WTO head doesn’t like ‘open-ended’ meetings

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 30 Aug 2001 -- The Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Mr. Mike Moore is dissatisfied with the open-ended meetings at the WTO, and wants to streamline the decision-making and plans to push for a ‘streamlined’ process after the Doha Ministerial Conference, according to the Friends of the Earth International (FOEI).

Basing itself on information it has obtained from developed country sources (both here and in capitals), the international NGO says, in a background note it has circulated to some developing country delegations and civil society organizations, that any such stream-lining and departure from open-ended meetings (initiated after the Seattle conference) would further marginalise the developing countries, particularly the smaller countries.

Other trade experts and observers say that any such new processes, reminiscent of the old manipulative and coercive ‘green room’ process would further de-legitimise the WTO and its trade system.

In Mr. Moore’s view, the open-ended meetings and decision-making process introduced after Seattle has not produced the desired results, and hence not worth the effort.

He however wants to initiate this stream-lining process, on his own initiative, after Doha, lest it complicates even more the preparations for the Doha ministerial meeting.

Moore also feels frustrated with the ambassadors and representatives accredited by countries to represent their interests at the WTO, and has been suggesting and complaining that the views they put forward here are not what their capitals think!

In December 1999, following the collapse of the Seattle meeting - where a large number of developing countries refused to be pushed around and accept the old, manipulative decision-making, the socalled ‘green room’ process where a few invited countries met and took decisions which all others were expected to accept - there was a lot of talk of ‘confidence-building’ measures.

These were never spelt out and formalised in detail, but the statements of the Chair of the General Council and decisions, left little doubt that two crucial elements were a fully transparent and inclusive decision-making process, and decisions and actions on the ‘implementation issues’ that developing countries had raised and were in the draft Ministerial Declaration that the then GC Chair, Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania had put forward.

After some considerable discussions, there was a modus vivendi of sorts, namely, that meetings and consultations, and subjects would be announced in advance and while the chair (and/or the secretariat) would hold them with invited delegations, the fact of such meetings and subjects would be announced and any others interested in the subject would be able to notify and attend them.

And even when smaller consultations were convened and held, as a result of an initiative of the then chair of the General Council, Amb. Kare Bryn of Norway, full open ended meetings were called in what used to be described as ‘transparency exercises’.

However, in an institution, said to be member-driven and rules-based, but in fact power-based and secretariat- and big-trader/corporate driven processes, it was apparent that the old cultures and practices processes would not be easily given up.

As a result, there have been constant attempts to undermine the open-ended processes to provide internal transparency, and attempts to confuse it with ‘external transparency’ which itself is reduced to posting material on the WTO web-site and attempts to enable non-government organizations to present amicus curiae petitions before panels and appellate bodies.

While some NGOs have welcomed and sought to take advantage, many others (both Southern and Northern NGOs) have insisted on internal transparency and decision-making where all members would be on the same footing, and an ‘external transparency’ starting with advance information and sufficient notice to the public of what was being sought to be negotiated to enable full prior-discussion in countries and parliaments.

However, in terms of decision-making, not much appears to have changed.

Some of the informal processes were just taken out of the WTO building, and held elsewhere in Geneva, and the outcome sought to be brought into the WTO process through the chairs and the secretariat. And both Moore and his officials have often been participating in such meetings, and pre-cooked ideas and proposals are brought forward and placed before meetings, in the hope that the smaller nations would not dare stand up and oppose.

The open-ended processes and meetings that were being held last year have however seemed to have been falling into some disuse this year, and more so in the context of the attempts to launch a new round of trade negotiations at Doha, and with new subjects.

At one recent meeting, Jamaica’s representative complained about the lack of transparency.

Mr. Moore himself has been criss-crossing the globe, to speak to business groups and meet with government leaders, all the time promoting and canvassing the launching of a round with broad-based agendas, mainly to bring in investment issues into the agenda, as sought by the EU, Japan and other industrialized nations.

Though the WTO has not agreed to specialized agency relationship with the UN ( a violation of the UN Charter by WTO as an institution, as well as by the member-governments constituting it), through his presence and attendance at the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), a body chaired by the UN Secretary-General and with heads of the UN system and specialized agencies as members, Moore has been trying to mobilise the agency heads to support the Round.

Not only has UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan ‘bought’ Mr. Moore’s arguments and views and promoting the launch of a new round (at the Brussels UN LDC Conference in May, and more recently at the High-level segment of the ECOSOC), but has also been discouraging dissentient voices within the system.

FOEI notes that during the Seattle Ministerial, many developing countries had expressed dissatisfaction at the selective attendance green room settings in which previous WTO decision-making meetings were held.

The various ideas being canvassed for streamlining of WTO decision-making procedures seek to leave effective decision-making in the hands of the major/active WTO players, create a situation of effective fait accompli decisions by a small number of major/active WTO players prior to bringing up such proposed decisions for discussion and approval by the general WTO membership.

There would also be a proliferation of a large number of small meetings by a select group of major/active WTO players, will effectively institutionalize the continued marginalization of small developing country delegations from WTO decision-making processes.

With a relative lack of human and technical resources among small developing country delegations in Geneva makes it more difficult for such delegations to actively attend and participate in many WTO meetings. This could lead to a consensus by default form of WTO decision-making.

Even as it is, in the preparatory processes for the Doha, there have been so many small informal group meetings and consultations, often convened at very short notice - with several ambassadors complaining about notice of meetings for the day received overnight and landing on their desk only the next morning - giving no time to most of them to consult their capitals.

The stream-lining of the decision-making processes is also aimed at institutionalizing the determination of the policy agenda of the WTO, by a small number of countries determining it, rather than by the general WTO membership.

These ideas have from time to time surfaced before too at the old GATT, through the Uruguay Round and later the WTO, including the talk of small ministerial group to determine the agenda and other issues, but have been turned down.

But they continue to surface from time to time, in name of ‘efficiency’, and to the detriment of the interests of developing countries, especially the least developed countries.

Moore has also been expressing frustration at the way many Geneva-based WTO delegates are speaking, claiming that their views do not seem to correspond with what Moore said he has heard from national capitals when speaking directly with ministers.

This is not the first time that heads of WTO have been voicing the view.

Moore’s predecessor, Mr. Renato Ruggiero too has voiced such views.

The problem is that in most countries, and more so in the developing world with more ancient civilizations and cultures, the hosts - whether ministers or senior officials, when receiving top level officials as guests - are very polite and courteous in listening to them, and often would thank the guests profusely and assure them that they would look into the matter and take care of it.

Mistaking such politeness to mean assent, before Singapore Mr. Ruggiero felt shocked when after he had come back from visiting heads of states and foreign ministers of several key countries, he came back to Geneva and found the country representatives had not changed their positions.

And unlike in the past, even if some governments and leaders feel under pressure and would like to yield, their public have become more aware and are beginning to resist, and challenging the very legitimacy of the WTO and its decisions and systems. – SUNS4958

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

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