Dirty tactics in Seattle

Tetteh Hormeku reports on the bitter experience of many of the African delegations who were the targets of manipulation by the powerful countries at the Seattle Conference.

IT was the last day of the Seattle Ministerial Conference, in the frenzy of the final hours of the negotiations, not too long before 6 o'clock - the magic hour, beyond which the US government was supposed to have stated that its contract with the Seattle authorities to provide for the security of the conference would lapse, leaving the conference with no choice but to close, and implying that the delegates had to reach a conclusion at all costs.

It was then that my NGO colleague and I ran into a minister from an African country, who had just emerged from an all-day-long 'consultation' with the US government delegation. When we asked him what positions were emerging over the draft declaration which the ministers were expected to adopt at the end of the conference, he calmly assured us that there was no such draft, and that he was just coming from consultations which were meant to put together such a draft. The shocking disgust on his face when we showed him a copy of the draft that had been circulating since 11 o'clock that morning said it all. This steadfast African minister, who had come to Seattle determined to negotiate the best deal for his people, had been pressurised into a 'pseudo'-negotiation all day by the Americans over a paragraph, while the text of which that paragraph was supposed to be part had been circulating behind his back, without his knowledge.

As we talked, a member of the American delegation walked by to remind the minister that they expected him to speak up in the plenary for the points they had agreed on. 'But I told you to put what you were saying in writing so that I could consider it with my people!', he replied, and the American scurried away. It was then that the minister unlocked all the fury of his heart, and recounted his day-long ordeal of 'persuasion' American-style.

This was no isolated experience. The evening before, just when the African delegates had managed to finally sit down to update and co-relate their positions, the interpreters assigned to them were unceremoniously removed and posted to another working group, which was not even meant to exist. Then the US host turned off the microphones in the meeting room, which were restored only after much angry shouting and loss of time. And this was after days when attempts by the ministers to meet were frustrated either by the meeting room being re-assigned at the last minute or by a conflicting meeting being fixed.

Things had not always been this dirty. In the beginning, the powerful countries tried gentler approaches of divide and rule. On Monday, 29 November, for instance, the US government invited the African delegates to a meeting in which they discussed technical support and capacity-building for Africans. A second meeting was held in the evening of the second day. This time, only a selection of the African delegates was invited, and the ministers went without their officials and experts. The discussions were over issues that the Americans wanted to push into the WTO, especially government procurement and the labour clause. Prior to arriving in Seattle, the US government had invited African governments to sign a joint declaration in favour of the issues being introduced in the WTO, an invitation which was rejected by the African negotiators. The African ministers stood their ground.

Well-prepared manipulation

All such attempts at 'nice dialogue' ended when the negotiations officially started. The delegations then joined one or another of the five working groups which were composed as the official engine rooms of the negotiations. It was then that the African and other developing-country delegates ran into a wall of well-prepared manipulation.

The procedure adopted for the operations of the working groups meant that the actual decisions took place outside these groups, and only by the powerful economies or those invited by them. These were not working groups where all delegates express their positions, where remaining differences are hammered out, say, by a sub-committee composed to reflect the different sides of an issue. Rather, the delegates were limited to expressing their general points, which were then summarised by the chair. At the end of the day the chair then took his summary to some unknown place where differences were ironed out through bilateral consultations. There were no established criteria as to who took part in these bilateral negotiations. Only those countries selected by the powerful economies participated.

So the real negotiations went on outside, but since they were not invited to those bilateral exchanges, most developing countries found themselves making speeches inside working groups which were largely ineffectual. Even here the chair had the power to torpedo their stated views.

The case of what happened in the working group dealing with the new issues such as investment, competition policy and government procurement is instructive. In the particular discussion of investment and competition policy, which the Europeans wanted at all costs to introduce into the WTO, the New Zealand chair of the group called from a prepared list a number of delegations who spoke in support of the European proposal. That notwithstanding, a clear majority of the members of the group, including India, Kenya and Zimbabwe, expressed themselves clearly against the inclusion of those issues in the post-Seattle negotiating agenda. And yet when the chairman came to sum up, he managed to conclude that all delegates were agreed that the issues were important and were willing to take them further. The delegates complained of bias, but the chair stuck by his summary.

The situation in other working groups was chaotic at best. With regard to the working group on market access, not even the delegates had a common story of what happened. One account was that the group adjourned after thirty minutes and delegates were given a phone number to call for further information. Only problem: the line was constantly unavailable. To this can be added the experience of another delegate from yet another working group, where the question of trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights was dealt with. He returned in the morning to find that the subject matter had already been discussed, and that he was not present to put forward the position of the group he represented. Why? Because, after the group had officially closed and everybody had left, the chair announced a meeting two hours later, and this particular delegate could not be 'informed'.

Totally marginalised

The sum total of all this was that by the second day of the formal negotiations, the African and other developing-country delegates had found themselves totally marginalised. This was not because they had not prepared, nor because they did not know what they wanted. Whatever the deficiencies in their preparations, most people acknowledged that on this occasion African and other developing countries' delegations were better prepared than they had been during earlier international trade processes. This time the marginalisation arose mainly from the non-transparent and, some would say, unlawful practices adopted by the powerful countries, supported by the host country and the WTO secretariat. The African NGOs expressed this in the following terms: 'African countries were not getting their positions and issues on the table for the simple reason that the table had been shifted away from the place where the negotiations were supposed to be taking place - the working groups - into exclusive green room discussions where they had no equal access.'

By Thursday, 2 December, this had become too much, even for the African civil society organisations present. Led by members of the African Trade Network, a grouping of African civil society organisations involved in trade issues, the civil organisations began to demand that their Northern NGO counterparts help focus attention on the outrageous practices of their various governments. The first concrete result was a joint press conference by the African Trade Network, Friends of the Earth, South Centre, Oxfam, the World Development Movement, Focus, Consumers International and New Economics Foundation. Here developing-country negotiators like Sir Sonny Ramphal (former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth) joined hands with NGO representatives to denounce the big-power manipulation of the WTO process. The African Trade Network repeated this with its own press conference the following morning at which many more African civil society organisations and governments spoke out.

By the end of the day, the various groupings of developing countries - from Asia, Latin America, and Africa - had come out with statements expressing their dissatisfaction with their marginalisation. In a statement signed on behalf of the member states of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the Ghanaian Minister of Trade, Dr John Abu, said, 'There is no transparency in the proceedings and African countries are being marginalised on issues of vital importance for our peoples and their future.' The African countries thus joined the other developing-country groups in threatening to withdraw the consensus required to reach a conclusion of the conference.

The unity of concern between civil society organisations and developing country delegations about the process of manipulation was expressed in a concrete gesture where the African group of official delegates invited the African Trade Network and other African civil society groupings to address its formal meeting. By the later stages of the negotiations on the following day, the civil society organisations had taken this unity of concern further, when the Third World Network, an international grouping of NGOs, began to call and lobby for the talks to be suspended and returned to Geneva.

By this time, even the Americans and their supporters in the WTO secretariat must have woken up to the futility of their 'rough tactics'. For not long afterwards, the United States Trade Representative and host of the conference, Charlene Barshefsky, announced to a plenary meeting that the negotiations had collapsed, and so brought the Ministerial Conference to a chaotic end unparalleled in the history of the international trade system, without even 'a brief closing statement to thank the hosts' for their efforts.

Tetteh Hormeku is programme officer of TWN Africa.