PR disaster for MC11 as host denies accreditation to many NGOs

The Argentine host government dropped a bombshell in the final stretch of the run-up to MC11 by barring some 60 representatives of local and international non-governmental organizations from participating in the conference. We publish below three contemporaneous reports, run in chronological order, documenting the developments as they unfolded, from the seemingly shifting official narrative surrounding the ban to the reactions to what has been seen as “an outrageous and worrying precedent”.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA (30 NOV): With just 10 days before the WTO Ministerial Conference convenes in Buenos Aires, the Argentine hosts have created a public relations disaster for the WTO by taking the unprecedented step of denying accreditation (and entry into Argentina) for about 63 persons from some 20-30 civil society organizations.

All of them are persons duly accredited by the WTO for the conference. Two of the organizations are business groups (a US corn business group and an Argentine spirits business association).

The groups denied accreditation by the host include some prominent civil society organizations like the Americas regional office of UNI (the global umbrella trade union for private sector services), Friends of the Earth, the Transnational Institute and 11.11.11 (the coalition of development NGOs in Belgium).

Deborah James of Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS), an umbrella global network of some 250 civil society groups, noted that based on the experience of its members who have attended international meetings of the WTO, the United Nations and other fora, the hosts have never denied entry except for at most one or two specific persons, with at least some justification provided. Previous WTO Ministerial Conferences in Singapore, the United States, Qatar, Mexico, Hong Kong (China), Switzerland, Indonesia and Kenya, she said, did not see similar such repression.

Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now from the UK, one of the groups denied accreditation, said: “We have participated in many previous Ministerial meetings without any problems, but now our entire four-person delegation has had their accreditation revoked – in spite of the fact that we have been engaging our government on the WTO for years, and have non-refundable tickets and hotels [for the conference in Buenos Aires].”

“Unexpected development”

The WTO’s Head of External Relations, Bernard Kuiten, has been contacting the affected groups and representatives about the Argentine government refusal, and advising them not to travel to Argentina as they are likely to be stopped at immigration and sent back.

In identical messages (seen by this writer, courtesy of some affected NGOs) sent out by Kuiten to each affected NGO or individual, he says: “The WTO has duly accredited your NGO as an eligible participant of WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires from 10 to 13 December 2017. However, we are informed by the host government that for unspecified reasons, the Argentine security authorities have decided to deny your accreditation.

“We have made repeated enquiries about this unexpected development, but we have little to no hope that a solution will be found. We therefore discourage you from travelling to Argentina so as to avoid being turned away upon entry into the country.

“We asked the Argentine authorities to contact you directly and inform you of their decision but to avoid that it does reach you at too late a stage, we have decided to contact you now.

“We apologize for the inconvenience that the Argentine decision may cause. We are unfortunately not in a position to provide any explanation or background and suggest you contact the Argentine authorities directly on acredita”

In conversations or exchanges with some of the groups, the WTO officials involved appear very upset and have advised those affected that “it is 100 percent Argentine government decision.”

The officials said they had been going back and forth with the Argentine government for the last two weeks, and the issue had gone right up to WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, who had a meeting with the Argentine minister at the country’s mission to the WTO, but that the Argentine government has refused to budge.

Officials confess they could make no sense of the host’s actions. Some of those being denied accreditation are serious researchers the WTO has been dealing with for years, some from the time of the Marrakesh meeting in 1994 (which adopted the agreement establishing the WTO).

The WTO officials said they have never seen such a development for all their meetings over the last 15 years. The only instance they could recall was at the time of the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in 2005 when French activist farmer Jose Bove was denied entrance. (At that time, the then WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy intervened and got him in.) The WTO officials were quoted by some NGOs as saying that the Argentine government officials seemed really scared regarding security for MC11.

In this writer’s experience with the UN in New York (1962-71) and with UN organizations and specialized agencies in Geneva (1978 to now), we have seldom come across such a large-scale denial by a host government on “security grounds”.

The standard UN-host country agreement for such conferences has a provision enabling the host, for “national security” reasons, to deny entry to those accredited for the conference – diplomats and delegates from member countries, journalists, representatives of other intergovernmental organizations and observers, NGOs etc. But this provision is invoked only in very, very exceptional instances.

Personal experience

Going back into the distant past, this writer had a somewhat similar experience in Argentina, way back in 1978 at the time of the UN Conference on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries held in Buenos Aires.

The UN General Assembly had called for such a conference, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) was asked to organize it. The head of UNDP at the time was Bradford Morse. Morse made an effort to generate some “out of the box” ideas, reaching out to sources other than normal UN and UN specialized agency bureaucracy. One of the organizations he contacted was the Swiss-based International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA).

The IFDA President, the late Marc Nerfin, who was also the vice-president of Inter Press Service (IPS), organized a consultation meeting at Nyon, Switzerland, and I was one of the participants. Among the various ideas that came up at that meeting was one I suggested: that UNDP, with the help of other relevant UN agencies, should take steps to promote infrastructure for direct communication and transportation among the developing countries instead of having such channels go through Europe or North America.

Morse was taken up with the idea and, knowing I would be going to Buenos Aires as a journalist, invited me to participate in some parallel expert panel meetings and discussions.

At that time, Argentina was under a military dictatorship, the authoritarian Peron regime having been overthrown in a coup d’etat by the military (with the connivance of the US government). The repressive military government headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla had “disappeared” a large number of opposition activists and others.

I went to Buenos Aires accredited as a correspondent for the IPS Third World News Agency. When I presented my credentials at the conference hall, an Argentine army officer sitting behind the registration desk scrutinized my papers and told me, “We don’t recognize any Third World here.”

With all my knowledge and experience of UN organizations and their conferences, I was flabbergasted and thinking of what I should do. Just then, Morse was entering the conference building, saw me and waved to me. I quickly waved back and called out to him, asking him to come and sort out my problem.

I explained to him what the army person at the registration desk had told me in refusing accreditation. Some UN officials, seeing Morse, came forward, and Morse instructed them to get my papers processed and badge prepared. He waited with me, and when the badge came, pinned it on my coat and then took me with him into the conference.

My local Argentine colleagues and friends however got worried and cautioned me to be very careful, lest I be “disappeared”.

The next day, I was chairing a panel of experts (on communications and transportation), and Morse was with me on the rostrum. I made a few opening remarks and threw the floor open to comments by the participants. A few experts from other developing countries briefly spoke or intervened, but the large number of Argentine and other Latin American participants remained silent. A note came to me from the floor pointing to the presence of Argentine military inside the room and said this inhibited floor interventions. After consulting Morse, I requested the military men to leave the meeting, which they did reluctantly.

But through the remaining 3-4 days of the conference, the military men kept an eye on me and my movements, meetings with delegates etc. Morse, who had also noticed it, detailed one of the UN’s own security persons to make sure that I would be safe in Buenos Aires during the conference days, and to see me off to the airport and my emplaning to fly back to Europe. (SUNS8587)                         

Third World Economics, Issue No. 651/652, 16 October – 15 November 2017, pp19-20