After the ill-fated Seattle Conference, the fight for the future of the World Trade Organisation and the world trading system is resuming. Developing countries, which made a point in Seattle that they are no longer push-overs, must get their act together and fight a hard and long battle to reshape the organisation. In an interview, the chairman of the Group of 77 and Foreign Minister of Guyana, Clement Rohee, recalls the historic events at Seattle and stresses the reforms that are needed now.

By Martin Khor

January 2000

Now that they have prevented the Seattle Conference from launching a new Round of trade talks that would largely have been against their interests, developing countries must use the next few months wisely to put the World Trade Organisation on the road to reform.

The Foreign Minister of Guyana, which currently chairs the Group of 77 (the umbrella body of developing countries), said that the developing countries had chosen to fight against being bullied by the major powers at Seattle.

'It is good that the fight has started now, when the WTO is still young,' said Clement Rohee, who played a significant role in Seattle. He was speaking at an interview in Georgetown, Guyana, in December, during a meeting of experts of the South to prepare for a South Summit of leaders from developing countries to be held in April 2000 in Cuba.

The G77 chairman felt that this is an exciting period in the WTO's history. 'It is a young organisation, which can still be shaped,' he said. 'But developing countries, which are big stakeholders, must carry on the fight now. We cannot afford to be dormant or stand still. If we are able to unite and carry out reforms, the WTO could perhaps become an organisation which gets its rules right. But it will be a long way to go before that happens, and we have to fight hard for it.'

Rohee said that when the WTO meets again in Geneva, it should start a process that focuses on 'review, repair and reform'. Referring to the joint statements made by Africa, Caribbean and Latin American countries a day before the Seattle Conference ended, Rohee stressed that 'the concerns expressed in these statements must be the lynchpin of the resumption of talks in Geneva'.

In those statements, the developing countries had expressed outrage at the procedures adopted by the Conference leaders, in which only a few countries had been invited to small-group negotiating meetings (dubbed the 'Green Room meetings'). They vowed that since they had been marginalised, they would not accept any Declaration put before them on the last day.

'The whole process in Seattle was flawed,' remarked Rohee. 'We are demanding that from now on procedures must be respected. There is a mood among developing countries to fight for this principle all the way.'

Tracing the process in which developing countries had matured, Rohee said some of them did not even know what they had signed in Marrakech when the WTO was established in 1995. 'Between Marrakech and Seattle, they learnt a bitter lesson on how the system operated and the lack of benefits for them, so the developing countries prepared themselves better.

'Due to the level of preparations and their experiences, it is no surprise they scored a tremendous victory. But we are also grateful to the NGOs and the enlightened among the demonstrators who insisted that the WTO must be demystified.'

He stressed that after Seattle, 'we must keep up the momentum and maintain an optimistic situation. The whole question of transparency must be resolved. There can be no debate on this point. No one can be against this.'

Recalling what had happened in Seattle, Rohee said the experience of developing countries was a 'very bitter' one. He said that earlier in 1999, during the selection of a new WTO Director-General, several developing countries were not consulted and were forced to accept a 'non-existing consensus'.

'We saw an attempt to replay that situation in Seattle through the infamous Green Room process, where only a few countries were selected to take part in negotiations. This led to the total marginalisation of the overwhelming membership of the WTO.

'Developing countries thus had the experience of having the Seattle Conference hijacked from them, and Ministers were treated as mere tourists.

'Further insult was added to the wounds when on the second day of the Conference the US Trade Representative, Charlene Barshefsky, announced she had the right to make changes to the procedures in order to arrive at a Declaration at all costs.'

Rohee recalled that when that happened, there were many protests from the floor, with the banging of fists at the table. Rohee himself intervened and criticised the Conference leaders for shutting out the developing countries.

'I said that we keep hearing about the need for transparency but how at the Conference there was actually no transparency at all, as we are being sidelined in the so-called Green Room process.

'I said we do not know who are selected, or on what basis, or what is being discussed. In the end we will be faced with a fait accompli situation and a document we did not have a part in drawing up. I said we certainly won't accept that.'

Eventually, Guyana was invited to a Green Room meeting, but 'it turned out to be a joke', said Rohee.

'After we made our voice heard, I received an invitation to a Green Room meeting on agriculture. To my amusement, when I turned up at the meeting, the chairman of the meeting (who was from Thailand), presented this "non-paper" to us. We were informed no changes could be made.

'I created a stink. I asked what is the status of this document, and why are we called here. When I was told we were only invited here to be informed, I felt it wasn't a serious meeting at all. It was only a joke.

'The chairman and a senior WTO Secretariat official was trying to bamboozle us to accept their draft on agriculture. I told the official, you are from the Secretariat, you should shut up, I am a Minister, it is for me to discuss this issue. All the Ministers in the room packed up our files and walked out.

'We found out that this so-called Green Room meeting, which was held on the second floor, was only a diversion. Since we had asked to take part in a Green Room meeting, they gave one to us. But they had shifted the real negotiations on this topic to the sixth floor, a level from which we were further marginalised.

'There was such a level of intrigue and subterfuge, over which we had no control. We were like Sherlock Holmes tracking which meetings were being held where. This is simply unacceptable for Ministers.

'They were only paying lip service to transparency and inclusiveness. The reality was opposite. If there had been a draft Declaration placed before us (on the last day) there would have been a total revolt. The African, Caribbean and Latin American countries had issued statements protesting the process. So I could not envisage how a Declaration could have seen the light of day when so many Members were up in arms.

'All this meant the process was flawed and the end result was bound to come out flawed as well.'

Rohee added that the Green Room process is now discredited in the eyes of developing countries. 'The WTO now has to find credible and acceptble formats and structures which developing countries are comfortable with. There should not be any psychological discomfort or suspicion. The new way should be patterned after the UN system.'

Providing an analogy, Rohee said that in the United Nations, talks about UN reform had been going on for years. Some countries are impatient to finish it quickly, some are cautious and others were in the middle.

'This is an open process, all are invited to take part. In the WTO, we are talking about serious matters, involving life and death, jobs and incomes. We need to give countries time to think things through.'

Rohee added: 'In my view we don't need to hold a Ministerial meeting every two years. Once in five years is enough, to give time to countries to consult among themselves and with regional groupings, with NGOs and so on, so that we can feel comfortable about our ideas.

'Holding a Ministerial meeting every two years gives the major powers a pretext to force something down on us.'

What happened at Seattle, concluded Rohee, had given developing countries an opportunity to reshape the WTO. 'But we cannot be complacent. We have a big stake in the organisation. We must carry on the fight now, to get its procedures and rules right.' - Third World Network Features

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