Delays in formulating revised drafts

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 26 Oct 2001 - - The new revised draft texts - of a ministerial declaration, a ministerial decision on implementation, and another on TRIPS and Public Health - which General Council Chairman Stuart Harbinson (of Hong Kong China) had promised to issue Friday is now not expected to be in the hands of delegations before Saturday afternoon.

There are question marks over every one of the three documents, and a growing sense of anger and frustration at being pushed around - the kind of atmosphere that was ignored in the past, but which despite the attempts to present all opposition in terms of being against the US in the war, might just push things over the cliff.

Until last week, when some of the principals, ostensibly for security reasons, were trying to shift the venue from Doha to Singapore - there were various suggestions to make this palatable to the hosts. These ranged from the bizarre suggestion of the ‘free trade’ policy proponent, Jagdish Bhagwati, for a video-conference and for Moore chairing that conference and launching a new round, to some more recent ones that while the meeting should be held in Singapore, the round to be launched should be called the Doha Round.

In the context of what appears to be the single-agenda US campaign against terrorism, blaming everything that has happened on Bin Laden and capturing him ‘dead or alive’, there have been many sick jokes making the circuit, but some sharp ironic comments on the way new negotiations are sought to be launched, and the open hostility within countries eroding initial public support for the US actions..

But among exasperated Third World trade diplomats complaining about the way meetings are summoned, delegations being forced to stand and listen and other high-pressure tactics, a joke has been going around that if a round does get launched it should be called the Bin Laden Round!

The socalled Heads of Delegation consultation process, on the draft texts, in a relatively smaller committee room of the WTO (where there are only about 110 seats around the table for delegates, when the WTO membership is 141) ended Thursday, and Harbinson and the secretariat appear to be engaged still in formulating what they think would command a consensus.

On Friday afternoon, delegations said that they did not now expect any text before Saturday afternoon and some said that the WTO and Harbinson have informed delegations that due to lack of time he has been unable to send the revised texts as promised by Friday, and that it would now be sent out by late afternoon of Saturday.

Even for this task of formulating, there appears to be still some talks among a few to see whether on very thorny issues, such as on labour standards, some compromise language could be formulated - even as the chair is being pressured by the EC and others to formulate and present (without alternatives texts for negotiations on investment and competition).

At a ‘green room’ meeting convened by the WTO head Mike Moore Friday, apparently at the instance of the EC, attempts were made to persuade developing countries to agree to a formulation on labour standards.

A large number of developing countries, in the HOD process, have insisted that they cannot accept even the current para 6 in the text: We reaffirm our declaration made at the Singapore Ministerial Conference regarding internationally recognized core labour standards. We take note of the work under way in the International Labour Organization on the social dimensions of globalization.

The Singapore conference in the para of the declaration on labour standards had said:

“We renew our commitment to the observance of internationally recognized core labour standards. The International Labour Organization is the competent body to set and deal with these standards, and we affirm our support for its work in promoting them. We believe that economic growth and development fostered by increased trade and further trade liberalisation contribute to the promotion of these standards. We reject the use of labour standards for protectionist purpose, and agree that comparative advantage of countries, particularly low-wage developing countries, must in no way be put into question. In this regard, we note that the WTO and ILO Secretariats will continue their existing collaboration.”

At Singapore in 1996, the Trade Minister and Chair, Yeo Cheow Tong and the WTO head Ruggiero, who thought they had managed to smuggle in some WTO-ILO collaboration, found the whole thing blowing up in their face, and Yeo had to give some public ‘assurances’ in the open final plenary.

He then said that the text embodied some important elements:

First, it recognizes that the ILO is the competent body to set and deal with labour standards.

Second, it rejects use of labour standards for protectionist purposes. This is a very important safeguard for the Multilateral Trading System, and in particular for developing countries.

Third, it agrees that the comparative advantage of countries, particularly low-wage developing countries, must in no way be put into question.

Fourth, it does not inscribe the relationsnship between trade and core labour standards on the WTO agenda.

Fifth, there is no authorization in the text for any new work on this issue.

Sixth, it notes that the WTO and ILO Secretariats, will continue their existing collaboration, as with many other intergovernmental organizations. The collaboration respects fully the respective and separate mandates of the two organizations.

The Yeo assurances about the ‘existing collaboration’ was specifically inserted, in effect bringing on public record, Ruggiero’s private explanations about the nature of this ‘existing collaboration,’ so that the WTO head and the ILO head don’t launch their own agendas and programs.

The developing countries view the current attempts to bring these matters up, by a para in the declaration in this light - and find it difficult to accept the explanations of the EC (which wants some strengthening to suggest the kind dialogue among institutions it promotes) with the argument that this formulation would ‘export’ the labour standards issue out of the WTO.

Even the most export-oriented neo-mercantalists find it difficult to explain how.

While the governments of the South are opposed for fear of protectionism, on deep consideration many civil society groups of the South, active on the labour front, also oppose the WTO having any handle and expanding its remit, simply because of the unequal power relationships, including enforcement power, and the concern that this entire process, and collaboration being promoted between WTO and ILO, and the ILO’s claims about a dialogue on globalization, would essentially result in weakening labour in the South.

In the ‘green room’ consultations organized by WTO head Mike Moore Friday, the US, Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Norway and Morocco supported the retention of the para, with strengthened language sought by the EC to the effect that WTO members are “committed to promote a better understanding of the issues involved through a substantive dialogue between all interested parties (including governments, employers, trade unions and other relevant international organizations). To this end, we support the work under way in the ILO on the social dimension of globalization.”

That the WTO processes are being hijacked to serve domestic political purposes of not only the powerful, but their followers too, was clear from Australia’s support arguing that if some such formulation is not there, the present government (facing polls on 10 November) might lose office!

However, Egypt, India, Malaysia and Pakistan strongly opposed any formulation, leave aside the strengthening of the para. Guatemala was willing to live with the existing formulation, but nothing more, while Brazil (whose ambassador currently chairs the ILO Working Party on Globalization) appears to have made some formulation about the ILO providing the appropriate forum for a substantive dialogue on various aspects of the issue.

There are some outside observers that every time Europe or the US bring up this issue, and force developing countries to focus on it, the issue is brought up in the same way that a magician performing sleight of hands tricks on the stage talks continuously and uses one hand to distract attention, while using the other hand to do the trick - a common practice of confidence tricksters too.

Then some developing countries, who actually yielded ground (for example through a two-step approach to investment negotiations), as they did in Singapore, by agreeing to bring the issues in for study, could go back home and announce how successfully they had defended their country’s rights against the new protectionism. – SUNS4997

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

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