by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 2 Feb 2000 -- The tenth session of the UN Conference on Trade and Development could help a healing process after Seattle, and look for ideas to promote compromises to help the trading system embedded in the World Trade Organization, but cannot engage in any negotiations themselves, UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero said Wednesday.

At a press conference with the President of the Trade and Development Board, Amb. Philippe Petit of France, Ricupero said that what had or did not happen at Seattle had created a situation where there has been some new interest and expectations about UNCTAD-X. There was no doubt that the outcome at Seattle would have an indirect effect on UNCTAD, because no one wants another failure at an international meeting. And while he felt encouraged at the boost for UNCTAD, and its work on trade, competition, and investment, UNCTAD would not be negotiating any trade questions, and trade negotiations could take place only at the WTO. There was no alternative trading system (than that of the WTO).

After a situation as at Seattle, the natural tendency for everyone was to look for compromises. This was what seemed to be happening after Seattle.

Referring in this connection to the outcome of the biosafety protocol talks at Montreal last week, Ricupero said that there could be no doubt that the outcome at Seattle had an effect on the Montreal talks and the conclusion of a successful accord. The agreement now would enable countries to ban imports of some genetically modified organisms and products, and for labelling of such products. These significant achievements showed that in the post-Seattle atmosphere, in some areas people were beginning to make compromises.

Ricupero hoped the same spirit prevail in dealing with what developing countries want to see come out of trade negotiations regarding the implementation problems, market access etc. He also hoped the same spirit would prevail at Bangkok.

Both Ricupero and Petit (who had chaired the preparatory committee that has drawn up a draft plan of action for consideration and adoption at Bangkok, were clear that none of the texts that were on the table at Seattle or emerged out of the talks there would be brought up at Bangkok for any discussion or negotiations.

Ricupero imagined that these issues and the status of the texts etc were questions that would be addressed at the meeting of the General Council set for next week.

UNCTAD could no doubt help the trading system embedded in the WTO, look for ideas to bridge differences and promote solutions.

But UNCTAD's main focus would be on trade as an instrument of development. In that context UNCTAD had something legitimate to say about trade. But it was the first major intergovernmental conference of the new century on development, and would deal with the quality of development, with the environment for development.

The Bangkok conference could also help to look for and promote coherence -- coherence between external economic environment and domestic policies; coherence in the external environment between monetary and financial policies on the one hand and trade policies on the other. It was this lack of coherence that came out very strongly in the Asian crisis of 1998.

The heads of important agencies and organizations would be at UNCTAD-X -- the IMF Managing Director Michael Camdessus, the World Bank President James Wolfensohn, the WTO Director-General Mike Moore and a strong team from the WTO, and the ILO head, Mr.Juan Somavia. Bringing about coherence was an important role of the heads of these agencies, Ricupero said.

He however did not clarify what exactly the heads of agencies could do, when the issue of coherence in international and national arenas essentially is one for governments acting in all fora in a coherent way, and how agencies and agency heads, sometimes seen by outsiders as engaged in turf battles, could act or remedy the failures of governments.

The UNCTAD head also said that there was a need to discuss "globalizatiion" with civil society -- NGOs, trade unions, private sector etc -- and have a dialogue with them in a structured and organized way. They have to be engaged in a dialogue in a constructive way, rather than on the streets and public squares as at Seattle.

UNCTAD would take an initiative in this by a dialogue, not only at Bangkok but regularly thereafter -- every year choosing one or two important items and have a focused dialogue with all sections of civil society on these.

Ricupero was asked to comment about his own optimistic perception of Bangkok in contrast to the fact that at the recent Davos World Economic Forum, no one had mentioned UNCTAD except for Mr. Martin Khor of the Third World Network, and for the Bangkok conference itself no important leader from the United States or even Europe would be present.

The UNCTAD head said that the Bangkok meeting was not about trade negotiations, and thus it was not surprising that some of the to trade negotiators would not be there. He however referred to his own conversation with the foreign minister of Thailand who had noted the strong message that the heads of ASEAN were sending by their participation at the highest levels at the Bangkok session.

Ricupero conceded that UNCTAD had to do a better job of convincing the United States of the usefulness of the work being done by UNCTAD.

Amb Petit said that he too had been present at Davos. And while it was true that UNCTAD itself had not been mentioned, all the discussions were around ideas generated in UNCTAD. Petit also thought that the attitude of NGOs and civil society towards UNCTAD was different from their attitude to the WTO or Davos forum itself.

Ricupero was asked how UNCTAD could distance itself from trade questions, and expect to have a dialogue with civil society on globalization, when civil society's opposition to globalization related to the use of trade and the WTO by the powerful countries as instruments to create and extend the transnational capitalist system.

The UNCTAD head said that while UNCTAD would not negotiate 'trade' agreements or rules, the engagement with civil society was precisely on those issues of trade and investment and the various interactions. The fact that UNCTAD would not be negotiating trade agreements made it easier to discuss in depth these questions of trade, investment and competition and have a dialogue.

Petit said that while there would be no trade negotiations at Bangkok, the plan of action had large portions dealing with an assessment of globalization and trade, and the various steps that needed to be taken by the international community and by governments and international organizations on all these questions. (SUNS4598)