated in many UN meetings over the years, either as a journalist or communication rights activist... never expressed disruptive attitudes, much less advocated violence. Therefore, the only explanation I can find for my deportation ... is that the government finds my opinions and analysis "disruptive" ... of its neoliberal and pro-corporate agenda. Some of these ideas might include: .... that issues of grave importance for humanity ...Â human rights, development, freedom of expression or the environment, should not be decided behind closed doors, between big governments and big corporations .... as often occurs in the WTO; that the proposals for e-commerce negotiations in the WTO serve the interests of the big transnational internet corporations, and not those of the people or of developing countries, ... that "free flow of data" mean that everyone's personal data become a commodity for the big corporations to exploit; .... that the present model of the Internet and artificial intelligence, concentrated in the hands of big corporations, runs contrary to the public interest and presents serious threats to democracy, and that e-commerce negotiations (at WTO) would tend to strengthen this model."
The local Argentine civil society groups charged that the incident highlighted "the undemocratic leanings" of President Mauricio Macri's government, which has greeted protests with police repression while installing neoliberal, pro-market reforms.
Meanwhile, a "Joint Declaration on Trade and Women's Economic Empowerment" co-sponsored by Iceland and Sierra Leone for MC11 is reported to have the backing of more than a third of the WTO members, but it is unclear whether it will get approval at MC11.
In a contribution at TWN Info Service, "Is "gender" a Trojan horse to introduce new issues at WTO?", Roberto Bissio, a Uruguay-based civil society activist, cites trade experts in Buenos Aires, as saying that the apparently innocuous non-binding language in the gender declaration might end up as a "Trojan horse" to smuggling in "new issues" into the delicate WTO negotiations. (See http://www.twn.my/title2/wto.info/2017/ti171212.htm).
He notes that while Feminist economists have long argued that trade liberalization affects women and men differently, the draft declaration prefers to say "that inclusive trade policies can contribute to advancing gender equality and women's economic empowerment, which has a positive impact on economic growth and helps to reduce poverty."
However, says Bissio, paragraph 5 of the proposed document would commit the WTO to hold "a series of seminars [...] to explore and discuss" themes like "the identification of barriers that limit women's participation in trade"; "financial inclusion as well as the access to trade financing and financial assistance for women traders"; the "enhancement of women entrepreneurs' participation in public procurement markets"; and "the inclusion of women-led businesses, in particular MSMEs, in value chains."
In WTO experience, he adds, "study groups" are a foot in the door, and lead to proposals for negotiations, as on so-called "Singapore issues".
[Key developing countries, while supportive of state actions to promote women's advancement and participation in political life and economy of a country, nevertheless are opposed to bringing in such issues into the WTO. Also, they point out that according to the July 2004 Framework accord that relaunched the Doha negotiations after the collapse of the 2003 Cancun Ministerial, no new issues are to be brought up on the agenda or work of the WTO, until the negotiations on the Doha Work Programme are concluded as a single undertaking, signed and sealed at a Ministerial Conference. As such, gender issues, e-commerce disciplines on MSMEs, investment facilitation etc cannot be brought in, until the Framework accord provision is formally and explicitly changed.
[Moreover, there is little in the WTO remit (GATT, GATS etc) that can be utilised or invoked to re-write additional rules in areas mentioned in para 5 of the draft to achieve "feminist ends". On the other hand, various items and suggestions in the paragraph fall within the ambit of the IMF, the Basel-based BIS and the BCBS that has just formulated revised Basel III capital adequacy standards and global regulatory framework for banks and their various loan and trading operations. Actions by these institutions would better and much faster achieve the aims, objectives and programmes sought. SUNS]