Non-transparent, manipulative processes under way at WTO

Geneva, 19 Aug (Chakravarthi Raghavan) - Despite all the talk of functioning in a transparent way, the WTO seems to be resorting to its secretive ways of small meetings and informal consultations, many held around the same time, thus making it difficult if not impossible for the smaller delegations to attend and safeguard their interests.

There were at least three meetings on Singapore issues - on trade facilitation, transparency in government procurement and competition policy - convened around the same time on Tuesday (19 August) morning by the ‘friends’ of the General Council Chairman, Amb. Carlos Perez del Castillo. The GC chairman had said on 15 August that he would hold further consultations, and had meanwhile asked the ‘friends’ to consult with members to formulate substantive modalities that could be provided to the Cancun ministerial meeting for decisions.

Hitherto, in all their public presentations and background information to the media, the secretariat officials and the majors have been painting a picture of a substantial number of members wanting to negotiate these issues and write WTO rules, but being opposed by one or two delegations, with many others adopting a tactical position to link it up to other negotiations.

But the HOD meeting on 15 August brought out clearly that the membership is sharply divided and polarised, and that the opposition to launch negotiations at Cancun is quite substantial and not easy of being swept under the carpet.

Perez del Castillo has convened another HOD meeting for Tuesday evening, where he will hear reports on progress from the various ‘friends of the chair’, and then take up the agriculture issue (on which Mr. Stuart Harbinson has been holding consultations in small groups).

The friend of the chair for Trade facilitation is Amb. Milan Hovorca of the Czech Republic (Chairman of the Goods Council), that on transparency in government procurement is Amb. Ronald Saborio Soto of Costa Rica, and the one on competition policy is Prof. Frederick Jenny. The chairman of the working group on trade and investment, and now friend of the GC chair in the consultations for the Cancun preparatory process, is the Brazilian ambassador Luiz Felipe de Seixas Correa.

The first three are seen by the developing country diplomats as more easily influenced by the US and EC and the secretariat, while the Brazilian envoy has a mind of his own and not amenable to easy manipulations.

On Tuesday, separate informal consultations were convened on trade facilitation, transparency in government procurement and competition policy. So far none has been convened on investment.

On trade facilitation, Hovorca has apparently said he would formulate a paper of his own. The consultations on transparency in government procurement on Tuesday is perhaps typical of the current process.

Ironically, while the Costa Rican envoy, both in the working group as well as in his positions at the WTO, has been promoting a neo-liberal market view of trade and trade economics, the constitution of his own country reserves several of these sectors of economic activity, including some ‘services sectors’ (like public health etc) to the State sector, and these cannot be privatized or contracted away to foreign corporations. At a recent seminar for some Spanish speaking media, Saborio Soto is reported to have confirmed this situation.

According to some developing country diplomats, the meeting was set for 10.15 this morning (the separate trade facilitation meeting was set for 10.00 and that on competition about 11.00). None of these types of meetings are announced or put on the board, and those invited get small slips of paper about the time, place and subject!

Though a number of delegations gathered for the transparency in government procurement meeting, Saborio Soto did not turn up in time, and the secretariat officials at the meeting said he was delayed as he was engaged in internal consultations. After waiting for a while, the delegates refused to wait any longer and told the secretariat officials to get their act together and convene the meeting when they were ready. Thereupon the Costa Rican was fetched and the meeting started.

The European Communities thereupon presented a ‘non-paper’ setting out the modalities and those present were invited to comment. However, some of the developing countries said that it should be done in a transparent way with all interested delegations being able to be present and offer comments.

India and a few developing countries refused to comment, pointing out that over the last 18 months or more, the EC and other ‘demandeurs’ had refused to deal with substantive modalities, and now suddenly were springing their modalities non-papers and seeking comments. These delegations said they would not comment without consulting their capitals. Also, in the interests of orderly procedure, the proposals of the EC should be properly introduced in the working group, before comments are made or elicited.

But the chairman overruled their objections, insisting that “in the interests of efficiency” they would proceed in the small informal group.

So much for transparency in talks on transparency in government procurement!

The EC’s non-paper had some six paragraphs as ‘modalities’, and is basically a procedural one. None of the substantive issues that have figured in the discussions over the last 18 months after Doha figure in the non-paper, trade diplomats who have seen the text said.

The first para sets the objective as one for establishing a multilateral agreement on transparency in public procurement, with negotiations limited to transparency and including provisions for special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries, including flexibility on the extent of commitments and transitional periods as necessary.

The second para of the EC non-paper, trade diplomats said, merely speaks of paragraphs 45 to 51 of the Doha declaration (organization and management of the work programme) to be made applicable.

The third para is for a negotiating group on transparency in government procurement to be established and to meet within one month from date of the Cancun meeting decision. The fourth calls for negotiating proposals to be submitted by 31 January 2004, the Chair of the negotiating group conducting negotiations and presenting a draft text by 30 June.

A fifth paragraph provides for improved support and technical assistance for capacity building. The sixth calls for the WTO to convene a meeting devoted to a collaborative effort with other international organizations (World Bank, UNCTAD and others) to identify and assess needs related to capacity-building.

Some trade diplomats said this will most probably be the pattern that the EC, with the help of the secretariat officials running these discussions, will try to manipulate and push for launch of the talks.

Once the negotiations are allowed to begin, on the basis that it involves only transparency, and rules are written, it is not difficult for the EC (and the US and others) at a later stage to expand the scope of the agreements to bring in other aspects - including ‘national treatment’, market access etc. There own internal documents to their business groups makes clear that this is just the first step.

It is one of the basic laws of political science that institutions are created to serve particular purposes, but soon those running the institutions try to mould the purpose to suit their own ends. The WTO may now be in this situation, but history shows that this path will lead to loss of public support, credibility and legitimacy. – SUNS5400

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