by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 17 Nov 99 -- Short of a miracle, Ministers of the World Trade Organization, when they meet at Seattle on 30 November, may be faced with the task of "negotiating" on almost every issue that may figure in their final document.

This was the sombre assessment Wednesday morning of several trade diplomats from the developing world who said that no compromise seemed feasible on the two critical issues of "implementation" and the Marrakech mandate for further negotiations on agriculture.

Even generalities about principles and objectives of further negotiations or even the trading system have aroused controversies, because within these generalities, there are efforts to smuggle in concepts like a 'new round' or 'single undertaking' etc.

The chairman of the General Council, Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania had indicated to the informal heads of delegation meeting on 13 November that the General Council should meet "early in the week of 22 November" to transmit the results of the work at Geneva (the mandated preparatory work of the Council) to Ministers at Seattle.

And while some attempts are being made by the secretariat and a few delegations to "cobble" together some kind of a declaration draft, even this may be controversial.

They may at best have a number of 'working papers' and perhaps some declaration of sorts, but even that may be difficult, and Ministers may be faced with an impossible task, some trade diplomats say.

The only thing that at present seemed non-controversial, one diplomat said, was a draft declaration to the effect that Ministers met at Seattle and thanked the host country for the arrangements.

The situation facing Ministers at Seattle would be worse than that at the 1982 GATT Ministerial meeting, where the GATT Council and its chair, had at least put together a text with clearly presented alternatives in square brackets.

And after much wrangling, and attempts to mislead a small group of ministers to agree on a text, the 1982 Ministerial after two prolongations agreed on a work programme.

As things stand, Seattle will not even have such a text.

In a year when too many assumptions of the "power brokers" at the trade organization have proved wrong, any idea that at the last minute something could be sprung on the delegations and they could be "persuaded" to go along may prove a costly mistake.

Whether in 1982 (for the Geneva ministerial) or even the 1986 Punta del Este meeting to launch negotiations, and subsequently, few outside the small circle of trade experts, officials and specialists, paid much attention to the trading system and the details.

This situation has changed drastically over the last 4-5 years.

The Marrakech agreement, the Speaker of the Uganda Parliament told a workshop for trade officials in Southern Africa last year, was accepted and ratified by governments without even the Parliaments carefully discussing the agreement and its implications.

"We will never allow this to happen again," he said last year at a meeting in Kampala.

Most governments got away at that time with the argument there was no alternative. Now they would be asked, by their public and domestic businesses, why their governments and trade representatives did not withhold consensus at Seattle on launching new negotiations for more "liberalization" and new commitments when they could not even digest and implement old ones.

And if aware of this, developing countries as a whole, or at least the major ones with functioning democracies, are forced to withhold consensus or if their ministers decline to negotiate such texts and remit them back to Geneva, without any particular guidance to commit their representatives, Seattle may be a failure.

For that, the two majors and their conflicts and tactics to promote the interests of their corporations and please their "domestic constituencies", as well as the WTO secretariat espousing these will be largely responsible.

There may even be no "paper" to transmit by consensus to the Ministers at Seattle, if these efforts are pursued to present Ministers with a text without any square brackets within it on formulations about a new round to be launched and adopted as a "single undertaking".

That would be the equivalent of presenting the members with another "Uruguay Round package" that members must accept and sign on or reject as a whole, some observers said.

At one stage last week, a possible compromise text on agriculture, vague enough not to be rejected by either side, seemed possible. But while the EC and the US (and perhaps the Cairns group, however reluctantly) might have been agreeable to putting their disputes on this to the post-Seattle negotiations in the agriculture group, Japan and other advocates of "multi- functionality" had not yielded.

And several developing countries were opposed to their problems in agriculture -- food security, development of agriculture, rural employment etc -- being treated in the same way and put aside.

On the hard core of the implementation issues, for decision at Seattle and a commitment through the declaration to addressing and resolving other implementation questions raised in the year 2000, there is even less meeting ground - with the US, EC, Japan, Switzerland and others unwilling to give way and sticking to their formal legal stand about no changes in the 'balance' established at Marrakech.

And like stage magicians wanting to pull a trick with one hand, who distract the attention of the audience away by their chatter and actions with the other hand, the US and EC and others are also bringing up the questions of labour and environment standards and so-called "coherence".

One trade diplomat said the attempt now seemed to be to distract developing countries and focus their attention, and that of their capitals and Ministers on these questions and how to prevent them being put on the trade agenda.

For their own domestic constituencies, the US and the EC want some formulations on labour and environment and try to forge a compromise for a working group or study outside.

After taking some hard positions to put these on the agenda, with the US taking the harder line and playing the 'bad cop', while the EC takes a 'good cop' approach and pretends to be more understanding of the developing country views, they are working to come up at Seattle with formulations for study, outside the WTO, but involving the WTO.

And just as they did at Singapore, and got some formulation (assuring developing countries in private that the subject would not again rear its head in the WTO), they would try to do the same at Seattle.

And to achieve these, the diplomat said, the US and EC would make some last minute minor concessions to developing country ministers and senior officials on implementation and split the developing countries.

In return, the developing countries will be asked to endorse a new round, without spelling out the issues for negotiations, but providing for these to be discussed and agreed in Geneva after Seattle. But the developing countries would also be asked to endorse such a round as a single undertaking and with a commitment to accept everything as a package, and with the possibility of new issues being put on the negotiating agenda at the 4th Ministerial meeting. (SUNS4554)

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

[c] 1999, SUNS - All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service without specific permission from SUNS. This limitation includes incorporation into a database, distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media or broadcast. For information about reproduction or multi-user subscriptions please contact < >