Coming under increasing criticism is the series of small-group meetings, called and usually chaired by the World Trade Organisation Director-General, to which only the developed countries and a few selected developing countries are invited, and at which crucial aspects of the pre-Seattle negotiations take place.

By Martin Khor

November 1999

A groundswell of concern and unhappiness by many developing countries over the lack of their participation in the World Trade Organisation talks preparing for the Seattle Ministerial Conference has been building up in recent days.

Many delegations, especially of smaller countries, are now openly and vocally airing their grievances over their not being informed about or invited to the 'Green Room' small-group meetings that have proliferated at this late stage of the negotiations.

'The Director-General has hijacked the General Council process,' said the ambassador of one developing country. Added another: 'It is assumed that a few countries can be invited to resolve the issues, and that the rest of us will accept the results as a fait accompli.'

The target of the growing criticisms is the series of small-group meetings, called and usually chaired by the WTO Director-General Mike Moore, at which the developed countries and a few selected developing countries are supposed to discuss their respective positions and try to work out new compromise language in attempts to bridge differences in the draft Ministerial Text.

What meetings are being held, which issues are being discussed, which delegations have been invited, what has been discussed, and what new texts on which paragraphs of the draft Declaration have been submitted at the meetings or worked out, are not known to the general WTO membership. Except for a few countries, the vast majority are thus kept utterly in the dark on what constitutes the most vital aspects of the pre-Seattle negotiations.

On 11 November, at the formal General Council meeting, five delegations for the first time openly complained about the 'Green Room' process, which has not been mandated by the General Council. Neither the Chairman, Amb. Ali Mchumo, nor Moore gave any response.

Moore and Mchumo met with about 14 delegations on 12 November to listen to their grievances. But the meeting failed to yield any positive results. Although Moore listened to the complaints, said the diplomats, he failed to respond in any satisfactory way, instead only reiterating that the small-group process could not be avoided.

'He did not even assure us he would find some mechanism of keeping those of us who are not part of the Green Room process briefed about what is going on, which is the minimum we expect,' said a senior diplomat on 13 November.

'The Director-General and the major countries are making the assumption that only a small group comprising themselves and a few developing countries can resolve the issues, and they take for granted that in the end all the others will be told the results, and we have to accept that as a fait accompli.'

Said another ambassador of a developing country: 'The Director-General has hijacked the General Council process. He is behaving like the Managing Director of a company and we the majority of developing countries are being treated like non-voting members because our shareholding is deemed to be too low.'

He said that the Green Room process in which most members are excluded has not been mandated by the General Council. He added that the process is also in violation of the Ministerial Declaration of Geneva (20 May 1998), in which ministers instructed that the General Council prepare for the Seattle Conference with full respect for decision-making by consensus.

On 13 November, at a general meeting, Moore tried to assure delegations on the importance he attached to the transparency of the negotiating process. But some delegations reiterated their grave concerns about the Green Room process, and even more delegates were voicing their grievances, including about how the Director-General had failed to provide any solutions beyond mere rhetoric, outside the meeting room.

'There should be no doubt about the importance both you and I attach to the transparency and to the primacy of the General Council in all our work,' said Moore. 'Let me add however that it is inconceivable that progress can be made without a wide variety of consultations among delegations. I understand the frustration of smaller delegations at the complexity of the process. I will work closely with you for maximum possible inclusiveness and openness.'

In response, Amb. Alfredo Suescum of Panama said many developing countries are not satisfied with the level of transparency and openness in the organisation. They are not being notified about what meetings are taking place. They are concerned why there was a limitation imposed on the number of delegations being invited to take part, why a general notice on the meetings was not being given.

He said that if there was a concern that the size of the negotiating groups should not be too big, there could be small meetings but organised differently, where for example those countries that had put forward proposals could be given the opportunity to present them and answer queries. At present, small developing countries making proposals are not even invited and thus could not have the chance to explain them.

He said it was not a good reason to exclude many developing countries on the ground that they are unable to take part in many meetings. 'I would rather make the decision whether I want to go to the meetings, and each delegation should be able to make its own decision.'

Honduras and Cuba supported Panama's position. However, Morocco said it would not be possible to reach agreement unless there were small-group meetings.

Outside the meeting room, an ambassador of a small developing country said that his greater fear was that the untransparent and non-participatory process would be repeated in Seattle, with even graver implications.

'Even in Geneva, where there has been more time for negotiations, the process is already so untransparent and most of us are blocked from the small-group meetings,' he said.

'Imagine what will happen in Seattle, where a large part of the text may still be in square brackets. I fear that we will have a repeat of what happened in Singapore. A few ministers will be called into small meetings to negotiate parts of the disputed text, and the rest of the ministers will be left out. How will they feel? What will we say when people ask about the transparency of the system and the participation of developing countries?'

At Singapore, ministers of most developing countries were kept out of the small meeting of about 30 countries that met over several days to work out compromise language on several disputed issues. The night before the meeting ended, an informal meeting of all ministers was called, and asked to endorse the text agreed on by the small group.

As a result of vociferous complaints by many ministers (who nevertheless went along with the 'consensus'), the then Director-General Renato Ruggiero pledged that the non-participatory process at Singapore would not be repeated.

At the high-level WTO symposia on trade and environment and trade and development in March, non-governmental organisations criticised the WTO's lack of transparency, citing among other things the 'Green Room' and small-group processes prior to and at Singapore. Speaking to NGOs, Ruggiero admitted that it was true that the Green Room process had been criticised by many ministers and delegations, but that he had taken note of these complaints. He assured the NGOs that after Singapore, he had stopped holding such small-group meetings and that henceforth all meetings were open to the general membership of the WTO, and all members were able to participate in the negotiating meetings.

It is unclear whether the assurances given by Ruggiero were on a personal or institutional basis, or whether Moore even knows of what his predecessor has pledged. In any case, the present Director-General is on to a very different tune, justifying the Green Room process that he initiated as necessary and desirable, even as he assures that he shares the developing countries' concerns about transparency.

If this process continues in Geneva and spills over to Seattle, it is anybody's guess how the WTO would then be able to answer public criticisms (let alone the criticisms of its own member states) about its untransparent, secretive and undemocratic system of decision-making. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Martin Khor is Director of the Third World Network.