by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 15 May 2000 -- There are not enough signs of flexibility in national positions to justify any early launch of a new round of trade negotiations with confidence, the World Trade Organization said Monday in an overview to its annual report.

"Many WTO Members remain positive about launch of a new round of trade negotiations and about the possibility of it in 2000," the report says. "However," adds the report, "it is important to recognize that many of the issues that prevented agreement at Seattle are still unresolved, and we are not yet seeing the signs of flexibility in national positions that would justify predicting an early launch with confidence."

"There is clearly much more work to be done in establishing the broad consensus we will need to base a Round on, not least concerning the coverage. Perhaps the most lasting lesson we have learned from last year is that there are no shortcuts in a project of this size and importance. The effort we are making now to advance the existing negotiations, to act in good faith on the problems of least-developed and developing countries, and to improve the way in which we conduct our business, is an essential investment which we must make whatever our hopes or expectations for the early launch of a new Round."

[After months of informal consultations, the General Council of the World Trade Organization at its meetings on 3 and 8 May, was advised of some autonomous measures by industrialized countries to improve preferential market access for the LDCs - but which the LDCs noted did not seem to be additional. The General Council also took procedural decisions for a mechanism to address the 'implementation' concerns of developing countries, for a process for addressing the 'transition' periods.]

[At a press conference on 8 May, the WTO Director-General, Mike Moore, described the outcome as "the show is back on the road, but in a very modest way" and the fundamental issues and differences that brought down the Seattle Ministerial meeting still remain, though people are talking.]

The annual report published Monday, in the overview talks of "a positive agenda for globalization" and, in the process, is in fact distancing itself from the extravagant views about the 'phenomenon' or its own powers and ambitions that came out, since Marrakesh in 1994, from the WTO heads (Sutherland, Ruggiero and Moore), and other senior officials in pronouncements around the world, including one about the WTO writing the global charter for investment.

The WTO, the report notes, has been described as the power-house of globalization, seen as a malign force or even as a conspiracy. In fact, globalization covers a range of trends in economics, technology and international relations which may be mutually reinforcing but which have diverse origins.

This phenomenon is not new or specific to our era -- "periods of rapid erosion of barriers to economic activity and human contact are well-documented throughout history. If the present surge in global economic integration has a single trigger, it is probably advances in communications and computing technology. Ironically one of the greatest boosts to the coordination of anti-globalization protest has been the use of the internet - globalization's most potent symbol.

"Globalization is not a programme or an agenda. But the widespread public confusion and apprehension about it calls  for a positive agenda from governments and international institutions if they are to forestall a populist and protectionist backlash. This is where the WTO has its real relevance to globalization; not as a sinister architect but as a forum for negotiating rules to help guide it."

But the report does not indicate how such guidance could come from a system whose rules and disciplines, and their enforcement, deals only with what governments could and could not do, but has nothing now, or planned for future negotiations, on the obligations and responsibilities of international or transnational private actors.

The report also talks of Moore's efforts to set up links with parliamentarians, and the first ever meeting of parliamentarians convened at Seattle by US Senator Roth.

But it fails to mention that the chairperson of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Dr.Najima Heptula, said at Bangkok and conveyed to Mr. Moore (after Seattle) that the IPU and its meetings could address these and other such global questions, and there was no need for any ad hoc or new body.

The report says that 1999 was a 'turbulent' year for the WTO -- without a Director-General or deputies for four months, and the new DG taking office only in September when the Third Ministerial was already looming. And despite a year of hard preparatory work, the Ministerial failed to reach agreement either on the launch of a new round or other important points that had emerged in the course of the preparatory process.

The events at Seattle, it notes, attracted much media comment and some sweeping pronouncements in the heat of the moment about the value and the future of the WTO. The more catastrophic interpretations of Seattle, the report claims, "have already been debunked." The WTO is not lost, and it is not discredited. It is the more extreme critics who are becoming discredited as the WTO system shows its resilience, and the membership shows its collective will to move constructively forward. Despite the setback at Seattle, the multilateral trading system is continuing and will continue to deliver a vital contribution to economic growth and stable economic relations among its members at all levels of development.

The report also provides a summary, but self-serving, narration of the Seattle meeting and how it was organized and run - without even a retrospective admission of the rule-less way in which the ministerial meeting was opened, and how its business was conducted and closed (see SUNS 4577 and 4588).

The report's version of the Seattle meet speaks of the violent street protests that hampered the start and prevented the inaugural, and of the DG, on behalf of the Chairperson (USTR Mrs. Charlene Barshefsky) calling the meeting to order (and conducting the opening meeting contrary to the rules), the Ministers adoption of the agenda and the 21 hours of formal plenary meetings.

The report also speaks of the four open-ended informal working groups on key outstanding issues, a fifth working group on broader institution issues of transparency and inclusiveness in WTO activities, and "in addition" an Ad Hoc group on Trade and Labour Standards established on 2 December "to take up proposals submitted by some Members."

There is no mention that the validity of setting up this Ad Hoc Group with Costa Rica as chair, was challenged at the very first meeting, with members refusing to address the Costa Rican minister as the chair, but only as Minister, nor that the group could not proceed further. There is no mention either that the attempts of Mrs Barshefsky as the conference chair and the US President outside the meeting, to push the trade-labour standards agenda was an important element contributing to the 'revolt' of the developing countries. The way Mrs Barshefsky (and Moore) ran the meeting, contrary to rules and the agreed process are also slurred over.

The report summarises the final day's events and process thus: "ultimately, however, the open-ended working group process did not result in the necessary consensus, and in the early hours of 3 December, the last day of the Conference, the Chairperson decided to initiate a small-group process to further facilitate this work, a right she had reserved to herself on 30 November."

However, Guyana Foreign Minister Clement Rohee (who was Chairman of the Group of 77 in 1999) who was at the Seattle meeting described those events, in an interview to Martin Khor (SUNS #4577), thus:

Rohee recalled the way several developing countries were not consulted but were forced to accept a "non-existing consensus" on the selection of the DG, and an attempt to replay that situation in Seattle through the "infamous Green Room process" and the total marginalisation of the overwhelming membership, the "high-jacking" of the Seattle Conference and the ministers "treated as mere tourists".

Rohee then added: "Further insult was added to the wounds when on the second day of the Conference, Barshefsky announced she had the right to make changes in procedures in order to arrive at a Declaration at all costs". And when that happened, he said, there were many protests from the floor, with banging of fists on the table. He also spoke of his own protests at the meeting and the warning that if any document emerged as a fait accompli and in whose drawing up they had no part "we certainly won't accept that."

It may be too much to expect international organizations to come up with a mea culpa, but one claiming to be "rules-based" that does not even acknowledge, however indirectly, that some things were done contrary to the rules and should not happen in future, would find it difficult to overcome challenges to its legitimacy. (SUNS4668)

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

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