by Abid Aslam

Washington, 17 Nov 99 (IPS) -- Frank Loy's hopes of selling the benefits of global free trade to a gathering of US grassroots organisations dimmed the moment he saw one particular protester in the front row.

Loy, the US Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, recalled that the man caught his attention by waving a placard emblazoned with a Nazi swastika and the words "WTO Equals Fascism."

"I knew right then that the debate wasn't going to be what I had hoped," Loy said ruefully.

The veteran lawyer encountered the protester in Seattle at a recent 'town meeting' on the (WTO), part of a government charm offensive ahead of the international body's meeting there from Nov 30-Dec 3.

Loy regrets the hostility toward the WTO in the city that will host the organisation's 134 member states during their new round of global trade negotiations.

He did not blame protesters, however, but rather the trade body itself. "The WTO has made a huge mistake by holding NGOs (non-governmental organisations) at arms length," he said.

Environment, labour and human rights groups have blasted the WTO as elitist and opaque. "That's a proposition with which I agree to a substantial extent," declared Loy.

Nevertheless, critics opined that the US administration has opened space for civil society groups only grudgingly - despite its many protestations of willingness to hear their views.

Environmentalists had to take the government to court to win representation on the official US delegation to Seattle and labour groups have succeeded in extracting only an offer to set up a working group of WTO members to study the ways in which trade and labour issues intersect.

Such concessions have done little to smooth fears that the WTO has become an "invisible government," in the words of a new report from the non-governmental International Forum on Globalisation (IFG).

With less than two weeks remaining before the Seattle talks, many NGOs - and a growing number of national delegations, mainly from developing countries - maintain preparations for the meeting highlight the need for a democratic overhaul of the way the global trade body does business.

The WTO has "the three primary characteristics of governments: executive, legislative and judicial authority," according to the IFG.

The WTO wields executive power over 20 separate international agreements; legislative power because it can strike down local laws deemed to be at odds with global free trade; and judicial power through its Dispute Settlement Body - which holds secret hearings and issues binding rulings.

As it stands, the WTO is "reducing world affairs to wheeling and dealing," said Vandana Shiva, director of the India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy and a critic of agricultural liberalisation.

"WTO rules are supposed to be 'one country, one vote' but in practice few things come to a vote and the membership is led to so-called consensus positions heavily dominated by the North," added Jerry Mander, president of IFG, which is sponsoring anti-WTO events planned for Seattle.

Martin Khor, president of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, exhorts the WTO to "stop rushing through proposals" that affect people in member states.

"Rather, they should make them all public and subject to parliamentary and civil-society input, then submit them to open votes instead of manufacturing consensus," he opined.

This would help to curb the ability of the United States and other leading members to "bully things through the consensus process," said John Cavanagh, director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

The WTO also should follow the lead of United Nations agencies such as the International Labour Organisation and set a formal place at the table for civil society groups, added Cavanagh, a former UN economist.

Amid the clamour for increased transparency and participation, WTO Director-General Mike Moore drew fire from NGOs and officials for reviving exclusionary traditions prevalent during trade talks under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO predecessor set up in the wake of World War II.

One of these is use of the 'green room' - a GATT-era procedure under which 15 to 20 member states hand-picked by the WTO chief meet in closed session to promulgate positions which the larger membership then is invited to endorse.

Moore has chaired a number of these sessions, aimed at piecing together the final declaration to be adopted at Seattle. His predecessor, Renato Ruggiero, pledged to abandon the divisive meetings after searing complaints from developing-country officials.

The latest 'green room' consultations "have not been officially mandated by the (WTO) General Council (or full membership) and those not invited - the majority - are not informed of what meetings are going on, when or where, or what is being discussed and who has proposed what language," Khor said.

Moore, confronted by Third World delegates' allegations that he had hijacked the Seattle preparatory process, last week assured members that "there should be no doubt about the importance both you and I attach to the transparency and to the primacy of the General Council in all our work."

He added that "it is inconceivable that progress can be made without a wide variety of consultations among delegations. ...But it should be clear that nothing is agreed until it is agreed by the membership as a whole, and consensus means all voices must be heard."

In Seattle, many voices will be shouting from the street, Under- Secretary Loy observed, "But that's what you get when you keep people out, not when you let them in." (SUNS4554)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS).