NGOs to WTO - ‘Don’t retreat behind closed doors!’

by Kanaga Raja

Geneva, 19 Oct 2001 -- Leading civil society organizations, in a joint press release have expressed concern that the confusion over the dates and venue of the WTO’s 4th Ministerial will allow governments to retreat behind closed doors, effectively preventing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from participating in or even protesting against the process.

Those who have issued the statement include the Berne Declaration, Switzerland, Corporate Europe Observatory (Amsterdam), Focus on the Global South, Friends of the Earth International, Institute of Agricultural Trade Policy, IBON Foundation.  (Manila), International NGO Forum on Indonesia Development (INFID), and the World Development Movement (London)

The same confusion about the venue, the groups said, is also obscuring the fact that developing countries are still being excluded from meetings of critical importance to them, such as the Singapore ‘mini-Ministerial’ of 13-14 October.  Furious objections to these ‘green room’ procedures led in part to the collapse of the WTO’s last Seattle Ministerial. Singapore’s Internal Security Act prevents public demonstrations. In particular, the groups note with concern that Singapore, suggested as an alternative location for the 4th Ministerial, does not tolerate public dissent. Civil society groups, including those not accredited to the WTO Ministerial, wish to hold peaceful demonstrations outside the WTO Ministerial.

However, the laws in Singapore make this extremely difficult and demonstrations are unheard of. A police permit is required before it is legal to hold any gathering of more than five persons. Even more worrying, Singapore’s Internal Security Act gives Singapore’s government the right to arrest anyone they deem a threat to internal security and to detain them without trial.

Ronnie Hall of Friends of the Earth International said: “The WTO already faces a crisis of legitimacy. Selecting Qatar as a venue raised eyebrows: moving to Singapore would confirm the WTO’s determination to avoid legitimate dissent, the lifeblood of democracy. The WTO must formally guarantee that wherever the Ministerial is finally held, civil society groups are allowed to assemble and demonstrate peacefully.”

The NGOs also complained about the continued bias in the WTO against developing country participation One of WTO’s key faults, evident in and since the WTO’s 3rd Seattle Ministerial is the difficulty that developing countries have in participating in WTO negotiations, they said. A major problem is their continued exclusion from the now notorious ‘green room’ meetings, in which certain carefully-selected governments are invited to informal discussions.

Developing countries’ anger about this situation was one of the main reasons why the Seattle Ministerial collapsed, but it seems that nothing has changed since then, despite all the promises made. Last week’s ‘mini-Ministerial’ in Singapore was nothing other than the green room writ large, with a handful of governments deciding how, when and where to move forward on the WTOs’ agenda.

The other factor which disadvantages developing country delegates is the high cost of maintaining negotiators in Geneva and sending them to Ministerials around the world.

Aileen Kwa of Focus on the Global South said: “If goverments opt to move the Ministerial to Singapore rather than Geneva, they will be making it much harder for poorer countries to participate. Many developing countries are currently faced with funding problems and cannot afford adequate representation at a Ministerial outside Geneva. This seriously weakens their ability to ensure their interests are taken into consideration in critical negotiations. The WTO must make sure all governments can participate on an equal footing.” – SUNS4992

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