Building confidence in the WTO Secretariat

by Bhagirath Lal Das

New Delhi 26 Jan 2001 -- Recently the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Mr. Mike Moore,  visited India. News reports in India indicated that he tried to persuade the government of India and others about launching a new round of multilateral trade negotiations at the WTO. According to the news reports, the Minster of Commerce and Industry, Mr. Murasoli Maran told Mr. Moore that a new round should be launched only if there was a total consensus among the membership of the WTO. Maran is also reported to have said that the implementation proposals made by the developing countries must, in any case, be given the highest priority. Maran is also reported to have been emphatic that the issues unrelated to trade must not be brought up for negotiation in the WTO.

Championing the cause of a new round in the WTO by the Director-General at this stage raises some basic institutional issues. The main point to ponder over is whether it is correct and proper for the Director-General or any other part of the Secretariat to promote a subject over which there is as yet no consensus, and in fact there are serious differences among the membership.

The subject of a new round is at present only a proposal of some countries. It has been strongly pursued by some major developed countries. The reports on the deliberations on this subject in the WTO indicate that there is no consensus so far; and, in fact, there is strong opposition to it.

The 19 October 1999 text of a draft Ministerial Declaration, prepared by the Chairman of the General Council for the Seattle Ministerial meeting, has put the paragraphs relating to the proposed new round and its modalities (paragraphs 25 and 26) under square brackets. Following the GATT/WTO practice, it means that there is no consensus on this matter. And there has been no consensus thereafter either. It continues to be a controversial subject in the WTO at present.

The initiative of the Director-General to promote the launching of a new round would thus appear to be an effort to push the proposal of a group of countries, on which there is yet no consensus and which is being opposed by a number of countries. This is a serious matter.

Article VI.4 of the Marrakesh Agreement for the establishment of the World Trade Organization (the WTO Agreement) enjoins on the Director-General and the staff of the Secretariat to “refrain from any action which might adversely reflect on their position as international officials”.

Championing a proposal put forward by some countries and opposed strongly by some others would appear to adversely affect the neutrality of the Secretariat, and thereby their position as international officials. This is despite whatever may be the merit of the proposal or their own convictions on it.

Of course, the Director-General of the WTO has been assigned a certain specific active role, e.g., in the Dispute Settlement Understanding.  Also, sometimes the Director-General is made the chairman of some committees or working groups. It is expected of him to take action on his own initiative in these matters to achieve the desired results. In other matters, however, he has to tread with great caution in assuming an activist role. Wherever there are decisions of the Members to start a negotiation, he, of course, has to take an active interest and play an active role in organising the negotiations, so that they are efficiently and smoothly conducted. But he has to refrain from pursuing and pressing for any particular line in the negotiations, if the countries differ on that line.

But the position now is that there is no decision of the membership to start a new round of negotiations in the WTO and, in fact, there is strong opposition. In that situation, his active support to the new round at present will naturally appear to corrode his neutrality and effectiveness as the head of the Secretariat.

Apart from the technical question of the neutrality of the Secretariat, there is also the question of trust and confidence of the Members in the Secretariat. If the Members in general observe that the Secretariat is interested in pushing a particular line in any subject, the Secretariat will lose their trust and confidence as a useful machinery for smoothening the functioning of the WTO system, which it is expected to do.

Moreover, if it is noticed that the Secretariat is particularly supporting, even by indirect implication, the line of the few powerful countries, which is opposed by a large number of the other countries, the trust of the vast membership will be totally shattered.

Already there are rumblings about the role of the Secretariat in various matters in the WTO, including in the dispute settlement process. The system will be helped if the Secretariat takes extra care to build up confidence among the Members about its neutrality and balanced efficacy. This process will be undermined if the Secretariat, on the other hand, appears to side with a particular line to which many Members are opposed.

The Director-General is the highest authority in the Secretariat; and, in fact, he is the visible face of the organisation. When he speaks in public, it should be on behalf of the entire membership. And there lies the need for caution and restraint in his opinion and emphasis. It is expected of him to synthesise the great diversity that is inherent in the large membership of this organisation.

This takes us to a different but related matter which is also important for the confidence of the membership in the Secretariat. It is the process of selection of the staff of the Secretariat. The Secretariat should be fully cognisant of the diversity among the membership. Its approach and functioning must take into account the wide differences in the social, political and economic background and approaches of the Members.

Thus, while the Secretariat must work as an integrated unit, it must have within it the enriched and healthy plurality of talent, background, training and experience. The geographical dispersal of the sources of recruitment can only achieve a limited result in this respect; as one can have a full monolith of people of a particular type and persuasion, drawn from a range of geographical regions. What is needed is the broadening of the recruitment process, so that the staff is an ensemble of different background, training and experience. This applies to all the three types of people that get recruited to the professional and higher posts, viz., the economists, the lawyers and the diplomats.

In the WTO, as in case of the GATT earlier, the recruitment process is totally internalised. The candidates are evaluated and interviewed by some of the Directors and the Deputy Directors-General, and the recommendations are made to the Director-General who makes the appointment. This process is unlikely to bring in diversity and plurality in the staff. In fact the process ensures that there is continuation and perpetuation of the total “sameness” of thinking and approach.

If there is a will to bring about a change in the situation and to introduce diversity and plurality, one way may be to improve the recruitment process. An external role and support may be introduced for this purpose. For example, there may be a Recruitment Board, constituted of some insiders and some outsiders. This board may evaluate and interview the candidates and give its recommendation for recruitment. The Director-General will, of course, be the final authority to take the decision, as the WTO Agreement gives him the responsibility for appointment of the staff.

The role of such a board, constituted of both internal and external persons, will ensure that while the requirement of the Secretariat will be fully kept in view, there will be a possibility, at the same time, of bringing some freshness from outside into the process of recruitment.

The WTO is playing an important role in the economic life of countries. And the Secretariat is playing a significant part in this process. It is only proper that the WTO Members give a fresh look at the staffing of the Secretariat and improve the process of recruitment. – SUNS4823

(* Mr. Bhagirath Lal Das is a  former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the GATT and former Director of International Trade Programmes in UNCTAD.)