Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec17/08)
Geneva, 6 Dec (Chakravarthi Raghavan*) - When one finds oneself at the bottom of a deep sandpit, the wisest course is to stop digging, and wait to be rescued.
However, in relation to MC11 (the eleventh WTO ministerial conference beginning in Buenos Aires on 10 December), it is increasingly evident that wisdom is in short supply.
The WTO leadership and secretariat, as well as the Argentine hosts for MC11, having landed themselves in a mess in efforts to censor pro-development, public interest viewpoints opposed to their game-plan, by banning access to the conference for respectable civil society groups and researchers, appear now set on a course that will worsen that PR disaster and strip the WTO and its multilateral trading system of the remnants of any legitimacy or raison d'etre for its continuance.
Many of the proposals, and draft decisions on them, forwarded to the Ministers at MC11, are highly controversial, and some are probably outside the remit of the WTO.
However, in manoeuvres aimed at promoting them, the hosts and the WTO leadership appear to be planning to repeat the events and tactics at the Ministerial Conference at Doha in November 2001 (more details on it below), and get the agenda adopted, during the programme for the ceremonial opening of MC11 by Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, and in speeches (generally of a protocol nature of welcome and thanks on such occasions) by the Conference Chair and the WTO Director-General.
As at Doha, the intention appears to be to get the agenda, and Director-General Roberto Azevedo's suggestion for appointing facilitators to promote neogtiations on new issues (such as e-commerce, investment facilitation etc), adopted at the ceremonial opening.
Among the names being mentioned as those likely to be proposed (by Azevedo or conference chair, Susana Malcorra) as facilitators are Kenyan foreign affairs cabinet secretary, Amina Mohamed (presumably in the hope that she will persuade the Africans to fall in line), Russian trade and industry minister Denis Manturov (Russia is promoting investment, e-commerce and strong disciplines on food security programs of developing countries), and Jamaican foreign affairs and trade minister Kamina Johnson Smith (to get a partial accord on fisheries subsidies).
It appears that this will be attempted during a meeting when assembled ministers and representatives, according to protocol and in deference to the presence of the Head of State/Government, remain in their seats, and do not raise any points of order or procedural objections to any proposal or motion from the Conference Chair.
While inter-governmental and inter-state relations and courtesies and protocol require visitors to observe some norms, this requires the hosts and organisers also to observe some norms. When these have been disregarded in this instance by the host and the WTO leadership, their departure from the norms also liberates visitors from disciplines of normal norms on their part on such occasions.
[Meanwhile, responding to representations from some EU governments over the dis-accreditation of their civil society groups, the Argentine authorities appear to have responded to Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany that the Argentine authorities have reassessed the cases, but maintained their positions and the accreditations remained cancelled. There was no information, as of the moment of writing this, about the banned individuals from the UK, and France (or other countries, including those from Africa and Asia)!]
The information note to delegations and other participants (WT/MIN(17)/INF/20) of 21 November 2017 (before the dis-accreditation fiasco became known), sets out the programme and schedule for the Conference meetings.
This shows that on Sunday 10 December, during the traditional ceremonial opening (featuring the Head of State/Government delivering an address, preceded and followed by protocol remarks of welcome and thanks), the MC11 chairperson, Ms. Susana Malcorra, will be proposing the adoption of the Agenda (WT/MIN(17)/W/1), and the Chairman of the General Council will make a statement. The WTO DG is also scheduled to speak.
WTO sources, and some delegates, suggest that DG Azevedo, in his speech, will probably propose the appointment of "facilitators" and/or suggest their names too, and Ms. Malcorra will "gavel" the proposal as adopted - all as part of the ceremonial meeting!
This was what happened at Doha in 2001. In an article on that Ministerial Conference, titled "Invasion of the WTO by the Green Men" (SUNS #5008 dated 13 November 2001 and Third World Economics, issue No. 268, 1-15 November 2001), Tetteh Hormeku (with Third World Network-Africa and based in Accra, Ghana) has described part of the shenanigans at Doha. (A slightly modified/adapted version of the Hormeku article in digital form can be found at: http://www.pambazuka.org/governance/invasion-six-green-men)
In his article he has pointed out that at the opening ceremony (at Doha) on 9 November - normally a ceremonial occasion for the host country head of state or government, and other suitable non-controversial responses - the WTO secretariat had contrived to smuggle the disputed draft declaration and other documents, prepared at Geneva, into the (agenda) at the opening ceremony. Most developing countries, he noted, had raised (in Geneva) serious objections to the declaration.
Hormeku then added: "After the Emir of Qatar and others had made their grand ceremonial speeches (where the Emir in effect launched the new round), and in the melee of the departure of the Emir, Mr. Stuart Harbinson, Chairman of the General Council, presented his now infamous draft declaration. Since this was not a working session, simply a ceremonial one, and in the melee of making way for the Emir to take leave of his guests, the delegates did not have the chance or see it fit to object (as they would have if this slick manoeuvre had been attempted in a working session) to Harbinson presenting his text as the working document."
"The full significance of this manoeuvre," Hormeku said, hit delegates the next morning, Saturday 10 November.
"At a meeting of the Heads of Delegation of all the member countries, the Qatari Minister of Trade, the Chair of the Conference, announced to delegates that, as they (the delegates) had agreed at the opening ceremony, the text presented by Harbinson is now the working document for the entire Conference! On this basis, he then announced a work plan to carry discussion forward: the appointment of the six "green men" (facilitators); a schedule of discussions on identified subjects starting immediately with agriculture. From the reports, what transpired after this was almost farcical, representing a new style of democratic governance at the WTO that will make Doha another milestone."
Judging by the programme for the MC11 opening ceremony as set out above, it would appear that the host and the WTO DG are trying to repeat that history.
At Doha, in time for the final session, wisdom descended on the Qatari chair of the conference, who (ignoring secretariat advice), gave the floor, before adoption of the final documents to India, whose minister made clear his reservations, and that his consensus was subject to them. The Chair then acknowledged and read it into the record.
[What was not known at that time, but became known later, was that in New Delhi, the Indian foreign office had sent for the Qatar ambassador, and through him sent a message of warning to the host (the Emir of Qatar), that the Qatari chair's stance against India at the conference would have repercussions on India-Qatar economic relations, including India's contracts for import of natural gas from Qatar.
[Argentina may not have gas to export, but the Macri government is surely aware that some of the key developing countries like China, India or South Africa against whom it may act at MC11, can also cite "national security" to bar imports from Argentina of agri-commodities like soya, grains etc. SUNS]
Before they make such an attempt, the hosts should bear in mind that, by banning on spurious charges a large number of NGOs from participating in the MC11 meetings, they have already created a situation challenging the legitimacy and democratic functioning of MC11.
[The Macri government's moves have not only angered many civil society groups, inside Argentina and outside from the region, but has also resulted in some of them delving into the past, and making known reports of the Macri family (father and son and their business interests, dating back to the Videla dictatorship days, that flourished and prospered), the subsequent cleaning up of Argentine politics and political economy (under IMF programmes), the cleaning up of customs administration and data (counter-checking with trade data and claims under various schemes to promote exports).
[This digging into the past has brought out that Macri was once charged with contraband trading, and convicted in a lower court, but with the conviction set aside later by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court. This apparently became a scandal, and the judges involved were investigated and impeached the next year by the Argentine Congress. Three of the judges resigned before the impeachment was completed, while the two others were convicted and removed from office. However, the acquittal of Macri stood - as a result of application of the res judicata principle. SUNS]
Any effort by the chairperson of MC11 or the DG to repeat the Doha precedent, and get the conference agenda and documents adopted, along with statements by the GC chair, and the WTO DG (in his remarks) promoting the naming of facilitators (Hormeku's "green men") on various issues such as e-commerce or investment facilitation etc will only make an already dubious conference farcical, and bring the WTO and its multilateral trading system into complete disrepute.
Perhaps, before they attempt such manoeuvres, they should all read or re-read about history repeating itself.
Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte wrote: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world- historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
[* Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Editor Emeritus of the SUNS.]