Fighting to a Draw in Doha

By Mark Ritchie

Take the Ministers of Trade from 142 countries, a few hundred journalists, NGOs, and business lobbyists, tens of thousand of police and military for security, and you have the makings of one of the most surreal events in recent international diplomacy history --- the Fourth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization in Doha, Qatar. In the backdrop of September 11 and the disastrous Seattle Ministerial two years ago, the WTO set about to agree on a Ministerial declaration that would chart the work agenda for WTO negotiators for the next few years.

Leading up to the Doha meeting, there were serious conflicts between North and South governments and between the United States and Europe. As in Seattle, the US and European negotiators used nearly every known form of arm-twisting, bullying and bribery to stifle Third World proposals and give the appearance of consensus.  In Seattle, the process did not lead to agreement, but instead to collapse. In Doha, with the help of a one-day meeting extension, the right level of deal making and threatening led to agreement on a final Declaration.

The entire 10 page Final declaration is riddled with language that allows every negotiator to go home and claim victory or at least the avoidance of defeat. Upcoming elections in Brazil, France, and the United States were key factors in a number of key public battles and behind the scene compromises. Although this meeting and the WTO are presented as part of the new global agenda, much of what is at play is parochial politics played out on the global stage.

A good example of artful word-smithing in the service of domestic politics is in the area of agriculture, where there were demands from South countries for radical reforms, including a call for the end to export dumping by the US and EU.  Unfortunately, US, Australian, and European agribusiness corporations were able to keep this demand off the agenda, by conceding general language on reducing export subsidies. While agribusiness can claim this as a victory, the issue of export dumping can and will most likely come back in future meetings.

The US and Europe put a number of new items on the WTO agenda, like investment, government purchasing, and competition policy. But a coalition of developing countries, led by India, made sure that no negotiations on these topics could take place without the agreement of every single member country in the WTO. India believes that this will prevent these topics from ever being seriously negotiated in the WTO. But will Southern countries withstand increasing pressure from the US and EU to negotiate these issues?

There was a major exception to the reign of ambiguity in Doha. The combined forces of NGOs and a number of Third World governments dealt a major blow against pharmaceutical companies on the issue of drug patenting. This effort was helped by a backlash against the pharmaceutical industry that had limited access to affordable drugs to treat AIDS victims in Brazil, South Africa and other developing countries. Use of the current WTO rules of trade covering intellectual property rights, including patents, to impede public health objectives were specifically repudiated in a special section of the final Declaration. Over a decade of organizing by NGOs combined with strong efforts by several developing country governments' lead to the adoption of the special section, over the objection of the US, Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The declaration on public health and drug patents represented the first clear victory in the WTO of the coalition of developing countries governments and civil society groups that has emerged over the last decade. This new "public interest coalition" of developing countries and civil society was the most important development of the Ministerial. Coming on the heels of similar NGO-government collaborations on land mines, global warming, and biological diversity protection this new international political force will likely play a growing influence over the global agenda in the next decade.

An important emerging issue that this public interest coalition will be tackling involves the relationship between the WTO and a new generation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) - like the Kyoto Protocol and Biosafety Agreement. The WTO has consistently taken the view that trade rules should trump environmental rules, and is attempting to enforce this view through a preemptive strike against the authority of MEAs. There is a similar concern that this declaration is attempting to expand WTO rule-making authority into new areas, like drinking water and other public goods and services. NGOs see these as "high alert" concerns for close monitoring and early intervention.

At the end of day, there were no clear winners or losers at Doha, except the drug companies. Everyone can claim to have survived to fight another day. What is important is that the lines of the fight are more clearly drawn, with the NGOs and Third World governments lining up against the rich country governments and the multinational corporations. The next Ministerial, set for 2003 in Mexico, will be the next chance for this evolving coalition to move beyond the victory on drugs to a wide range of new issues. The Mexico Ministerial could be the beginning of a New World Order very different from that envisioned by George W. Bush's father.

Mark Ritchie is President of the Minneapolis-based, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy