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Earth Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 16 July 2001

WTO SECRETARIAT QUESTIONED ON ITS ROLE

The WTO Secretariat has been criticised by NGOs attending the WTO Symposium on "Issues Confronting the World Trading System" for not being neutral but instead taking sides with some Member countries on the most topical issue of whether to launch a New Round of negotiations this year.

The criticisms were briefly summarised by one of the session moderators at the final plenary session, in which WTO Director-General Mike Moore was present and made a closing speech.

Presenting a report on the deliberations of the session on WTO and Civil Society, the moderator Dr Sylvia Ostry of the University of Toronto (Canada), said that on the issue of the WTO and institutional building:  "The WTO Secretariat was viewed as not being totally neutral and was seen to be acting incorrectly for a new round.

"Strong concerns were raised about the transparency and inclusiveness of the WTO decision-making process.  These concerns reflect the marginalization which certain developing countries feel in the WTO and which is partly related to their problems of capacity."

Osrtry added that three other issues were debated.  "One view was that a fundamental transformation is required of the WTO, as the present WTO cannot be compared with the old GATT system.  The WTO's intrusion into domestic policy domain raises fundamental questions about the objectives of the institution," she said.

"The other view expressed was that the institution is flawed in several ways but it is by and large functioning to serve the varied interests of its Members.  The best way to approach these flaws is through incremental change."

Ostry said this debate was interesting but took place late and it was not concluded. The key issue, she added, was whether there was a need for fundamental transformation or incremental change.  The majority of participants in the session wanted to continue the dialogue, and this would be carried out through the internet.

The session on WTO and Civil Society was one of the ten "work sessions" and two plenary sessions on the programme of the Symposium, that had been organised by the WTO Secretariat over two days (6-7 July).

Several participants, including representatives of NGOs and official delegations from developing countries, commented that the way the Symposium was organised was clearly biased in favour of developed-country participants.

For example, of the ten work sessions, eight were chaired by participants of the North (mainly academics and former or serving officials, as well as a WTO director) and the remaining two sessions (on services) were both chaired by a former Indian Ambassador to the WTO.    

Although the chairperson of the symposium was from a developing country (Mrs Toure Alimata Traore), all the speakers at the opening ceremony were from developed countries, including EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy, financial-market speculator George Soros, and WTO director-general Mike Moore.

Almost all the speakers at the closing plenary, who were the moderators of the work sessions, were also from the North.

The opening session, which was well attended by diplomats as well as NGOs, provided an opportunity for both Lamy and Moore to promote a new round.  Lamy spoke at length on the need to extend WTO rules into new areas, particularly investment, competition and trade facilitation.

Moore campaigned on why "we must launch a new round", making what he called economic and development arguments.

Although many developing country Members are against or are not prepared to agree to a New Round, no opportunity was given to Members representing this side of the WTO debate to present their view at the opening session.

The Secretariat also issued a glossy 33-page document entitled "Current Issues" for the Symposium, and it is supposed to be a guide to current issues.  Besides containing several misleading statements or selective representation of issues, the document does not cover the implementation issues put forward by developing country Members (and by many NGOs) nor their requests and proposals for changes, although this set of issues has been a current subject of great importance for the majority of WTO members.  Neither does it show any concern about the imbalances and problems generated by various WTO agreements, even though these have been highlighted by both WTO members and by NGOs.

The North-South assymetries, both in the Symposium and in the WTO, were brought up in the session on Trade and Development, and especially in the two sessions on WTO and Civil Society.

One of the speakers in the civil society session, Dr Sothi Rachagan, Consumers International regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said the WTO must make it clear it is committed to development and not merely trade liberalisation.

"It should not pretend to by anything more than an institution focusing on international trade for global development," said Sothi in a paper presented to the session.  It is not the institution for Global Economic Governance and should not stray into areas it is not competent to do."

Sothi added reform must also focus on the WTO Secretariat and ensure that its staff comprise nationals from as many of the WTO members as possible. 

"It is also necessary to focus on the role the Secretariat may legitimately play. It is an accepted function for a Secretariat to inform and explain agreements and decisions once made.  However it is totally inappropriate for the Secretariat to promote the position of selected countries on matters not yet agreed upon and on which there is dissent.

"It is for this reason inappropriate for the Director General and Secretariat staff to canvass for a new WTO Round."

Earlier, another speaker, Tetteh Hormeku, trade coordinator of the Third World Network's Africa Secretariat, said the WTO remains probably the most untransparent and undemocratic among international institutions, despite recent moves to increase the WTO's interaction with media and citizen groups.

"At the heart of this non-transparent character of the WTO are its undemocratic working methods and systems of decision-making," said Hormeku in a paper presented at the session.    While the WTO has the appearance of a democratic organisation, in practice key decisions are worked out in informal meetings, and the real effect is that the WTO has been dominated by a few industrial countries whilst the vast majority of developing countries have little say.

Hormeku provided examples of manipulative systems of decision-making, including the Singapore and Seattle Ministerial meetings.

"After the debacle of Seattle, it was thought the WTO would have learnt a lesson.  The experience of African countries in Libreville proved the optimists wrong.  African ministers were invited for capacity building seminar organised by the WTO secretariat in Gabon, only to be confronted with a draft declaration meant to signal their agreement to a new round.  Only after much effort was this attempt at manipulation defeated.

"To complicate this system is the role of the WTO secretariat and especially the role of the Director General.  The WTO secretariat and the Director General were established on the understanding that they will service Members equally.  The Director General in particular has a neutral role, in discussions of issues among members, and has no power to intervene in a debate among members with his own views and positions, however considered.

"And yet over the life of the WTO the office of Director General has acted in the exact opposite.  In the preparations towards Seattle, and since then, members of the WTO are sharply disagreed on the introduction of new issues on the agenda for negotiations in the WTO.  While a few powerful countries like the EU, US and Japan want rules on issues like investment, competition and government procurement to be adopted in the WTO, the majority of developing countries have opposed these issues being negotiated in the WTO.

"In this context, one would have expected the WTO secretariat and the Director General to facilitate the expression of both sides of the debate.  On the contrary, what we see is an active public and private campaign by the Director General to promote the view of the major powers who want the new issues.  This has included declarations on public platforms by the D-G in support of these issues.

"What we have then is a system of decision-making in the WTO in which formal democracy is actively undermined by the processes in which the major powers, with the active participation of a supposedly neutral secretariat, impose their will on the majority of members.  This is at the heart of the international crisis of legitimacy currently being suffered by the WTO."

 

 


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