Hello WTO-member! Did you bring your compromise?

SINGAPORE 6 DECEMBER: When delegates to the World Trade Organization (WTO) begin arriving here over the weekend, with the smile which Singaporeans have been taught over the last year, to show to all visitors, could be a question from the Immigration: Hello Delegate, have you brought your compromise spirit with you?

Faced with a difficult situation where no official negotiating text has come out of a year-long preparatory process, host country Singapore, is hoping that delegates arriving here now for next week's Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, will come with a spirit of compromise to enable the five-day meeting to end in harmony rather than discord and division.

This sentiment of the host country was expressed here this morning by two Singaporeans at the opening session of an NGO seminar, organized by the Third World Network on "WTO: Key Issues and Prospects".

The two Singaporeans were Ms. Lee Tsao Yuan, Deputy Director of Singapore's Institute for Policy Studies, (an official think-tank) and Ambassador Kesavapani, Singapore's Permanent Representative in Geneva, for the UN Offices in Geneva and the WTO. Lee and Kesavapani were giving an overview of WTO and key issues, to the NGOs and replying to questions.

A spirit of compromise

Kesavapani listed among the controversial issues for a post-Singapore Work Programme, and lacking consensus, the issues of Labour Standards, Trade and Investment, Competition Policy, Government Procurement and Trade Facilitation. Kesavapani also mentioned the issue of Agriculture, and Textiles and Clothing (covered by the Uruguay Round accord and the SMC review of implementation) as controversial and lacking consensus.

Asked how Singapore would judge the Singapore Ministerial Conference (SMC) to be a success, Lee stressed her country's role as host country to find compromises and said: "We hope there will be no discord or disruption and we are hoping that everyone of the members now arriving will bring with them a spirit of compromise so that we can find compromises on these."

Trade officials said that after the Conference opens, on 9 December afternoon, there would be an informal heads of delegations meeting (at the level of Ministers) when the WTO Director-General, Mr. Renato Ruggiero, will make a report to the Ministers.

Ruggiero has already shot off a report, in the form of a letter dated 29 November, to the President of the SMC, Singapore Trade Minister, Yeo Cheow Tong, copied to all WTO- member delegations, on the outcome of his year-long consultation process.

While he has said that his report "represents a good basis for the work of the Conference", it is not at all clear to delegates and trade officials already here, and observers with experience of the WTO/GATT process, as to how things can move forward.

If the Ruggiero paper is sought to be made a basis for further negotiations, it has to be a move by Singapore as Chair, or any of the major industrial nations pushing the new issues.

It may or may not command consensus (even as a working document) and any one of the Ministers or a group of them may voice an objection.

Another way, and one probably being weighed by the host country, could be for Ministers to speak out their minds, and then SMC Chair Yeo, convening a core group of countries, "Friends of the Chair" to work on the issues, elements of texts in the Ruggiero report, and documents, and produce a draft (which the WTO secretariat or Singapore and/or both together, may already have in hand) to spring on delegations at the appropriate moment.

Whether the Ministers can pull rabbits out of a hat and achieve a compromise on issues that over the last 12 months has actually widened the gap and hardened positions, is not very clear now.

Mr. Bhagirath Lal Das, India's former representative to GATT and former Director of UNCTAD's Trade Division, told the same NGO gathering, that one outcome would be that the many problems of implementation would be sidelined at Singapore, and all attention will focus on the new issues.

Also, warned Das, if investment is taken on board here by the Ministers from the South, there could be little doubt that by the time of the next Ministerial meeting in 1998, a Multilateral Investment Agreement would have been negotiated and brought up for approval, and another new trade item for harmonization of taxation policies would be brought up, and developing countries would be asked to harmonize tax policies so as to force them to reduce income-tax and corporate taxes.

The argument would be that because of the level of taxes, not enough surplus is left with consumers, who are thus unable to buy consumer products that the North wants to export to these countries. "It will become an eminent trade-related issue," Das commented sarcastically.

Das noted that unlike in the old days, when even journalists were only tolerated around the GATT, the WTO was now beginning to be aware of the NGOs and was trying to find accommodation with them. NGOs should take heart and use this space to expand their influence, both on the WTO and the member countries.

Chakravarthi Raghavan, Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), said, in the logic being used to bring in new issues, trade-related population issues, trade- related women's rights and so on, would all be soon finding their way into the WTO, whose secretariat and its head make no bones about using the WTO to promote globalization and neo- liberal dogma.

One could take a Marxian dialectical view and welcome all these and other new issues, and encourage their being put on the WTO agenda at Singapore, he said.

Then, the ship of the WTO may easily get sunk in the Straits of Malacca off Singapore, and even if it manages to get to Geneva for a work programme on them, it will be sunk in the Geneva lake, and may be of long-term benefit, given the asymmetric and inequitable nature of the distribution of the burdens of the WTO on developing countries and the poor everywhere.

But that would be an adventurist view.

Cautioning NGOs and delegations over the investment question and other new issues, he recalled that in the 18th and 19th centuries, mercantalist-Britain, turned free-market, free-trade laissez faire advocate, came to Indian shores, and then to Penang island (now part of Malaysia) and down to Singapore, establishing its military and naval presence on the island, in the area now covered by Raffles Hotel and the SMC Conference Centre.

From Singapore, they overwhelmed the other European colonial powers in the region, including the Dutch at Indonesia, and went on to China, where they waged the opium wars, the right to sell opium so that they could earn money to buy Chinese silk and other products.

The present investment study sought to be launched here is an attempt to repeat that history of establishing foreign control and dominance through transnational corporations (TNCs), over the countries of the South, and the emerging economies, for the benefit of the homes of TNCs. Developing country NGOs must beware of this and whether or not they can influence the SMC, carry the battle to their homes þ to the public and small and local businesses and mobilize them against this new instrument of governance.

Raghavan agreed with Das, that the WTO was now trying to set a dialogue with NGOs, more so because both in the North and the South, the NGOs had been successful in creating public awareness of the negative side of the globalization process and the WTO's role in increasing the marginalization of the poor. But the NGOs must beware of being co-opted by the WTO system, he said. (CR/SUNS3887)


The above first appeared in the SUNS of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.