NGOs unimpressed with 'dialogue' and transparency attempt

Instead of addressing public criticisms against the WTO, an official pre-conference symposium turned out to be 'less of a dialogue and more of a lecture' on the benefits of a comprehensive new round of multilateral trade negotiations.

by Cecilia Oh

THE WTO's attempt to win over its civil society critics through organising a symposium failed on 29 November when the organisers came under fire for their choice of speakers and the latter's failure to deal with the public's criticisms of the WTO.

The Seattle Symposium on International Trade Issues had been organised by the WTO Secretariat at the suggestion of the United States as part of its exercise of assuring civil society groups that it would make the WTO more transparent and accountable.

Since the symposium was planned some months ago, the criticisms of the WTO by NGOs had snowballed. Tens of thousands of their representatives have now come to Seattle, protesting the WTO and conducting a range of activities parallel to the official events.

The start of the official symposium was delayed by about four hours as a bomb scare at the Washington State Convention Center, where the WTO was meeting, was cleared by security and a check was carried out, keeping more than a thousand participants (delegates, NGOs and media) waiting in the streets.

Several NGOs used the opportunity to hold 'instant' press interviews with the media whilst they were all waiting for the building to be declared safe.

Other demonstrators had been kept a couple of blocks away by police who had cordoned off the area.

When the symposium finally began, participants were provided with lectures and statements, mainly from the WTO Director-General and four leaders of developed countries (the EC, the UK and two from the US), as well as two academics. Only two NGOs were invited to speak. Although the South African Trade Minister chaired the panel, there was a conspicuous absence of ministers from the South as speakers.

Most of the main speakers insisted on the necessity of a new comprehensive round of trade negotiations and on the importance and value of trade liberalisation for developing countries.

Plugging a new round

WTO Director-General, Mike Moore, said that the WTO is democratic and that globalisation is not a choice. Moore said that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had projected that a new round would boost output by more than US$1.2 trillion, and that developing countries would benefit the most.

UK Development Minister, Clare Short, spoke at length on the inequities of the world economic system but used that analysis to make a pitch for a broad round. She said that if there was only a limited round, there would be a loss of opportunities for developing countries. She also said that bringing new issues into the WTO, such as agreements on investment, competition and procurement, would bring benefits to developing countries.

Pascal Lamy, the EU Trade Commissioner, said that there was a need to address new issues, including animal welfare, consumer rights and labour, because they played an important role in public perception. 'That is why we need a comprehensive round. Although the developing countries fear that these issues would become protectionist, these issues have to be taken on board.' Lamy also disagreed with the NGO critics who said that there was no need for a new round.

Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University said that the protest against globalisation left a sense of deja vu. 'Countries that did well were those that integrated in trade and investment,' claimed Bhagwati. He, however, opposed the incorporation of labour issues in the WTO.

US Trade Representative, Charlene Barshefsky, said that the WTO has to address the new challenges to the multilateral trade system. Because of this, new issues such as electronic commerce, biotech-nology, trade and environment, labour and transparency of the WTO have to be introduced. She said that the WTO had to be more open to public scrutiny.

Review, repair and reform

During question time, Martin Khor of the Third World Network said that many of the NGO participants were upset and disappointed by the way in which the symposium had been conducted. 'It was less of a dialogue and more of a lecture,' he said. The panel was not balanced, and key NGOs which had been vigorous in their criticism of the WTO had not been represented, he said.

He informed the participants that NGOs around the world had been preparing for the Ministerial for many months and that 2,500 people had attended an NGO 'teach-in' over the weekend. Out of these had emerged a Civil Society Declaration of Seattle signed by over 2,000 groups asking for review, repair and reform of the WTO.

He explained that this meant the need for a review of the implementation problems arising from the Uruguay Round, a repair or amendment of the existing agreements, and a reform of the system of decision-making and participation of developing countries.

WTO agreements such as those on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs) must be reviewed for their impacts on development, livelihoods and the environment. He reiterated civil society's support for the African Group's position against patenting of life and their proposals for the amendment of Article 27.3(b) of the TRIPS Agreement.

Khor called on Barshefsky to keep her promise of making the WTO more transparent by ensuring there would be no repetition of the 1996 Singapore Ministerial Conference experience where most ministers were not invited to the small-group meetings that negotiated the key parts of the text. He called on Barshefsky to ensure that there would be no 'super green room' meetings in Seattle.

He added that the NGOs had coined a popular slogan for Seattle: 'No New Round, instead Turnaround' (meaning 'turn around' the rules and system of the WTO to make them more appropriate for development). They did not want a new round as the proposed new issues were against the interests of developing countries and would worsen the present imbalance.

Referring to some of the speakers, he said it was a 'fraud' for developed countries to claim they were interested in a 'development round' for developing countries when they proposed new issues that would have serious negative effects on development, when they had not kept their promises of increasing market access in textiles and agriculture, when they had continued the abuse of anti-dumping measures, and when they had opposed requests by developing countries to extend the transition period for the TRIMs and TRIPS Agreements.

The NGOs and developing-country governments had analysed the potential effects of various agreements and concluded they could cause social and economic dislocation. In Seattle, ministers could take these concerns seriously and take the opportunity to do something about them. Thus, he concluded, there should be no new round with new issues; instead, he requested the US and the EC to join the developing countries and NGOs to 'turn around' the WTO.

No real dialogue

Maude Barlow, president of the 100,000-strong Council of Canadians, Canada's largest public advocacy organisation, expressed concern that there had been no real dialogue here with the NGOs. She opposed the further liberalisation of social services such as health and education, the liberalisation of which was already resulting in serious social problems.

Several participants, speaking from the floor, also attacked the TRIPS Agreement. Christian Friis Bach of the Danish Association for International Cooperation said that TRIPS had to be scaled back as the agreement was anti-poor, anti-free trade and anti-development. He added the rich countries became rich without having strong patent laws. Indeed, having slack patent rules in developing countries is the best way to facilitate technology transfer.

Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said that its patients were dying from lack of access to medicines due to high prices caused by patent protection. The WTO should set up a group to look at the effects of intellectual property rights (IPRs) and TRIPS on access of developing countries and the poor to medicine.

At the afternoon session, Yash Tandon of SEATINI (Zimbabwe), speaking as a panellist, said that the WTO was being manipulated by a few big powers for their own interests, and that it was a most non-transparent and hypocritical organisation. He asked governments of the South not to sign away the rights of their people (through agreeing to new issues).

Muthoni Muriu of ENDA (Senegal) said she was also unhappy with the symposium as it appeared to be an attempt to 'put a positive spinÕ on the WTO's transparency. She said there should not be a new round as this would divert attention from the need to address implementation problems and redress imbalances in existing agreements.

Recalling how a few weeks ago her aunt and her daughter had died from lupus and tuberculosis, she said that this brought home in a personal way the obstacles put up by TRIPS to poor people having access to medicines.

A representative of Greenpeace also criticised the symposium for not being a real dialogue with NGOs. He cautioned developing countries not to be influenced by the US and Canada proposals to set up a WTO working group on biotechnology. If accepted, these proposals would undermine the biosafety protocol of the UN Convention on Biodiversity.

A representative of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions said he was concerned about the commodification of information under pressure from the WTO, and urged that the voices of citizens be heard. He was also concerned that proposed changes to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) would subject libraries to foreign competition and also lead to privatisation of libraries.

Cecilia Oh is a research officer with Third World Network.