Africa Group conveys views on TNC to Harbinson

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: The Africa Group at the WTO, at a 16 January meeting with the General Council Chairman Stuart Harbinson, would appear to have conveyed to him the group’s view that the Trade Negotiations Committee mandated to supervise the WTO work programme, being an intergovernmental body, should be chaired by a WTO member, a Geneva-based ambassador, and not by the WTO Director-General ex officio, since it would compromise the neutrality of the secretariat in negotiations.

The Africa Group members would also appear to have conveyed their views, widely shared by other developing countries too, on the issues of transparency in the consultation and the TNC reporting periodically to the General Council, and measures including some kind of a drafting group to ensure that the process remains member-driven and is not ‘hijacked’ by the chair.

Harbinson, who has been holding consultations with individual Members and groups of them, on 15 January met also with the representatives of the least developed countries, who have expressed similar views on the intergovernmental nature of the TNC.

The EC Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, in Geneva for the opening of the ACP secretariat’s office here, indicated at a press conference on 16 January that in the EC view there should be some stability and continuity in the work of the TNC, and this could be achieved by having the WTO Director-General as ex officio chair. However, Lamy indicated that this in a sense was an ‘internal’ process and that the issue would have to be decided on a consensus basis. Lamy indicated a preference for the DG, on the ground of stability.

(On another matter, Lamy’s comments at the press conference on the issue of Russian membership of the WTO, in response to a question about WTO Director-General Mike Moore’s recent comment that Russia could be a member within a year, did not provide a flattering view about the ‘stability’ of Moore and his views. Lamy noted that last year, Moore had said Russia’s negotiations and accession could take 10 years and now he was saying it could be within a year.)

At his meeting with the Africa Group, Harbinson would appear to have indicated that so far in his consultations there was one school of thought which held that making the Director-General ex officio TNC chair would provide for continuity and would also ensure the TNC chair gets the cooperation of the WTO secretariat.

Another school of thought favoured the TNC chair to be selected from a Member state, and contends that continuity could be provided by naming a chair and a vice-chair, with the vice-chair taking over automatically from the chair the following year. Entrusting the chairmanship to the DG would result in the secretariat becoming involved in the negotiations when it should not be brought into the negotiations.

The Africa Group would appear to have indicated they could go along with the second school of thought, and that the role of the chair should be spelt out with specific terms of reference.

Harbinson would appear to have indicated that he would hold wider informal consultations. In his view the TNC had been ‘constituted’ by the ministers at the Ministerial Conference, and he would chair the meeting of the TNC set for 28 January. If there was agreement about the chairmanship and the organization, the TNC could proceed on that basis; otherwise there could be discussions at the meeting.

Trade diplomats said there are indications that some of the major trading entities and their trade ministers might be present, but that it would depend on the presence of others. It is not very clear what the ministers would be doing at this time.

Meanwhile, Moore has sent a letter to ambassadors seeking their views on greater ministerial involvement. He has reportedly pointed to some ministers repeatedly visiting Geneva to keep in touch with and be involved in WTO affairs, while others were not. Moore has apparently canvassed the idea of teleconferencing with ministers in capitals! (SUNS5040)