Ever-changing narrative on Argentine NGO ban for MC11

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA (4 DEC): The narrative and official explanations advanced by the organs of the Argentine government for the banning of 60-odd individuals from some 20 non-governmental organizations accredited to MC11 by the WTO have been getting curiouser and curiouser, making a mockery of the “national security” claims based on which the ban has been imposed.

A large number of the affected organizations and individuals are part of the global Our World Is Not for Sale civil society network, whose coordinator Deborah James had addressed a letter to the WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo and WTO members on 30 November calling on them to shift the MC11 venue if Argentina does not change its mind.

On 3 December, James sent a follow-up letter to Azevedo reminding him that the groups had received no response and pointing out that the Argentine action was a violation of the host-country agreement and norms.

James urged the Director-General to take steps “to immediately correct this situation, intervene with the government of Argentina to reverse its decision; and if the government maintains its violation of the host country agreement, to bring this issue immediately to the [WTO] General Council and reschedule the meeting when a proper host can be found.” (More on this below.)

“Closer to a scandal”

Apparently for nearly two weeks, there had been considerable back-and-forth between the WTO in Geneva and the Argentine authorities in Buenos Aires. But the information about the ban became more widely known only on 29 November when the WTO’s NGO liaison official began notifying individuals affected, repeatedly insisting that though the WTO had accredited them, it was the host government that was denying accreditation for “unspecified reasons”, and that the WTO had been unable to get any explanation nor did it have any hope the ban would be reversed. The WTO warned the affected individuals not to travel as they were bound to be stopped at immigration by Argentine authorities and deported.

While the WTO was thus advising and notifying affected NGOs, the Argentine government itself kept silent and neither contacted the persons concerned nor made any public announcement.

In its 3 December edition, Argentine daily Pagina 12 spoke of the “unusual decision of the Argentine government to censor the participation of entities and people accredited to the next WTO Ministerial Conference”, and said the details made it “closer to a scandal” and an attempt to censor participation of individuals based on an assessment of their views.

Pagina 12 cited the Argentine Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic cable to its embassies and consulates throughout the world instructing them to deny visas to representatives of civil society organizations whose stances on the WTO and MC11 were viewed by the foreign office as “more disruptive than constructive”.

Whatever the merits of this subjective assessment, however, it clearly was not a criterion that could fall under the “national security” exception provision of the standard hosting agreement for such conferences between the international organization concerned (in this case the WTO) and the host government.

The reasons advanced by the Argentine government sparked outrage among not only affected individuals and their organizations but also several governments of European countries where the NGOs are located. Many of these individuals are academic researchers in good standing, whose papers are often even published or taken note of by these governments. (One of the Argentine NGOs banned is a respected labour research group whose papers have been published and/or made use of by the Argentine Labour Ministry itself!)

Several of the governments apparently instructed their embassies in Buenos Aires to take the matter up with the host country, and the embassies of EU nations reportedly met jointly with Argentine Foreign Office officials. These discussions perhaps forced the host government to realise the untenability of its position. Over the weekend, the official narrative changed.

New press note

In a press note issued by the Foreign Ministry, dated 2 December but made public on 3 December, the justification for the ban was amended. Instead of advancing the earlier claim of the “disruptive” nature of the individuals and/or organizations, it was now claimed that the dis-accredited organizations had made explicit calls for violence on social media.

The key paragraph in the press note said: “The team organizing security for this conference alerted the WTO about some individuals registered by the WTO under some NGOs who had made explicit calls for violence on social media, expressing their tendency to produce schemes of intimidation and chaos.”

A representative of an Argentine NGO (name withheld lest it be banned too) said: “To the best of my knowledge, that is a false imputation of criminal behaviour and falls under the qualification of libel (Article 109 of the Argentine Criminal Code, aggravated by being committed by a public official, idem Article 117bis).”

The NGO also drew attention to some odd aspects of the release. The language was somewhat unusual for Foreign Ministry documents, containing several style and grammatical errors that shouldn’t be expected from a press editor/spokesperson. For example:

l     In Spanish the name of a month is “never” capitalized, but it was in the release.

l     “11va” used in the release is the wrong abbreviation in Spanish for “eleventh” (Ministerial Conference).

l     There were long, breathless paragraphs made up of just one sentence.

l     The usage of “y/o” (and/or) may be typical of “police baroque” but is impermissible in learned Spanish unless intended to specifically prevent an ambiguity.

l     There was incorrect placement of commas.

l     There was confusing wording (not as in “deliberately ambiguous”, but as if written by someone halfway through middle school).

l     The release was full of grammatical mistakes.

The following five paragraphs highlight contents of the press release:

On the occasion of MC11 of the WTO soon to be held in Buenos Aires, several precautions have been taken on organizational matters, including issues related to the accreditation of attendees.

The security team of the organization of this Ministerial Conference anticipated to the WTO the existence of some enrolled attendees, registered by that Organization [the WTO] on behalf of some NGOs, who had made explicit calls to manifestations of violence through social networks, expressing their will to generate schemes of intimidation and chaos.

Based on the qualification of such records, the local organization has understood it opportune to indicate that the people associated with such disruptive and/or violent proposals could not be accredited to access the Ministerial Conference meeting venue.

In this context it should be remembered that the organization of the Conference has already accredited 213 NGOs for the Buenos Aires event, which make up a core of 593 people, while only 60 registered by 18 NGOs have not been [accredited].

The number of accredited [individuals? NGOs?] doubles the quantity of those participating in the last four Ministerial Conferences.

(To avoid accusations of distortion, the above cites translations, provided by a local NGO, from the original Spanish into English of the relevant paragraphs in full.)

The list of dis-accredited organizations (contained in the Foreign Office cable accessed and published by Pagina 12) is extensive: Access Now, Attac France, Attac Norway, Coalition of the Flemish North-South Movement, Digital Rights, Positive Effect Group Foundation, Global Justice Now, World of Work Institute, J. Godio-Untref, Lifelong Education & Development, Oxfam Germany, Rede Brasileira pela Integracao dos Povos, UNI Americas, Argentine Federation of the Spirit Drinks Industry, People Over Profit, Siemenpuu, Society of Critical Economics, the International Maize Alliance, Transnational Institute, Friends of the Earth International, UNI Global Union Indonesia, The Redemption Health Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development and Conservation.

Some of these organizations, and the persons mentioned, have been known to this writer over many years, and none of them fit the descriptions mentioned by the intelligence services of the host country.

The ban and the manner in which it has been imposed, including references to the Argentine intelligence services, have resulted in some local NGOs and journalists digging up and drawing the attention of colleagues abroad to some past unsavoury episodes and allegations linked to Argentine President Mauricio Macri.

NGO outrage

In the OWINFS follow-up letter to the WTO Director-General, James has reminded him of their earlier letter to which they had received no response.

She added: “We fully understand that in the case of the banned civil society representatives, that they had been duly accredited by the WTO, and that the decision to revoke the accreditation lies with the Argentine government. We also understand that the WTO pushed back on the blacklisting, and that you have engaged the government to try to convince them to reverse their position. We appreciate this.

“However, at this point, we find that not enough action has been taken by the WTO to guarantee the proper functioning of the Ministerial. As we stated in our letter, ‘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.’ We further find that ‘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.’...

“[T]he Argentine government’s only public explanation has been that they found that the targeted organizations were ‘more disruptive than constructive’, which not only is incorrect, but does not fall within the international norms or host country agreement for refusing accredited participants.

“And today, we find posted on the website of the Foreign Ministry, a statement accusing the listed organizations of having ‘hecho explicitos llamamientos a manifestaciones de violencia a traves de las redes sociales, expresando su vocacion de generar esquemas de intimidacion y caos.’

“This is outrageous libel. It is impossible to justify that organizations such as the Instituto del Mundo del Trabajo or REBRIP or UNI Americas or CNCD-11.11.11 (an umbrella organization with 90 members including Caritas, Oxfam, Medecins du Monde, Rotary Club for Development, Conseil de la Jeunesse Catholique, etcetera) are ‘disruptive’ or ‘violent.’ None of the organizations we know have expressed calls to violence on social media. If the Argentine government is using this claim as its justification, it should be required by the WTO to offer proof (which of course does not exist).

“We have understood through various channels that the Argentine government may be reviewing groups on a ‘case by case’ basis, asking the home governments of the respective organizations for verification. This may be helpful for some groups, because some of the targeted organizations are funded partially by their governments, such as Siemenpuu (Finland) or Transnational Institute (the Netherlands); another aspect which makes the accusations against them laughable. However, we find that the requirement that a government verify [non-governmental] organizations to participate, to be repugnant. While not every banned group is known to us, we demand that ALL organizations which are accredited to the WTO, are duly allowed to participate in the meeting.

“In all of our organizations’ and allies’ experience with international meetings of multilateral member-state organizations, none of us have ever witnessed such a wholesale, and meritless, banning of accredited organizations from an international meeting.

“We find only one related situation was in 2006 at the World Bank-IMF annual meeting in Singapore, 27 civil society delegates accredited to the official meeting and dozen others that wanted to attend the parallel meeting were denied entry in Singapore. Under pressure from the civil society community, then-President of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, and then-Managing Director of the IMF, Rodrigo Rato, declared publicly that the Singaporean government had ‘shot itself on the foot’, and met with the Prime Minister to request that all those granted accreditation be admitted, in accordance with standard diplomatic practice for governments hosting international meetings. Because they took public leadership regarding the meeting of their organizations, 22 of the 27 were allowed in.

“Since officially accredited civil society groups are an integral part of the conference itself, the host country is bound by the host country agreement to let them in. A violation of the terms of the host country agreement that deprives the conference of duly accredited participants should not be acceptable by the international organization (the WTO in this case) and if a single legitimate participant is not allowed entry this should be a reason to move the conference to another location. This should be done in defence of the integrity of not just your organization but any other multilateral member-state conference, where the host country cannot block delegates that it doesn’t like.

“Since the people in the list are not a threat to Argentine security, then the list has been constructed for other reasons, like for example a judgement of the banned persons and organizations’ views. This seems like a far more credible underlying reason, given that half of the blacklisted groups are members of the OWINFS network and many others are well known to us. At the same time, the government of Argentina is hosting the International Chamber of Commerce for a joint trade fair. Given that only two of the blacklisted groups are trade associations, that means that other companies such as DHL, UPS, Fedex, the Global Express Association, the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Economic Forum, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, Philip Morris, the European Services Forum, the Semiconductor Industry Association, etcetera have not had their accreditation denied by the Argentine government and will be able to advocate for their views during the meeting.

“Thus, Argentina is exerting an undue pressure on the Ministerial Conference, by choosing to censor some views and favour others (those accredited and accepted). Since those censored views would be related to the issues being discussed at the conference, and might coincide with some parties’ positions, the presumption of good faith on which all diplomatic agreements are based would be distorted, and thus the outcome of the conference would be distorted and thus lack legitimacy. Specifically, many of the banned organizations support the policy proposals of developing countries, in favour of the G90 proposals on development and the G33 proposals on public stockholding, while opposing proposals that are intended to benefit the (permitted) corporations named above, such as on e-commerce, investment facilitation, and domestic regulation.

“Lack of good faith and attempt to distort the conference outcome by the country that not only hosts the conference but chairs its proceedings, added to a violation of the host country agreement, are serious offences that the WTO Director-General should have brought to the attention of the General Council, with a request to delay the conference until a proper host could be found or, alternatively, host it in Geneva.

“Since this was not done, it appears that the WTO agrees with the view of Argentina that its national security is under threat, and that the WTO does not oppose the distortion of the conference outcome.

“We urge you to immediately correct this situation, and to intervene with the government to reverse its decision; and if the government maintains its violation of the host country agreement, to bring this issue immediately to the General Council and reschedule the meeting when a proper host can be found.” (SUNS8589)                                             

Third World Economics, Issue No. 651/652, 16 October – 15 November 2017, pp22-24, 27