WTO coup for a new round or aborted putsch?

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 22 Oct 2001 - The World Trade Organization Director-General Mike Moore, who went to Doha over the weekend to mend fences with the Emirate of Qatar, is reported as having said at Doha that the 4th Ministerial is being held at Doha!

On Monday, the WTO press office said that, after two days of meetings with Qatari officials in Doha on plans for holding the WTO’s 4th Ministerial Conference in Doha from 9-13 November, Mike Moore issued a statement at Doha, to the effect: “We are going ahead. I am confident with the planning and preparations. If something seismic or catastrophic happens we will reconsider.  But we are planning to come here to Doha in just over two weeks time.”

Though it is being made to appear otherwise, it seems clear that this outcome of the meeting at Doha is entirely due to the very strong support and understanding provided as requested to the Emirate by the developing countries at the WTO, and the statement Friday in New York, by the G-77 Chair, Amb. Bagher Asadi of Iran, on behalf of the Group that it “expressed full support for the State of Qatar to host the Ministerial Meeting in Doha.”

Several Arab and Third World diplomats privately hope that Qatar would show equal understanding for the developing countries, and not allow the WTO secretariat or the big powers to use Qatar’s chairmanship of the conference and take a partisan role (as is now becoming clearer had been the intention in trying to shift the venue to Singapore, citing security, and using Singapore’s chairmanship, as in 1996, to push through their agendas.

Over the weekend - after the attempts to shift the venue of the meeting to Singapore blew up in their faces (the WTO and the Quad, led by the US and EC, and Singapore), Moore made a hurried trip to Doha, as the pro-WTO Financial Times has put it “to head off a threatened diplomatic confrontation over the proposal to shift the meeting to Singapore.”

As trade diplomats and observers see it, the US, EC and the WTO head have been dragged (short of screaming and kicking) to Doha - with all their security concerns overnight vanishing - doing considerable damage to the credibility of the three, which will not be easily changed despite the propagandist presentation of this from Shanghai (again by the FT) as a powerful message of backing by the US for the Doha summit.

The Shanghai report of the FT (citing conversations between the Emir and US Vice-President Dick Cheney that the US ‘intended to send a strong official delegation to Doha, unless security in the region deteriorated seriously’), still seems to have an escape clause.

The Chairman of the General Council, Mr. Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China, is due to hold further consultations at the Heads of Delegation level over the next few days on the paragraphs of his draft declaration that have not been discussed so far.

He has indicated that a revised draft declaration and a revised draft decision on implementation would be produced this week, and that a meeting of the General Council would be held on 31 October where delegations could give their views.

Both Harbinson and the WTO Director-General have left little doubt last week, after the limited meeting at Singapore, in talks with some delegations who have met them that they intend to present a ‘clean text’ to the Ministerial meeting and that any differences would have to be raised and dealt with at Ministerial level, and that the draft itself would not any where indicate any alternatives.

This would set the stage for the US-EU determination to push through a new trade round as part of the George W Bush ‘global coalition’ in the ‘war against terrorism’.

However, some developments not expected by the leadership, in their arrogance of power, have, so to say thrown ‘some sand, Doha desert sand, into the gearbox of the juggernaut,’ that whatever the immediate outcome, would negatively impact both on the ‘global coalition’ in the ‘war’ and the trading system.

What is now emerging as a kind of unsavoury manipulation to shift the venue of the 4th ministerial from Doha and locate it at Singapore, and use its ‘clever’ trade minister to manipulate an outcome, as was done in 1996, is now unravelling and those responsible are sticking out like a sore thumb at the WTO.

The Emirate of Qatar - which has been insulted, and felt that it has been treated unfairly, (in private several others say it has been dealt with duplicitously and contemptuously), and with less than the frankness and courtesy due to any member country from the WTO head, more so when in 1999-2000 it was the only country that came forward offering to host the ministerial (while WTO’s host country, Switzerland, was trying to avoid such a possibility), and spend the money for it.

Qatar has received not only the political support of a large number of developing countries at the WTO, but officially by the Group of 77 and China at the UN General Assembly.

And hopefully, in turn Qatar will appreciate this solidarity, and if the meeting is held there, as the Chair of that meeting, the Qatar minister would function as any Chair should, with total impartiality and not allow the secretariat or the majors to manipulate an outcome.

Over the last week or more, particularly after the Singapore meeting (13-14 October), the US and EU are making strenuous efforts to cow down opposition to a new round with new issues, and bribe others in an attempt to isolate the opposition of one or two like India, and still launch a new round of negotiations with new issues.

The US has called in the African countries to whom its AGOA benefits could be provided for a meeting in Washington - AGOA envisages a yearly assessment by Washington of the recipient’s eligibility to a range of conditions. The EU too is calling a similar meeting of its ACP beneficiaries.

On the heels of the EU’s announcement of GSP concessions in textiles etc to Pakistan, purportedly for its support to the war against the Taliban (but in return for which Pakistan is expected to moderate or support some compromises to enable a new round), the US is similarly sending a team to Pakistan.

Similar tactics are also afoot elsewhere.

While all these are being used to pressure like India (who have taken a public stand), by using ‘domestic lobbies’ including former trade officials and neo-liberal think tanks about the ‘isolation’ and need for compromise to get some trade benefits.

However, in the context of the overall political picture, this may accentuate problems of countries like India, and make compromises more difficult, given the emotive global issues.

In the consultations Friday at level of Heads of Delegation, General Council Chair Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China, while setting out his intended programme and schedule of work this week, appears to have made some concluding remarks that he would produce a new draft that would not be a compendium of proposals, but represent his best judgement of what would command a consensus.

However, the Nigerian ambassador is reported to have taken the floor to suggest that Harbinson should not send any draft to the Ministers, without the General Council consensus, and that he should at least to indicate in his text, by putting square brackets around paragraphs or parts of paragraph in the draft on which there was no consensus, but in fact opposition, either in the informal HOD meetings so far or that would be brought out by delegations at the 31 October General Council.

Harbinson, according to some participants did not react, while others got the impression he would indicate the differences - though he might merely do so in a covering letter of sorts that may or may not figure in the agenda (depending on how the chairman of the meeting deals with it or is ‘advised’ by the secretariat).

The consultations over the next few days, and the frankness with which countries let him know their objections and stands may influence how far Harbinson might be willing to play the game of the majors and the secretariat.

It is always possible that the rule-based WTO could function in a more rule-less way than at Seattle, but unless the General Council gives the Chair express authorization to present a text to the ministerial on his own authority, such a document cannot clearly make its way on to the agenda of the Ministerial, and more so when the 10-day notice period would have elapsed.. The China accession documents is quite another story - since it has been before the members, at the Working Party and its report, and has been only held up at the Council acting as a post-office.

The contours of such a consensus would appear to be formulations in various areas on the lines of what the two majors have agreed upon and seem determined to push through, and was sought to be presented as a near consensus at Singapore meeting (13-14 October).

However, that meeting (its organization and invitees and non-invitees), and efforts there to suggest that Singapore could host a ‘scaled-down’ version of the ministerial, to act as a ‘spare tyre’ at the request of Moore to which Singapore agreed, as the Singapore minister described it at Shanghai, appear to be still reverberating.

On Monday afternoon Harbinson has convened consultations and this is expected to include among others the final paragraphs, 36-42, of his draft - Job(01)/140 - dealing with the organization and management of the work programme - running the new round of negotiations through a Trade Negotiations Committee, enabling the modifications of the agenda and programme of negotiations as one went along, through ministerial meetings, and running the negotiations as a single-undertaking etc.

It is not very clear whether he would also put forward at that time, revised formulations on investment and competition policy, on the lines of various ideas that the EC has been floating, but one that is confusing others to the point that some begin to wonder whether it could not be a compromise they could live with.

If Harbinson puts forward such an compromise formulation (for his two existing alternatives on investment and competition), it is not clear what the reaction of those opposing new issues (including government procurement and trade facilitation) would be.

However, the attempts to present these as a small minority, may turn out to be as misleading as the assumptions here and at Seattle, until the afternoon of the last day, when the ability of a small group to force down their compromises on the majority proved to be less than was thought and resulted in the collapse of that meeting. – SUNS4993

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

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