LMG calls for principles and procedures for WTO Ministerial Conferences

A group of developing countries has proposed some basic principles and procedures to guide the conduct of WTO Ministerial Conferences and the preparatory process leading up to the meetings. Aimed at instilling transparency and inclusiveness in the workings of the WTO’s highest body, the suggested guidelines could prevent a recurrence of the underhand tactics that marred the last Ministerial in Doha.

GENEVA: The General Council of the World Trade Organization has been asked by a group of developing countries, members of the Like-Minded Group (LMG), to agree on basic principles and procedures to govern the preparatory process and the conduct of the Ministerial Conferences of the WTO, so as to ensure that they are transparent, inclusive and predictable.

The proposed principles and procedures will end the kind of shenanigans and abuse of procedures staged at the 4th Ministerial Conference held in Doha last year. That conference started with the adoption of its agenda at the ceremonial opening session, saw the use of named and unnamed “facilitators” to create an artificial consensus on the Ministerial Declaration and work programme, and ended with consultations among a small number of invited delegations (the so-called “Green Room” meeting), in which the ministers present were asked to agree to formulations and drafts on new issues that were only brought up there at the last moment.

The LMG proposal, in the form of a communication, was tabled by India on behalf of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The LMG members have suggested that Ministerial Conferences should be held in Geneva (where the WTO is headquartered) rather than in other countries, which increases the costs for members of participation, apart from the inconveniences caused. The WTO membership, it is proposed, should also review the evolving tendency of holding the Ministerial Conference with a primary focus on launching or reviewing negotiations.

The proposed principles and procedures are so basic to any intergovernmental and international organization that the very fact that delegations have now to formally propose putting these into place is perhaps the best commentary on the state of the WTO.

Doha debacle

In the run-up to the Doha conference, the then Chairman of the General Council Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China and the WTO Director-General Mike Moore had announced that they would send their drafts of the Ministerial Declaration and other drafts (for the consideration of and adoption by ministers at the conference) directly to the Ministerial Conference, and claimed they could do so under their own authority.

At a press briefing, when asked to cite the particular rule of the “rules-based” WTO that provided such an authority, the WTO’s chief spokesman Keith Rockwell could not cite any rule, but had said that the WTO secretariat’s research showed there was “a degree of inconsistency” in the procedures about the right of the Chair and the Director-General to act thus and that “flexibility” was the watchword.

At Doha itself, at the ceremonial opening session, when the Emir of Qatar was in the Chair opening the conference, the conference agenda was placed before the session and declared adopted (at the time of adoption, several delegations said they had not even been provided a copy of the draft agenda), and Harbinson and Moore were also enabled to table their drafts. The ceremonial nature of the meeting made it impossible for any of the delegates to challenge the Emir, as the head of the host country, and the procedure.

Later at the first plenary meeting of heads of delegation, when India and other ministers raised their flags to challenge the procedures adopted, the chair of the conference, the Trade Minister of Qatar, whose attention was drawn by Moore (sitting by his side) to the ministers wishing to be recognized, replied, “We don’t give them the time”.

Guiding elements

In their joint communication, the 15 LMG countries said that since 1995, four Ministerial Conferences had been held and the procedures adopted both at the preparatory process in Geneva and at the Ministerial Conference itself had been different.

They added: “This uncertainty in the process makes it difficult for many members to prepare themselves for the Conference. Some basic principles and procedures for this Member-driven organization need to be agreed upon, so that both the preparatory process and the conduct of the Ministerial Conference are transparent, inclusive and predictable.”

In the preparatory process at Geneva, the countries said, the aim should be to finalize the agenda for the Ministerial Conference and a broad work programme resulting from the agenda, to be proposed for the consideration of the conference. The Geneva process should aim at finalizing a draft Ministerial Declaration, reflecting the priorities and interests of the entire membership.

As guiding elements for the preparatory process, the LMG members proposed that:

*  all consultations should be transparent and open-ended, and the preparatory process conducted under the close supervision of the General Council. Any consultations or meetings held outside this process are not to be part of the formal preparatory process, and any negotiating procedures to be adopted should be approved by members by consensus at formal meetings.

*  the draft agenda should be drawn up only after members have been given an opportunity to express their views, and once the agenda and parameters are agreed upon, changes may be permitted only if so decided by the entire membership.

* there should be frequent formal meetings of the General Council to take stock of the progress in the preparatory work and ministers should be drawn up of such meetings.

This would help members which have no delegations at Geneva and give an indication of the status of work to capital-based officials. And given the difficulties of non-Geneva-based members in sending representatives for such meetings, a formal meeting of the General Council should be scheduled just before or after the Geneva week, for such delegations.

*  there should be sufficient time for delegations to consider documents to facilitate proper consideration by and consultation with capitals.

*  the language of the draft Ministerial Declaration should be clear and unambiguous, and the draft should be based on consensus. Where this is not possible, the differences should be fully and appropriately reflected in the draft, either through listing the various options suggested by members or through the chairperson reflecting the different positions on issues.

“If the majority of the membership has strong opposition to the inclusion of any issue in the draft Ministerial Declaration, then such an issue should not be included in the draft declaration.”

*  the work on the declaration should be completed in Geneva to the maximum extent possible. Only those issues listed as options or where the chairperson has reflected different positions should be left for the ministers to deliberate and decide at the Ministerial Conference.

*  “A draft Ministerial Declaration can only be forwarded to the Ministerial Conference by the General Council upon consensus to do so.”

*  In the preparatory process for the Ministerial Conference, the Director-General and the WTO secretariat “should remain impartial” on the specific issues being considered in the Ministerial Declaration.

*  Sectoral work by working groups is an effective way for expediting resolution of pending issues.  The number, structure and chairpersons/facilitators for such working groups should be decided by the General Council in Geneva, in advance of the Ministerial Conference, through consultations among all members.

Proposals for Ministerial process

In terms of the process at the Ministerial Conference, the LMG proposed that:

*  the agenda for the conference should  not be  adopted at  the  ceremonial opening session, but at the first formal plenary session immediately thereafter.

*  a Committee of the Whole (COW) should be established at all Ministerial Conferences and this Committee should be the main forum for decision-making, and all meetings of the COW should be formal.

*  the chairpersons including facilitators who would conduct consultations and meetings on specific subjects at the Ministerial Conference should be identified by consensus in the preparatory process in Geneva through consultations among all members, and such persons should hail from members that do not have a direct interest in the subject assigned for consultations.

*  the consultations by the chairperson/facilitator should be at open-ended meetings only. The chairperson/facilitator could convene meetings of proponents and opponents on the subject assigned, and any other interested member should be free to join such meetings. The schedule of each meeting shall be announced at least a few hours before the meeting.

*  consultations should be transparent and inclusive and all members should be given equal opportunity to express their views. Chairpersons/facilitators should report to the COW periodically and in a substantive way.

*  all negotiating texts and draft decisions should be introduced only in open-ended meetings.

*  late-night meetings and marathon negotiating sessions should be avoided.

*  the language of the declaration should be clear and unambiguous. All drafts shall be considered and finalized in a drafting committee to be appointed for that purpose by all members, and the membership should be open to all members.

*  the secretariat and the Director-General of the WTO as well as all chairpersons/facilitators should assume a neutral/impartial and objective role, and they shall not express views explicitly or otherwise on specific issues being discussed in the Ministerial Conference. Specific rules to conduct the work of the chairs and vice-chairs of the Ministerial Conference should be elaborated.

*  discussions at the Ministerial Conference on the draft Ministerial Declaration should focus on issues not agreed upon in the Geneva process and various alternate texts developed at Geneva.

*  any new draft on specific issues should be circulated to all members well in advance so that members have sufficient time to consider them. To ensure transparency in the negotiating process, any draft on specific issues should clearly indicate the member or members suggesting the draft.

*  the duration of the Ministerial Conferences should be in accordance with the schedule agreed upon in Geneva, as many delegations make their travel and accommodation arrangements accordingly. If an extension is required, it shall be formally approved through consensus.

(The Doha Ministerial was extended by the chair without any formal decision of the conference, and the convening of the final plenary was put off for a time - after the departure of the Qatar Airways special flights that brought several of the ministers, including from the least developed countries, to Doha for the conference.)

*           in various meetings, formal as well as informal, during the Ministerial Conference, arrangements should be made for ministers to be accompanied by at least two officers. It is the right of any member to designate its representative, and in this connection the head of delegation has the discretion to mandate his/her officials to speak on his/her behalf.

(At Doha in the “Green Room” meeting, some of the African ministers who were allowed to attend (after their protests) were told they could not bring even their ambassadors as advisors to sit with them, even though some of the leading countries had two or three advisors inside and a host of lawyers and others just outside to enable consultations.)

The issue of the venue of Ministerial Conferences, the LMG pointed out, had been discussed during the Uruguay Round itself, when it was felt that the conferences should be held in the WTO itself. Apart from convenience, this would result in savings in costs and effort.

“Many developing countries find it prohibitively expensive to participate in the Conference,” the LMG said, adding: “There could be a case for having all the future Ministerial Conferences after Mexico in Geneva itself.” (The next Ministerial Conference will be held in September 2003 in Cancun, Mexico.)

The LMG also said that since Ministerial Conferences are to be held at least once every two years, and in terms of paragraph 1 of Article IV of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO, “it is strongly recommended that Members review the evolving tendency of holding Ministerial Conferences that are primarily focussed on the launching or review of negotiations.” (SUNS5117)  

From TWE No. 280 (1-15 May 2002)