Don’t hold MC11 in Argentina unless NGO ban is rescinded, WTO urged

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA (1 DEC): A global network of non-governmental organizations and social movements has called on the Argentine government to rescind its unprecedented decision to deny the accreditation already issued by the WTO to over 60 civil society representatives who were planning to attend the WTO’s eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires.

In a letter to WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo and the WTO members on 30 November, the groups also called on Azevedo and the WTO General Council not to hold the Ministerial in Argentina unless the participation of the civil society groups in question is reinstated.

“If any host country starts limiting access and does so arbitrarily and without having to explain any motives, not only is this conference’s integrity being attacked, but a key principle of international diplomacy is being violated. The WTO should not accept such a blatant violation of well-established international norms,” the groups charged.

The Argentine government’s move, purportedly on “security” grounds and just days ahead of MC11, to revoke the accreditation of the civil society representatives, including trade unionists, development advocates, digital rights activists and environmentalists, has been viewed by trade observers as a major public relations disaster for the government and the WTO.

According to the groups, the Argentine government had refused accreditation to those already accredited by the WTO, and advised the WTO that the experts will not be allowed into the country to participate in the Ministerial or related events.

The majority of the organizations that were rejected are working together through the Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS) network, the groups said. Others banned included some Argentine civil society groups and other independent civil society organizations from member countries.

Asked at a media briefing if any delegation had raised the issue of the NGO ban at the WTO General Council meeting on 30 November, WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell confirmed that no delegation had taken the floor on this issue.

Rockwell clarified that 64 representatives from 19 NGOs had been denied accreditation by the Argentine authorities.

Asked if there had been any previous instance of such a large-scale denial of accreditation to NGOs attending a WTO Ministerial Conference, Rockwell explained that “Article 5.2 of the Marrakesh treaty [which established the WTO] spells out that the [WTO] Secretariat has responsibility for interacting with non-governmental organizations.”

“There was a General Council decision taken in 1996 that said the Secretariat must apply its criteria in the selection of NGOs that they choose to accredit for the Ministerial Conferences, and the basis for this is that these NGOs in some way have interest in the WTO,” he said.

“I can say, without any equivocation or doubt, that has been the way we have applied this,” he said. “It is not a question of whether this is a pro or anti [WTO issue]. As you well know, we have had plenty of people come to our meetings who are not necessarily fans of what we do and we accredit them.”

According to Rockwell, “the Argentines have had an issue with this. They raised it with us. We have been discussing it with them. For reasons that are theirs, they made this decision and that’s where we are.”

Asked again if there had been any previous instances in Ministerial Conferences of such large-scale denials of visas for NGO representatives by the hosts, Rockwell replied, “No.”

Rockwell also said three journalists from sub-Saharan Africa had their visa applications denied by the Argentine authorities. According to him, no reasons were given by the authorities. He could not immediately identify the journalists or their affiliations.

Rockwell explained that the accreditation process is very different for journalists and for NGOs; the NGO process is much more structured and deadlines are much tighter. Journalists have a very hard time making accreditation deadlines and very often require technical assistance to get it done, he added.

“I can’t tell you on that front whether in the past governments have denied access to a visa for an individual journalist. I can’t tell you that because I don’t know. We can’t really follow everyone’s visa situation,” Rockwell said.

NGO letter

In their letter to the Director-General and WTO members, the NGOs under the OWINFS network said the affected civil society delegates, many of whom have attended multiple WTO Ministerial meetings in the past, were sent a note from the WTO Secretariat on 29 November notifying them that the Argentine government had denied the accreditation already issued by the WTO.

These included NGOs from Argentina (Instituto del Mundo del Trabajo, Fundacion Grupo Efecto Positivo and Sociedad de Economia Critica), Belgium (11.11.11), Brazil (Brazilian Network for People’s Integration, REBRIP), Chile (Derechos Digitales), Finland (Siemenpuu), Indonesia (Institute for National and Democracy Studies), the Netherlands (Transnational Institute), the Philippines (People Over Profit) and the UK (Global Justice Now), as well as delegates registered with international organizations including UNI global union, UNI Americas and Friends of the Earth International.

The majority of the rejected organizations work together through the global OWINFS network, which works for a sustainable, socially just and democratic multilateral trading system, they said.

“It has also not gone unnoticed that of the 20 organizations we understand have been banned, only two are from corporations, while the overwhelming number of corporate representatives will be allowed,” the groups noted.

They pointed out that the standard agreement between international organizations and the host country of an international conference provides for accreditation, visas and entry to all those the international organization accredits – diplomats, media, observers from intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, etc.

The groups said while the agreement has a provision for the host, only on exceptional security considerations, to refuse entry, based on the experience of the more than 250 members of the OWINFS network who have attended international meetings of the WTO, the UN and other fora, hosts have never denied entry, except for at most one or two specific persons, with at least some justification provided.

“Previous WTO Ministerial meetings in Singapore, the United States, Qatar, Mexico, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Indonesia and Kenya did not see similar such repression,” the groups underlined.

“Thus, we call on the Argentine government to reverse the bans, and on the Director-General and the WTO membership not to hold the Ministerial in Argentina unless the participation of the civil society groups is reinstated.”

The groups said it is ironic that this occurred on the same day that Argentina was celebrating the transfer of the presidency of the G20 grouping of major world economies from Germany to Argentina.

“The banning of registered WTO delegates is an outrageous and worrying precedent, not just for the WTO meeting itself, and also for the G20 presidency of Argentina, but also for all future international meetings,” they warned.

“Extreme concern”

Meanwhile, some Argentine NGOs also sent a letter on 30 November to Argentine President Mauricio Macri in which they registered their “extreme concern” over the NGO ban.

The letter was signed by Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel; Nora Cortinas and Mirta Baravalle of The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo; and Beverly Keene, Coordinator of SERPAJ, a Latin American human rights organization.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is an association of mothers whose children were “disappeared” during the military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983. They started marching in protest in 1977 at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, which is in front of the presidential palace.

In their letter to Macri, the Argentine NGOs rejected these “unilateral and authoritarian measures that violate fundamental rights of the individuals and organizations involved, curtailing democratic participation in an arena in which matters of global concern that affect all of society are discussed.”

“They only serve to show the world that your government has nothing but contempt for the rule of law, human rights and democratic co-existence.”

“According to the information received, your government has alleged motives of ‘security’, without further explanation, in what can clearly be interpreted as an attempt to prevent the participation of voices that are critical of the policies that your government and others seek to advance in the context of this Ministerial,” they charged.

In more than 20 years of WTO existence, no host government has ever taken decisions of this nature and breadth. Many of the organizations and delegates whose accreditation is now being denied have participated actively in Ministerial Conferences and other institutional arenas of the WTO since its very creation. They have also participated in parallel spaces of discussion and mobilization in different countries the world over, the letter pointed out.

The Argentine NGOs told the president that the “attitude of your government contravenes regular diplomatic practice for the international conferences of multilateral organizations. In offering to host the MC11, the government of Argentina has agreed to allow the full complement of participants registered by the international organization in the meeting – including country delegates, media, non-governmental organizations, and others.”

“It is inadmissible that the Argentine Government now arrogates the power to decide who can or cannot participate in the WTO meeting, ignoring the decades of precedents and the official mechanism established by the WTO and agreed by Argentina as the host country for this purpose.”

They also pointed out that “this curtailing of the presence and participation of civil society calls into serious doubt the capacity of the Argentine Republic to take on, in addition, the presidency of the G20, in particular when the whole world is aware of the context of social conflict and repression that the policies of your government are generating.”

The letter noted that in addition to the actions informed by the WTO and social organizations from around the world, there is the assassination of Rafael Nahuel just days ago, the disappearance followed by death of Santiago Maldonado, the persecution of indigenous communities and the militarization of the territories where the upcoming activities of both the G20 and the WTO will take place.

Caravans of National Guard troops have been mobilized over recent days towards the Andean district and oppressive measures of exclusion and control are announced for the time of the Ministerial in Buenos Aires.

“We call on your government to reverse these measures immediately and to comply with its human rights obligations as well as those of citizen participation, converting to reality the transparency it proclaims. We ask the Director General of the World Trade Organization to cancel the Ministerial Conference, and move it to another country, if this extremely serious and problematic situation is not promptly resolved,” the NGOs urged.

Meanwhile, the General Council of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) adopted a resolution on 1 December strongly condemning the decision of the Argentine government to revoke the accreditation of more than 60 participants, among them 10 trade union representatives. It requested the government to swiftly repeal this revocation. The Council said it is also deeply concerned now that Argentina is the host of the G20, and urged that such a practice not be replicated in the G20 summit and related events. (SUNS8588)                   

Third World Economics, Issue No. 651/652, 16 October – 15 November 2017, pp20-22