Ministerial meet mess now beyond trade diplomats, say trade officials

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 19 Oct 2001 - - Soon after he moved into the White House, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson (mostly kept out of the loop, as vice-President, by the White House and Kennedy aides and cabinet members), began to get briefings from the Cabinet members and the intelligence apparatus on the issues and problems ahead.

He then became aware of the full ramifications of policies set in motion under Kennedy (after the Berlin wall crisis and the Cuban missile crisis) to thwart the Soviets and the Chinese, including the operations already under way in Vietnam and Laos. He was then advised about an impending crisis at the UN (where at US initiative a World Court opinion had been obtained and adopted by the General Assembly which would have the effect at the 1964 assembly to deprive France and the Soviet Union of their voting rights for failure to pay dues on the Assembly-mandated peace keeping operations in the Congo and the Middle East.  Presented in the briefing as a cold-war victory, Johnson is reported to have exploded and asked: ‘which s.o.b has landed us into this mess?’

Perhaps one of these days, George W.Bush, or his successors, might have some similar questions about the WTO and the international system, and the contributions of leading US-EC trade officials and the WTO leadership, to the mess created in attempting to promote corporate trade agendas on the back of the ‘US global war on terrorism’, and in the process (knowingly or in a daring derring-do), shattering Secretary Colin Powell’s efforts to keep the ‘global coalition’ together.

Even as Powell, in India to persuade that government that the US would not act against India’s interests, and appealing to New Delhi not to retaliate to any ‘terrorist provocations,’ the USTR Robert Zoellick and the EC Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy were busy trying to isolate India on the trade front and WTO issues, by announcing ‘rewards’ for Pakistan through GSP trading privileges on the textiles and clothing sector quotas, and making it known to India that unless India too yields, its trade would not benefit in US or EC markets.

And as the Heads of Delegation to the WTO began gathering Friday afternoon for a ‘consultation’ on three paragraphs of the draft Ministerial declaration (paras 33, 34 and 35, respectively dealing with technical cooperation and capacity building, least developed countries and special and differential treatment - where a text is yet to be formulated), reports among Arab diplomats suggested an ‘astonishing’ lack of sensitivity and understanding shown by the US visavis Qatar.

According to several trade diplomats, the US and the WTO head have already offended Qatar - by not broaching the subject to them directly, even when the Emir of Qatar was in the US, or to Qatari officials here or in Doha, but having the issue broached to them in Singapore, and even then not directly - after the Singapore hosting had been ‘arranged’ in at least two consultations behind Qatar’s back - but by the host, on the ‘security’ problems faced by the US and others and a possible shift of venue of the 4th ministerial to Singapore.

And now, after the Singapore meet and Qatar’s stand, the kingdom is being sought to be persuaded by offering to compensate them for expenses incurred or give trade concessions, and assured of opportunity to host the 5th ministerial!

Media reports out of Shanghai, after the APEC Summit, had said that the original draft of the communique had mentioned that the WTO would meet from 9-13 November at Doha, but that the reference to Doha was absent in the final communique. The reports cited USTR Robet Zoellick as praising Qatar for the preparations, but telling a news conference: “Our first responsibility is the security of our delegations and our people, and so it is understandable that the process is going forward to discuss that location.”

And reports from Doha quoted officials there as saying that they were going ahead with plans to host the meeting, that “nobody has told us that the venue might be changed from Doha to another location and as far as we are concerned, Doha is the venue.”

The Qatari Ambassador, Sheikh Fahed Awaid Al-Thani, said Qatar had advised the WTO of its readiness to hold the meeting, and he had nothing new to say.  Al-Thani also said his authorities were in touch with other capitals, and that the media would have some news ‘Monday’.

The Government of Qatar has met and taken a decision to maintain Doha as the venue, and such a communication is expected to be received here and communicated to the WTO.

Reuters from Shanghai quoted the Singapore Trade Minister George Yeo as restating an offer made Sunday (14 October) to host the WTO talks if need be, saying that WTO Director-General Mike Moore had asked whether the city state could act as a ‘spare tyre’ if called upon. Yao was further quoted as saying that “Because we support strongly the launch of a new round, and we know the difficulty of postponing the dates, Singapore agreed reluctantly to be a spare tyre.”

Trade officials said Friday that things were in one big mess, and that the venue of the ministerial was now a political issue beyond solution of trade diplomats here. There were unconfrimed reports Friday evening that the WTO Director-General Mike Moore is going to Doha Saturday.

Trade diplomats said that they saw no easy way out of holding the meeting unless Qatar itself is persuaded by the US to come forward to withdraw. Even then, agreement on Singapore as an alternative venue might elude the WTO, and the institution has suffered some damage. Some trade diplomats were astonished that Singapore could still tout itself as a venue, and its minister using the term ‘spare tyre’ to describe Singapore in this regard.

Several Arab and other Third World diplomats said that if the meeting cannot take place in Doha, the only alternative would be to hold a General Council to meet (as a ministerial body) in Geneva to transact most of the non-controversial items, except the issues of launching a new round, leaving it to the future to agree or decide on the 5th ministerial.

Any other course, and attempts to launch the new round with controversial issues would further damage the institution, more so when every serious economist points out that a solution to the current global economic crisis and recession lies in global macro-economic policies and stimulation of the world economy. The ball is in the court of finance ministers and central banks, and trade ministers can do nothing. Whatever else trade liberalization can achieve, and there are questions about it, it has little contribution to make at this stage. – SUNS4992

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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