WTO takes another hit over lack of credibility, transparency

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 17 Oct 2001 - The credibility, lack of transparency and hence legitimacy of the Rules-based World Trade Organization received another blow Tuesday, after an informal Heads of Delegation (HOD) meeting, where the members were provided ‘information’ about the 13-14 October meeting of ministers of some 21 countries at Singapore, how it came to be organized and what happened and did not.

The statements and explanations at the meeting by General Council Chair Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China, by WTO Director-General Mike Moore and Singapore ambassador Chuk Mun See, and some official statements from Singapore prior to and after the meeting, did not seem to add up. One trade ambassador said official explanations can no longer be relied upon, even by member governments or by their representatives here in reporting back to capitals.

Officially, as of Tuesday evening, the WTO’s position was that the Doha venue of the 4th Ministerial meeting, set by the General Council, remained and that only the General Council could change the venue by consensus at a formal meeting.

Trade officials and many diplomats in private said (and were planning on that basis) that the meeting could not take place at Doha, given the concerns of several trade ministers including from US, EU and others, about the overall security situation in that region.

At the same time, there were some doubts and concerns as to whether the venue could be changed to Singapore (as has been reportedly favoured by all but a few of the participants at the weekend Singapore meeting), without more damage to the governments in the region and elsewhere.

Several ambassadors and trade diplomats, particularly from the Arab and other countries in the region, said that if the meeting could not be held in Doha, it should be held in Geneva, the WTO’s headquarters, if necessary at a lower or non-ministerial level. Many others were more concerned about the substance.

The informal HOD meeting for the afternoon of 16 October, had been convened at short notice that went out on the previous day, and the notice said that this would be an ‘information’ meeting to hear a stock-taking report from the Chairman of the General Council and by the Singapore ambassador.

The meeting was held in one of the smaller committee rooms of the WTO building, and could hardly accommodate the all country representatives and even one aide each, with many having to stand against the walls and attempting to follow the proceedings without the help of interpretation.

The smaller room was apparently chosen, according to some delegations, in the view that many delegations may not attend and it would be easier to reach or build a consensus!

The meeting was ‘informal’ and trade officials did not provide any formal briefing on it. It was an ‘information’ meeting at which the GC Chair reported on the status of the consultations and the work that remained, while the Singapore ambassador gave a read-out of the situation after the Singapore meeting, the trade officials said.

Chairman Harbinson told the meeting that he would be issuing a revised schedule of meetings and consultations planned in the days ahead, and that he intends to concentrate this week on the question of the Ministerial Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, and will continue other consultations and bring out a revised draft of the ministerial declaration at the end of October. He was planning to postpone the formal meeting of the General Council (set for 23 October) to a new date, for forwarding the accession documents of China and Taiwan to the ministerial meeting.

This would mean that the documents would not satisfy the ‘ten-day’ rule, but Harbinson hoped that no one would object on that score.

A number of countries spoke up complaining about the lack of transparency in the Geneva process, and questioned Harbinson about the ‘Singapore process’.

Honduras sought clarifications on the status of the Singapore meeting, while Zimbabwe and a few others questioned the status of the meeting and why it was being given special status by the Singapore ambassador in being asked to report, while this had not been done for other similar (and more formal) regional meetings, including the meeting of Least Developed Country Ministers and of the African Trade Ministers.

When Mr. Harbinson reportedly said that it was not a WTO meeting, and that some delegations had been invited to Singapore, Moore spoke of other regional meetings that too were important.

However, the Philippines repeated the complaint of Honduras, while Kenya intervened and in effect challenged the Harbinson-Moore responses that it was a meeting organized by Singapore.

The Kenyan ambassador said Kenya and its trade minister had been keen to attend the meeting and that she had approached the Singapore hosts but was informed that it was not organized by them, and that they were only providing the facilities and that the WTO secretariat had organized it.

When she had contacted the Director-General’s office, there had been no response.

In an intervention later, Mr. Moore would appear to have said that an invitation had been received by him from Singapore, and that he had attended that meeting.  He did not appear to have answered or contradicted the Kenyan remark about the WTO hand-picking the invitees, though he spoke of the other regional meetings (besides that of the LDCs and the Africa one) including of the Central American and Caribbean regions, all of which were important, but only if they provided inputs to the WTO General Council process.

Turkey joined those expressing concerns about such meetings, and said meetings like these gave Turkey some misgivings. There was no internal transparency in the WTO. Zimbabwe then raised the question as to why the countries who had hosted and chaired the LDC and Africa meetings had not been called upon or provided an opportunity to give information about them.

Morocco, however, had no problems with the Singapore meeting which seemed to have been a useful meeting and had brought together a number of countries, and argued that the question of internal transparency was a false problem in the WTO. The Singapore meeting was an important meeting, but could take no decisions. Cuba supported Zimbabwe. Costa Rica, Guatemala and Chile also had no problems with the Singapore meeting.

The Singapore ambassador, who spoke at some length outlining the views of the participants on the various parts of the draft Ministerial Declaration, according to trade diplomats, did not answer the question about who organized, ‘selected’ and issued invitations.

[A report out of Singapore on 5 Oct, and carried in the WTO’s daily clipping file circulated to delegations on 5/6 October, had quoted a Singapore trade ministry spokesman as saying the list of 22 ‘select trade ministers’ had been drawn up by the WTO Director-General Mike Moore.

[Trade officials would only comment that this was not a statement of the Singapore trade minister, but of a spokesman. Given Singapore’s and governance structures, it is difficult to believe that the spokesman would have provided information without authority or without contradicting the published information.]

El Salvador took note of the information about the Singapore meeting provided to the HOD and noted that there had been no ‘concrete results’. However, in addition to matters of substance discussed, according to press reports of briefings held at Singapore, including by the Singapore trade minister, there had been a discussion there about changing the venue of the meeting from Doha.  This was an important and hot topic, on which a decision could be taken only by the General Council. He wanted to know about the discussions and outcome in order to be able to report to his government.

Harbinson agreed that only the General Council could formally decide on changing the venue.

The ambassador of Qatar thereupon intervened to say that the Emirate of Qatar was very committed to hosting the 4th ministerial meeting, that as hosts the preparations and arrangements for the meeting were going ahead, and that Qatar could assure full security for all and any of the participants.

In the kind of light-hearted remark to relieve tensions, and that passes for humour in the WTO, Morocco would appear to have intervened to praise the facilities at Doha (having just attended the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries there) and about the excellent facilities there for playing golf, with Mr. Harbinson admitting that he had played golf there too.

Trade officials could not explain or comment on the fact that the ministers from the 21 leading countries who at Singapore had discussed the issue of venue and shifting it from Doha to Singapore, and the Singapore government being ready to host a meeting at short notice, that no one appeared to have been ready to brief the HOD Tuesday.

All that the WTO spokesman would say on record was that shifting the venue was an issue of substance and all substantive decisions at the WTO must be taken by the General Council and on the basis of consensus.

Reports from out of Doha Wednesday morning said that the government of Qatar was considering the issue (with every indication that the US government was ‘talking’ to Doha and perhaps trying to persuade it to withdraw the host invitation voluntarily), and that the government of Qatar would come back and report to the WTO Thursday.

The earliest that the General Council could meet on the venue issue is thus Friday.

However, Wednesday evening, a number of African and Asian diplomats, particularly those from Arab countries, were arguing that if the meeting could not be held in Doha, a scaled down version should be held in Geneva, and not shift the venue to Singapore.

A number of others however underlined that with the US and EU unwilling to meet at Doha for security reasons in a situation of a ‘war’ being fought in the region, WTO members had to be realistic in shifting the venue.

However, some of the ambassadors said unattributively, that given the biased way Singapore had conducted even the 21-member meeting - for example in presenting the Tanzanian ministers view of the LDCs positions and their opposition to negotiations on any of the ‘new issues’, as a plea for a ‘development’ round, the meeting with a less controversial agenda should be held in Geneva. – SUNS4990

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

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