by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Seattle, 2 Dec 99 -- The four working groups at the 3rd Ministerial Conference here of the WTO began their meetings and work, as evidence emerged of renewed manipulative processes towards a draft ministerial text that many delegations privately suspect has been drawn up by the WTO head and the US Chair.

Several African delegations said that though views at the working groups were fairly strong on either side of a proposal, the chairs of the working groups were trying to sum up the discussions in a manner that would give some backing for a text favoured by the US.

In the group on agriculture, the Singapore minister appears to have drawn up a new text, with the US-Cairns group views and the EC views presented as alternatives, but some of the Cairns group members were unhappy and spoke against it.

Most of the texts are in square brackets, including those put in by India and others for special and differential treatment and flexibility to enable them to address issues of food security and rural unemployment.

Some of the Cairns group members like Uruguay have been threatening that if there could be no text meeting their viewpoints, they could return to Geneva without a text for a draft declaration and go back to the built-in agenda. But it was not clear who exactly was being threatened by the lack of a declaration, the US as host country which is often orchestrating the Cairns music, or the EC.

On the implementation issues, a large number of developing countries, some 25 of them, spoke up at the working group, in effect rejecting the "Hoda text" (the text prepared by the secretariat in the light of some 'green room' discussions), and insisted that the chair of that meeting take account of their views in putting forward any text.

On the Singapore agenda and other new issues, African delegates privately accused the New Zealand chair of manipulating the process.

As some of them explained it non-attributively, in discussing investment and competition policy, which the EC has said must be on the new round if it's consensus was to be obtained for a declaration, the chair called from a prepared list, a number of delegations speaking in support of the EC proposal. Several others, India, Kenya and Zimbabwe spoke up rejecting any negotiations or a commitment to negotiate.

But the chair reportedly sought to sum it up by projecting the pro-negotiations viewpoint.

Kenya (which is the coordinator of the African group) and India, among others, spoke up rejecting any support or consensus either for start of negotiations at Seattle, or a continuation of the study with a commitment to launch negotiations at the 4th ministerial.

Both Kenya and India said they could only agree to continuation of the study process. A further intervention by the chair, reportedly led to Zimbabwe complaining that the chair was not conducting the process fairly.

This led to further interventions and rejection of such an "unfair" summing up.

All these issues were due to be addressed in some restricted 'green room' consultations in the night.

The Chair was due to hear reports from the working group chairs Thursday morning.

"Either the conference may end up without a declaration or a minimalist one based on the built-in agenda of mandated negotiations, or we may all face some last-minute pre-cooked declaration draft (accommodating some US-EC views) and pressed to accept it to save US face. And with many delegations having capital level senior officials who exhibit little grip on details and ministers equally ignorant, we may all face less orchestrated, but more explosive street demonstrations in our countries," one Third World official admitted. (SUNS4565)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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