Initiate reform of WTO, says G77 Chairman

Developing countries have been urged to use the breathing space afforded by the collapse of the Seattle Ministerial negotiations to push for reform of the WTO.

by Martin Khor

DEVELOPING countries must use the next few months wisely to put the World Trade Organisation on the road of review and reform, now that the stalled Seattle Conference has afforded them the opportunity to do so, according to Clement Rohee, Foreign Minister of Guyana.

Guyana currently holds the chairmanship of the Group of 77 developing countries.

Rohee said that the statement by US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky at the end of the Seattle Conference did not have a legal status as it was not endorsed by the Ministers. When the General Council meets to follow up on Seattle, it should therefore use the 19 October Council chair's text and start over again.

The Foreign Minister also suggested that WTO Ministerial meetings be held once in five years instead of two years, so that more time can be given to considering the issues, and to reduce the pressure on developing countries.

Rohee gave these views in an interview in Georgetown, Guyana, during a recent meeting of experts of the South to prepare for a South Summit of leaders from developing countries to be held in April 2000 in Cuba.

He said that at Seattle the developing countries had chosen to fight against being bullied by the major powers.

'It is good that the fight has started now, when the WTO is still young,' said Rohee, who was at Seattle.

'We should avoid a situation in the WTO like in the United Nations where the Security Council takes decisions and has hijacked the role of the General Assembly,' he said.

The G77 chairman felt that this is an exciting period in the WTO's history. 'It is a young organisation, which can still be shaped,' he said. 'But developing countries, which are big stakeholders, must carry on the fight now. We cannot afford to be dormant or stand still. If we are able to unite and carry out reforms, the WTO could perhaps become an organisation which gets its rules right. But it will be a long way to go before that happens, and we have to fight hard for it.'

Rohee said that when the WTO meets again in Geneva, it should start a process that focuses on 'review, repair and reform' of the WTO, its rules and methods of work.

'In Geneva, we have to take another look at the text of 19 October, and developing countries must continue to hold the fort on the basis of principles and the concerns of their people.'

He stressed that when the General Council meets to discuss the follow-up to the Seattle Conference, it should not give a legal status to the oral statement made by the Seattle Conference chairperson Barshefsky at the closing plenary session.

No mandate

In her closing speech, Barshefsky had said that Ministers had agreed to suspend the Ministerial and that the WTO Director-General can consult with delegations to bridge remaining areas where there was no consensus, develop an improved process that was efficient and fully inclusive, and prepare the way for successful conclusion.

'We have to be careful that no legal status be provided to that closing statement,' he said. 'It was a speech, not a Declaration. What was said by her was her own statement, it was not a mandated instruction from the Ministers in Seattle to the Ambassadors in Geneva.'

Rohee said it was clear the remarks by Barshefsky did not have the mandate of the Ministers, especially if one were to refer to the statements made by the African, Caribbean and Latin American groups of countries a day before the Conference ended.

Rohee stressed that 'the concerns expressed in these statements must be the lynchpin of the resumption of talks in Geneva.'

In those statements, the regional groupings had expressed outrage at the procedures adopted by the Conference leaders, in which only a few countries had been invited to small-group negotiating meetings (dubbed the 'Green Room meetings'). They vowed that since they had been marginalised, they would not accept any Declaration put before them on the last day.

Rohee remarked that when Barshefsky made her closing statement the whole process had broken down. 'Ambassadors in Geneva should therefore return to the 19 October text and start all over again,' he said.

'The whole process in Seattle was flawed. We are demanding that from now on procedures must be respected. There is a mood among developing countries to fight for this principle all the way.'

Rohee also suggested that to reduce the pressure placed on developing countries,the Ministerial meetings be held once in five years instead of at least once every two years as now. 'In the WTO, we are talking about serious matters, involving life and death, jobs and incomes,' he said. 'We need to give countries time to think things through. In my view we don't need to hold a Ministerial meeting every two years. Once in five years is enough, to give time to countries to consult among themselves and with regional groupings, with NGOs and so on, so that we can feel comfortable about our ideas. Holding a Ministerial meeting every two years gives the major powers a pretext to force something down on us.'

Tracing the process by which developing countries had matured in the WTO, Rohee said they were much better prepared for the Seattle Conference than during the GATT days.

'Some of the developing countries did not even know what they had signed in Marrakech, when the WTO was established in 1995,' he said.

'Between Marrakech and Seattle, they learnt a bitter lesson on how the system operates and the lack of benefits for them, so the developing countries prepared themselves better.'

Although they did not meet or operate as a common group in the WTO, said Rohee, yet many developing countries had the opportunity to get together in various fora such as the G77, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP), the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and other regional groupings, where they worked out some common positions.

Mutually reinforcing relationship

'Due to the level of preparations and their experiences, it is no surprise they scored a tremendous victory in Seattle. But we are also grateful to the NGOs and the enlightened among the demonstrators who insisted that the WTO must be demystified. People must have a better understanding of the WTO. We should have a mutually reinforcing relationship with our social partners in the NGOs.'

He stressed that after Seattle, 'we must keep up the momentum and maintain an optimistic situation as we approach the UNCTAD X conference in Bangkok and the South-South Summit in Havana. The relations between governments and our social partners as manifested in Seattle must continue.'

Rohee said that as a top priority, the whole question of transparency both in the WTO and in the international financial institutions must be resolved. 'There can be no debate on this point. No one can be against this.'

Recalling what had happened in Seattle, Rohee said the experience of developing countries was a 'very bitter' one. He said that earlier this year, during the selection of a new WTO Director-General, several developing countries were not consulted and were forced to accept a 'non-existing consensus.'

'We saw an attempt to replay that situation in Seattle through the infamous Green Room process, where only a few countries were selected to take part in negotiations. This led to the total marginalisation of the overwhelming membership of the WTO.

'Developing countries thus had the experience of having the Seattle Conference hijacked from them, and Ministers were treated as mere tourists.

'Further insult was added to the wounds when on the second day of the Conference Barshefsky announced she had the right to make changes to the procedures in order to arrive at a Declaration at all costs.'

Rohee recalled that when that happened, there were many protests from the floor, with the banging of fists at the table. Rohee himself intervened and criticised the Conference leaders for shutting out the developing countries.

'I said that we keep hearing about the need for transparency but how at the Conference there is actually no transparency at all, as we are being sidelined in the so-called Green Room process.

'I said we do not know who are selected, and on what basis, or what is being discussed. In the end we will be faced with a fait accompli situation and a document we did not have a part in drawing up. I said we certainly won't accept that.'

Eventually, Guyana was invited to a Green Room meeting, but 'it turned out to be a joke,' said Rohee. 'After we made our voice heard, I received an invitation to a Green Room meeting on agriculture. To my amusement, when I turned up at the meeting, the chairman of the meeting, presented this 'non-paper' to us. We were informed no changes could be made.

A joke

'I created a stink. I asked what is the status of this document, and why are we called here. When I was told we were only invited here to be informed, I felt it wasn't a serious meeting at all. It was only a joke.

'The chairman and a senior WTO Secretariat official were trying to bamboozle us to accept their draft on agriculture. I told the official, you are from the Secretariat, you should shut up, I am a Minister, it is for me to discuss this issue. All the Ministers in the room packed up our files and walked out.

'We found out that this so-called Green Room meeting, which was held on the second floor, was only a diversion. Since we had asked to take part in a Green Room meeting, they gave one to us. But they had shifted the real negotiations on this topic to the sixth floor (of the Conference Centre), a level from which we were further marginalised.

'There was such a level of intrigue and subterfuge over which we had no control. We were like Sherlock Holmes tracking which meetings were being held where. This is simply unacceptable for Ministers.

'They were only paying lip service to transparency and inclusiveness. The reality was opposite. If there had been a draft Declaration placed before us (on the last day) there would have been a total revolt. The African, Caribbean and Latin American countries had issued statements protesting the process. So I could not envisage how a Declaration could have seen the light of day when so many Members were up in arms.

All this meant the process was flawed and the end result was bound to come out flawed as well.'

Rohee added that the Green Room process is now discredited in the eyes of developing countries. 'The WTO now has to find credible and acceptable formats and structures which developing countries are comfortable with. There should not be any psychological discomfort or suspicion. The new way should be patterned after the UN system.'

Providing an analogy, Rohee said that in the United Nations, talks about UN reform had been going on for years. Some countries are impatient to finish it quickly, some are cautious and others are in the middle.

'This is an open process, all are invited to take part. In the WTO, we are talking about serious matters, involving life and death, jobs and incomes. We need to give countries time to think things through.' He proposed that Ministerial meetings be held only once in five years, instead of two years.

What happened at Seattle, concluded Rohee, had given developing countries an opportunity to reshape the WTO. 'But we cannot be complacent. We have a big stake in the organisation. We must carry on the fight now, to get its procedures and rules right.