Statement of the Third World Network at the WTO Symposia on Trade and Environment and Trade and Development, Geneva 15-18 March 1999

The WTO is probably the most non-transparent of international organisations. Most, if not all, its key decisions are worked out in informal meetings. In many cases, only a few countries are invited to these meetings. Where these meetings took place, when, and who attended, as well as the positions taken by the various countries, are not made known. When these small informal groups work out decisions among themselves, they these are taken before the formal meetings, and made into decisions.

Most times, the "major countries" (the largest developed countries) get the decisions they want. A few big countries are also able to veto the issues or decisions they do not want even if the vast majority of countries agree to them. In fact , often, when the US and the EC do not want an issue to be raised, it does not even come before the formal sessions.

The vast majority of developing countries have very little real say in the WTO system. Many lack the financial and human resources to adequately participate, even in the formal meetings, let alone the many informal meetings to which they are not invited. Sometimes, pressures may also be exerted on selected developing countries to get them to go along with decisions or positions which they may have originally opposed. Especially vulnerable are the developing countries that are indebted, and rely on bilateral aid or IMF and World Bank loans.

As a result, the decisions and agreements at the WTO tend to be biased against the developing countries' interests. The unfairness of the situation was highlighted at the Singapore Ministerial Conference. "New issues" (such as investment, competition and government procurement) that did not enjoy consensus (and were in fact opposed by many developing countries) in the General Council before the Singapore meeting, found their way into the Ministerial via a small "informal group" set up during the Ministerial.

The criteria for selecting this group and what transpired in the several days of negotiations in that group are not known to the public, or even to the Members of WTO. The Ministers of most developing country Members were not invited to participate in the small-group negotiations that produced the key points of the Ministerial Declaration.. The undemocratic, non-participatory and non-transparent nature of this process was obvious to the NGOs, the media and public, and the Ministers and officials themselves, and was a blow to the credibility of the WTO system. What the Ministers endured was similar to the experience of their trade diplomats at the WTO in Geneva.

Although the WTO Director General and the Chairman of the Singapore Ministerial promised that the decision making system would be reformed to make it more participatory, in reality the situation has basically remained the same, if not worsened. The non-transparent and non-participatory systems of decision-making among WTO Members is at the heart of the undemocratic nature of the WTO system. This reality is in stark contrast to the image of equal participation by all members through "consensus" that the WTO tries to project.

Unless this inequitable system which is so unfair to developing countries is reformed, it would be an eyewash to claim that the WTO is becoming more transparent simply by having some dialogue sessions with civil society, or Geneva-based NGOs getting briefings from the WTO officials, or making more documents available.

An improvement in transparency and participation would entail at least the following:

(a) The processes of consultations, discussion, negotiations and decision-making in the WTO have to be made truly transparent, open, participatory and democratic.

(b) Any proposals for changes to the rules, or new agreements, or new commitments on countries should be made known in their draft form to the public at least six months before decisions are taken, so that in each country civil society (including groups representing labour, business, consumers, the environment, health and all other interests) have a full opportunity to study them and influence their parliaments and governments on the stand they should take.

(c) The discussions and negotiations that are being planned and are taking place at the WTO must be made known, and all Members must be allowed to be present and participate. The practice of small informal groups making decisions on behalf of all Members must be stopped. To take into account the lack of human and financial resources of developing countries, there should not be more than one or at most two meetings place at the same time. The "rationale" usually put forward (for example by the Director General at the Singapore Ministerial) that for the "sake of efficiency" only a few countries can be invited to negotiate is unacceptable. The decisions at the WTO are too important to be "rushed through", and instead should arise out of well considered discussions where every Member (big or small, weak or strong) has opportunities to effectively express its opinions.

(d) Parliaments and Parliamentarians should be kept constantly informed of proposals and developments at the WTO, and they should have the right to make policy choices regarding proposals arising in the WTO that have an effect on national policies and practices.

(e) Civil society should be given genuine opportunities to know what are the issues being discussed and the status of the discussions in the various committees and on the various issues. Civil society groups and institutions must be given genuine opportunities to express their views and to influence the outcome of policies and decisions. The issues and options being discussed at the WTO and its organs must be presented to the public in all WTO Member countries and subjected to public debate and scrutiny. The views of civil society organisations (including labour unions, farmers' organisations, groups dealing with consumer, environmental, health and social issues, professional organisations, the business community including small businesses, and the media) should be actively sought by the Member states.

Up to now, the public in WTO member countries have been kept in the dark about the negotiations, and public knowledge even about the existing Agreements (and their effects) is most inadequate. Should the same mistake be made during the preparatory process and the 1999 Ministerial, then the credibility and legitimacy of the WTO system will suffer an even bigger blow. And it will suffer the same fate as other institutions and systems that are illegitimate and undemocratic.