Seattle repeated at Libreville

By Yash Tandon*

Libreville, Nov 2000 — ‘Libreville 2000’ was supposed to be a corrective and collective African answer to the WTO Seattle debacle. It was supposed to put Africa back into the ‘mainstream’ for a new round of trade negotiations and including new issues since Singapore (Ministerial Conference of 1996) -- such as environment, government procurement and labour, as well as the old ones left over from Marrakech.

In the event, Libreville 2000 turned out to be yet another defeat for the WTO leadership, power structure and establishment. The African ministers rejected the call for a new round.

According to sources close to events in Geneva, the Libreville meeting was closely planned and coordinated by the WTO Secretariat in conjunction with the European Union and the United States.

In what appeared to be a coordinated effort to lay the groundwork for a new round, and unknown to the Africans assembled in Libreville, there was a parallel (summit) meeting going on in Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei for the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In a compromise declaration, and in opposition to the objections raised by countries like Malaysia, APEC reached a compromise on a “balanced and sufficiently broad based agenda” to start a round “to be launched in 2001.”

At Libreville, during the African meeting, the WTO Secretariat discreetly let some African ministers and delegation members see the Brunei draft declaration—then still not yet adopted by APEC— arguing that if African ministers did not agree to a new round then Africa alone would be left out in the cold.

Yet, amid considerable pressure for Africans to agree to a ‘broad based’ agenda, suggested as a last minute amendment by the Minister from South Africa as an addition to the ‘balanced’ agenda recommended by the African experts, the Ministers rejected the call for a ‘broad-based’ agenda, and settled for a more restricted work program for the continuing negotiations at the WTO.

At Seattle in December 1999, the African countries had withdrawn their consensus from the process of decision-making at the Third WTO Ministerial. It was a process marred by secret, behind-the-scene negotiations between the big trading powers from which African countries, and most of the Third World nations generally, were excluded.

The negotiations dealt with matters, weighty matters, related to trade in agriculture, services and a host of “new” issues, such as environment and labour standards, that have controversial links with the trade agenda.

In the preparations for Seattle, the Geneva-based negotiators had not managed to agree on these in advance of Seattle. As a result, an 84-page draft Ministerial document came before the Seattle Third Ministerial Conference full of brackets, and brackets within brackets.

At Seattle itself, the powerful trading nations, led by the chairperson, the United States Trade Representative (USTR), Mrs. Charlene Barsheshky, tried to hammer an agreement through a widely criticized “green room” process that excluded most of the Third World countries.

The Seattle Ministerial Conference collapsed ignominiously, in the midst of popular demonstrations against the WTO outside the conference as well as acrimonious debates among the bigger trading nations.

The African nations, on their part, were alienated at Seattle from the process. They passed a resolution through their organization, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), withdrawing their consensus from the Conference.

After Seattle, the big powers and the WTO have tried “confidence building measures” to bring Africa back into the fold. In an early effort soon after the Seattle debacle, the rich countries promised the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) duty-free and quota-free access to “essentially” all their export products.

These measures did not assuage the African countries; these “concessions”, they argued, amounted to no more than lip service to African demands for a more equitable sharing of the alleged benefits of globalization. Similar other efforts to bring Africa back into the ‘mainstream’ new round negotiations in Geneva also failed. Consequently, the WTO process in Geneva got bogged down with practically no movement on any side.

The United States and Europe are still caught up in their own lock-jawed negotiations over agriculture, with Europe demanding concessions in areas such as investment and government procurement (from the developing world) in return for dropping protectionist measures from agriculture. These can be secured only within the framework of a new comprehensive round. Hence the interest of the big trading nations, including the USA, Europe and Japan, but also including South Africa (which is a member of the food-exporting Cairns Group that is interested in persuading Europe to drop subsidies on agriculture), to push for a new round.

The countries of the South, on the other hand, working through their trade negotiators in Geneva, are insisting on the prior resolution of implementation issues contained in paragraphs 21 and 22 of the Seattle Draft Ministerial Declaration (the Mchumo text, so named for the draft text issued by the then General Council Chair, Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzuania).

These essentially deal with matters that arise largely out of the iniquitous and asymmetrical aspects of the Uruguay Round Agreements and commitments made by the developed countries to the developing ones. The developing countries argue that if these matters (especially in paragraphs 21) are not given priority consideration and decisions, they will be either ignored or even forgotten once a ‘new round’ begins to engage the negotiators on matters of importance to the bigger nations.

To get over this deadlock in Geneva, the big trading partners, and South Africa, have been busy in behind the scene activities to mobilize the countries of the South to agree to a new and comprehensive round of negotiations. They argue that only in the context of such a comprehensive new round can issues of implementation identified in paragraphs 21 and 22 be addressed.

African countries are not convinced about this. It is against this background that the Libreville meeting of African trade ministers was organised - apparently at the initiative of the WTO Secretariat and with the backing (or active encouragement?) of the USA and the European Union (especially France and the UK). They chose one of the smallest but richest countries in Africa, Gabon, to play the role of the host Government.

The Libreville Conference was attended by practically all the African states, represented in most cases by their Trade Ministers. At ministerial level, the tradition is to provide for the ministers and their delegations super-class accommodation and two or more vehicles per delegation. Uganda, for example, with three official delegates, had two cars at their disposal.

Funding for the meeting was secured from various donors, including Belgium, Chinese Taipei, Egypt, France, Gabon, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, Morocco and South Africa, as well as the African Development Bank, the Agence Intergouvernementale de la Frnacophonie, the International Development Research Council (Canada), WIPO, the UNDP, and the European Union.

The meeting was called as an educational conference. There were to be 24 workshops under 10 themes covering GATT Agreements and Rules: Customs Formalities and Procedures; Regionalism and Multilateralism; Intellectual Property; Services including Tourism and Electronic Commerce; Agriculture and Textiles; Environmental Standards; Dispute Settlement Mechanism; Trade Policy Defence Measures; Export Capacity and Market Access; and Trade and Investment.

The declared objective of the meeting was to inform and educate the Trade officials and Ministers of the participating countries about the technicalities and intricacies of the above ten aspects of the multilateral trade regime, some of them (such as environmental standards and investment) not yet part of the agenda for negotiations.

When the trade ministers arrived in Libreville, however, they were given a ‘Draft Libreville Declaration’ which, among other things, committed the Ministers, if they agreed, to a “new round” of trade negotiations. Paragraph 9 of the “Draft Declaration” read the African Ministers:

“Underline our firm determination to strive jointly to accelerate the trade liberalization process in Africa and, with that objective in mind, to support the launching of a new round of trade negotiations with the adhesion of all countries, which will also help clarify and improve the existing agreements.”

For most ministers this was a surprise twist to the conference. There was no earlier intimation to anybody that the agenda of the meeting was going to be loaded with a political declaration. Thus the conference started under a shadow of suspicion on the part of the Ministers and their delegations that “something was cooking” behind their backs. After Mr. Alfred Mabika, the Minister of Trade, Tourism, Industrial Development and Crafts of Gabon launched the conference there was a succession of four lectures by persons of great authority who all emphasized the significant opportunities that globalization offered to Africa and urging Africa to join in a new round of negotiations.

These four first speakers to the Conference were: Mr. Mike Moore, the Director-General of the WTO; Mr. Charles Josselin, the French Minister of Cooperation; Mr. Pascal Lamy, European Commissioner for Trade; and Ms Susan G. Esserman, the Deputy United States Trade Representative.

Thus, Mr. Moore in his speech explained his understanding of the objective of this conference.

The “core objective” of this “first such meeting in Africa in the history of the GATT and the WTO,” said Mr. Moore, “is to make leaders and decision-makers in African countries aware of the essential need to participate actively in strengthening the multilateral trading system and in the WTO’s activities, as well as to build their capacity and competence in order to make a more effective use of the existing rules and Agreements, and take a bigger part not only in the ongoing negotiations in Geneva but also in future ones.” He went on to add, “I believe in Africa. In my heart, I believe that to prevent further marginalisation, we need a new round of trade negotiations with Africa at the table.”

Apart from the “Draft Declaration” in their folios, this was the first public intimation the African ministers got that the objective of the conference was not only the educational one that their letters of invitation suggested, but also the political one of discussing the advisability of setting in motion a “new round” of trade negotiations “with Africa at the table”. Mr. Moore’s message, in quick succession, was endorsed by Charles Josselin, Pascal Lamy and Susan Esserman.

Deputy USTR, Susan Esserman, for example, added her voice to those of Moore and others. After arguing how globalization offered “opportunities” to Africa, and giving reasons why Africa should create an “enabling environment” for investments, she said: “More open markets provided by the ongoing WTO services negotiations will help African countries acquire the expertise and legal, financial, transport, information and telecommunications infrastructure that will spur more rapid and stable development.”

She argued that Africa’s participation in the WTO’s “modern agreements” on basic telecommunications, financial services and information technology would send a “powerful signal to international investors” about its resolve to create an enabling environment for investment and trade. She went to say that the US “shared with Africa” an interest in “broader negotiations that go beyond the built-in agenda of agriculture and services.”

Making it clear that without a new round, Africa should not expect much from the developed world, Esserman argued: “Moreover, without a broader round that includes areas such as industrial market access negotiations,” other countries “may not have the flexibility” to make real reform in agriculture.

After the four had made their arguments as to why Africa should join in a “new round” of trade negotiations, Ms. Sophia Kalinda, speaking for the Secretary-General of the OAU, Mr. Salim A. Salim, argued that knowledge about the WTO rules and agreement was “not enough.” It was necessary, she reminded the African ministers, to stay on course for Africa’s integration as laid out in the Abuja Treaty. The Treaty, she said, had set in motion “a process of gradual trade liberalization, sectoral integration, infrastructural development, and the development of internal African market”. She emphasized the need to create “a single African market”, and the need “to change the structure of African economy and reduce external dependence.” She ended by reminding the Ministers of the positions taken by the OAU in their pre-Seattle meeting in Algiers in September, 1999, which position was reiterated in the September, 2000, Cairo Statement.

After these opening sessions, the technical workshops began in parallel sessions in the afternoon of Monday 13th. At 6.00 pm in the evening was scheduled a meeting of the Trade Ministers “in closed session” to consider the draft declaration. This is a well-tested method of getting Ministers to agree to something quickly. In the past, in previous round of negotiations, African ministers, unassisted by their experts, were either cajoled or coerced into signing agreements whose implications for their countries they understood either partially or not at all.

Thus, for example, during the Uruguay Round of Negotiations, African countries found themselves party to the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) under a “single undertaking” procedure that tied them into committing themselves to an agreement in the making of which they had no hand.

Since then African countries have become more wary. They have been trying to disentangle the mess they have gotten themselves into through entering into binding commitments (such as TRIPS) without their participation. This explains the utter distrust that they have towards the WTO processes. These processes are not based on the basic principles of transparency and openness.

Hence, when the “Draft Libreville Declaration” came to the “exclusively Ministerial” meeting, the Ministers, this time, came with their experts at their side. Efforts at the door (of the meeting room) to keep out the experts from entering the Libreville equivalent of the “green room” failed. This was Africa, they said, not Geneva or Seattle. At the meeting itself, sources from inside the meeting disclosed, the chairman, the Gabonese Minister of Trade, introduced the “draft declaration” urging his fellow ministers to sign it. However, it is understood that in the first group of interventions of 20 Heads of Missions, only two came out strongly in support of the Draft Declaration, 15 came out in opposition, and three were indifferent.

Interviewed outside, the Zambian Minister of Trade, Mr. Harrington William, said that he could not go along with the draft declaration because “it lacked transparency.” The objective of this meeting, he said, was “to enhance our understanding of the WTO, not to make a political declaration.” He said that African ministers were not consulted beforehand, and that they needed time. In any case, matters of this nature, he said, must be discussed “in an African meeting, not here”, and that SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) countries must stand by the position they had taken at the Sun City meeting in South Africa in 1998, in the OAU Algiers meeting in September, 1999, and recently confirmed in the Cairo meeting of September, 2000.

The Uganda Minister of State for Industry and Technology, Mr. Abel Rwendeire, said that the text of the Declaration went beyond the mandate that he had received. He argued that the idea of new round of negotiations needed to have been advanced earlier so that proper consultations could have been carried out in Geneva and in the capitals.

The Minister Counselor of Egypt, Dr. Magdi A. Farahat, confirmed that there was a general feeling in the meeting that the manner in which the proposed draft declaration was introduced lacked transparency. On his part he argued that the draft was flawed both on procedural and on substantive grounds. Normally African ambassadors in Geneva carry out the preparatory work. There was thus, he said, a “procedural slippage” in the manner in which the matter was being handled. He said a Declaration of this nature would require a “different kind of format” from the present one which is a format “for education and information.”

Apart from paragraph 9 of the proposed draft declaration, the other aspect that riled the Ministers, according to sources close to the meeting, was in paragraph 12, which “Urge(d) our Governments to participate more actively and more effectively in the Multilateral Trading System by establishing a Joint African Mission to the WTO in Geneva by January 2002.”

The Ministers felt that this was an insult to the OAU which had an office in Geneva, and to the African Ambassadors Group that already existed in Geneva and that normally met to consider issues of common interest to Africa on matters related to the multilateral trading system.

Asked about what he thought of this paragraph, Uganda’s ambassador to Geneva, Mr. Nathan Irumba, confirmed that the Geneva-based African ambassadors were very active on trade matters. He argued that the WTO Secretariat appeared to be less than transparent to the Group, and did not consult it when it did not suit the interests of the large trading nations that effectively controlled the processes in the WTO.

Irumba said that prior to the Libreville conference, the African ambassadors had approached the DG of the WTO, Mike Moore, and had asked if there was going to be a declaration at the Libreville meeting, since there were rumours circulating in Geneva that the Secretariat was preparing such a declaration. The ambassadors had advised Moore that if there were to be such a document, then they would want to see it before Libreville and to make input into it.

However, Mr. Irumba said, nothing was heard from Moore or from his Secretariat until they found the Libreville Draft Declaration in the hands of the ministers on the very eve of the Libreville meeting. This, he said, only underlined the lack of transparency in the manner in which the WTO Secretariat operated. He did not understand how paragraph 12 could be justified unless it was a deliberate effort to undermine the African ambassadors group in Geneva and the OAU.

There were, however, a couple of Ministers who supported the proposed Draft declaration. The Minister from Burkina Faso, Mr. Abdoulkader Cisse, was reported to have said that Africa must heed the advice given by the EU and US delegates at the plenary session, and that this conference should give “a strong signal to investors” by opting for a new round. How can an important conference of Ministers leave without some kind of a declaration, he asked? The Minister from Guinea-Bissau was also reported to have spoken strongly in favour of signing the draft declaration.

On the other hand, it was reported that countries such as Mauritania, Benin, Senegal and Mali were lukewarm towards the draft declaration. The delegate from Mali was reported to have argued that they had come to the conference not to sign a declaration. He said that Africa needs to review previous declarations that have not been implemented, and argued that a communique reflecting African concerns about past declarations should be enough as a statement of this conference.

During the course of a tumultuous debate, insiders said, several Ministers suggested that all that was needed was a communique or a chairman’s statement, rather than a declaration, thanking the host Government and the WTO for organizing a useful educational conference. But when other delegates insisted that something more than a mere vote of thanks might be more appropriate, there appeared to be an emerging consensus that the Geneva-based experts be asked to draft out a text for the Ministers to consider the following day.

At the end of the first round of discussions, the Chairman of the meeting, Minister of Trade and Industry of Gabon, attempted to summarize it. He argued that “two trends of a regional nature” seemed to have emerged at the meeting, but he apparently did not elaborate on what these two trends were. He is reported to have argued that Africa could not afford “to be left behind” in the process of globalization, and that Africa should not be afraid of negotiations, but enter into negotiations and say what they want and what they do not want.

At this point the Minister for Commerce and Industry from Botswana, Mme. Tebelelo Seretse, was reported to have strongly challenged the chairman. She insisted that he follow the consensus that appeared to have emerged, namely, to ask the Geneva based trade experts to produce a draft of a communique or a chairman’s statement for the Ministers to consider. This was accepted by the Chairman, and the meeting requested the “Geneva based experts” to come up with a draft text the next day.

The next day, Tuesday 14th, the experts met and drafted a “Text” thanking the hosts and the WTO for organizing a workshop with the objective of giving ministers information and knowledge about the workings of the WTO. The substantive paragraph (para 5) of the Text read:

“We seize this opportunity to reaffirm the African position as articulated in our previous meetings in Algiers and, more recently, in Cairo, with regard to WTO issues. In particular we reiterate that a key challenge facing the multilateral trading system is to ensure that issues of development are addressed decisively and satisfactorily. The future negotiations must, therefore, take into account the development dimension, including the following:

        Structural adjustments requiring developing economies to reduce a range of protection and support measures to inefficient industries;

        A balanced agenda accommodating the concerns and interests of all African countries;

        Addressing the implementation issues, in particular, the commitments in favour of developing countries;

        Addressing imbalances arising from the Uruguay Round Agreements, and

        Taking into account the trade and finance needs of developing countries.”

This Text, however, was not acceptable to the host Government, which insisted that the proposed Libreville draft declaration was the “basic document” on which the experts were required to work. After a period of uncertainty and confusion, when it became clear that the Ministers had wanted a separate text from the Geneva-based experts, a compromise was agreed to try to “merge” the two documents and draw on “common elements” from the two for presentation to the Ministerial meeting. However, hours of strenuous efforts in the afternoon, under the chairmanship of Gabon’s Ambassador to Geneva, Mme. Yolande Bike, to try to merge the documents failed.

Whilst the experts were busy negotiating the text and the bulk of the other participants engaged in the technical workshops, there was a flurry of “diplomatic” activity in the lobbies and corridors of the Conference. Rumors were circulating that certain African ministers were being invited by various “persons of authority” (such as the four who had delivered the opening speeches at the first plenary) in bilateral “close consultations” on how the process of getting to a “Libreville Declaration” might be facilitated.

Also shown, discreetly, to some delegations was the text of a declaration purported to have come from the Brunei Conference apparently confirming that the Asia and Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries had already agreed to a “new round.” (APEC, it may be recalled, includes big trading nations such as the United States, Japan and Australia as well as the smaller developing countries of the region.) It was only discovered later that what was being shown was only a draft, and that the APEC had not worked out a compromise text until Thursday, 16 November. The London Financial Times of Friday 17 November carried a story on the Brunei meeting, and reported that the language of the Brunei declaration owed much to “pressure from US President Bill Clinton” as well as Australia and Japan, and in opposition to Malaysia and several other developing countries.

However, all this was not known in Libreville then, at least not to the African delegates; and African ministers were told that theirs was the only continent that was now “blocking” progress on the WTO negotiations. It was also reported that the South African Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr. Alec Erwin, and the Italian Minister of Trade, Mr. Enrico Letta (who is to take on the chairmanship of the G7/8 countries in 2001), had made a statement that they were to mobilize international support for new Round of trade negotiations, if necessary, outside of the WTO.

And so when the Ministers met in the evening of Tuesday 14th, there was much confusion. At the documentation level, there were two drafts (the original draft declaration and the proposed “text” by the Geneva-based experts) plus elements of a third draft that failed to merge the first two documents. At the political level, it was understood that several delegations had begun to soften their opposition to a new round, or at least to keep quiet.

On the other hand, one or two of them complained that they or their officials were being harassed for “blocking” progress towards a new round. There was also much discussion as to whether the final document, once they agreed on it, should be called a declaration, a communique or simply a Chairman’s Statement. To get over the impasse, it was finally agreed to set up a “task force” of ministers and experts to see how a compromise document might be worked out the following day.

By Wednesday 15 November at 12.30 p.m. a compromise text was worked out by the task force and presented to the Ministers in the afternoon. The draft text introduced some new elements into the Geneva-based experts’ text, such as calling on the WTO “to play a more active role” in the process of “adopting and implementing a capacity-building programme” and reaffirming African “determination to combat the marginalization of Africa in the globalization process.”

But on the substantive and controversial subject of the new round, the experts text (cited as paragraph 5 above) was retained. The text did not talk about a new round but of “future negotiations” that should, inter alia, promote a “balanced agenda” that accommodated the “concerns and interests” of all African countries.

To this text, the Trade Minister of South Africa, Mr. Alec Erwin, who had just flown in the previous evening, suggested an amendment adding the words “broad based” before “balanced agenda” for the text to read that future negotiations should promote “a broad based and balanced agenda accommodating the concerns and interests of all African countries.”

(Interestingly, unknown to the African ministers at Libreville, the phrase “broad based”, was finally used at the Brunei meeting of APEC as a compromise between the US and the industrialized countries that wanted a new round and Malaysia and some developing countries that expressed scepticism about a new round.)

In the African meeting, however, the phrase “broad based” did not secure the consent of the Ministers. It was feared that “broad based” might be interpreted as “comprehensive” and this could be a thin end of a wedge that would pry open future negotiations to a new round. Hence the written text that was finally adopted by the Ministers towards late evening of Wednesday 15th talked only of a “balanced agenda.”

It took some more hours to decide on whether the text is called a declaration or a communique. There was strong opposition to call it a declaration.

To get around this, the chairman suggested that the document be called “declaration” in its French version, and “Communique” in the English version. This too was opposed, and the Ministers finally settled for the words “final communique” as the title of the text.

At the closing minutes of the meeting, the Chairman read aloud the communique, and added the words “broadly based” in the operative paragraph that, in the written version, only talks about a “balanced agenda.”

The final written text, it is understood, will be released in Geneva on Friday 24th November.

(* Yash Tandon is director of the Harare-based ‘Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Initiative’ (SEATINI). Tandon was present at Libreville. The above is an advance version of a report by Mr. Tandon in a forthcoming SEATINI Bulletin, Vol. 3.21, and has been published with permission.)

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