TWN Info Service on WTO Issues (July 03/13)

22 July 2003

Third World Network

Dear friends and colleagues

NGOs Launch Campaign for Democracy at WTO

Below please find a report of the press conference held on 22 July 2003 in Geneva by a group of ten NGOs to launch a campaign for internal transparency and democractic decision-making in the WTO.

Linked to this campaign is a Memorandum on the topic prepared by the NGOs which has been sent to WTO members and the WTO secretariat.

The article below is by Kanaga Raja, a journalist with the South North Development Monitor (SUNS), which published the article in its issue of 23 July 2003.

With best wishes

Martin Khor


NGOs launch campaign for democracy at WTO

Report for SUNS (South North Development Monitor)

by Kanaga Raja, Geneva 22 July 2003

At a press briefing to launch the NGO compaign for internaal transparency and democratic decision-making at the World Trade Organization, a group of NGOs said that if these reforms are not accepted and put in place before and at Cancun, the outcomes will lose all legitimacy with the public and among members.

Ten NGOs issued a letter and memorandum to the WTO head, and Trade Ministers and Ambassadors of WTO members, calling for reforms to ensure internal transparency and inclusiveness and participation of developing countries in the WTO processes and decision-making.

In their letter and memorandum (SUNS #5389), the NGOs urged the WTO to reform its ‘undemocratic’ decision-making processes as well as address the issue of the lack of internal transparency and participation by developing countries.

At the press briefing by four of the ten international NGOs who launched the campaign, Mr. Martin Khor of the Third World Network and Ms. Shefali Sharma of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said that some of the reforms, including on the procedures and processes could be agreed to and decided this week at the General Council, while others could be agreed upon between now and at Cancun. Sharma and Khor said that a large number of developing countries share the NGO concerns, and have voiced them in the General Council.

If they have been unable to prevail, it is because of the power equations, Sharma said.

There is a lack of political will, charged Ms. Cheline Charveriat of Oxfam International.Some countries liked the informal processes without records, as this enabled them to get their agendas through, and the Quad countries belong to this category, she said.

Khor said that most of the ten NGOs who have launched the campaign have been following the WTO processes closely, and have expressed concern over the lack of a proper decision-making procedure and formulation of papers in the WTO.

Compared to the processes and decisions that have been carried out in the UN organizations on issues that are far more complex than that at the WTO, Khor added, he found that there were many deficiencies in the decision-making processes at the WTO.

The NGOs had focussed particularly on the Ministerial Conferences in the WTO due to the fact that these conferences are extremely crucial where decisions are made that affect people in many areas.

Responding to a question that the ‘consensus’ decision-making, and the reform processes sought by NGOs could mean that the Doha Round could not be concluded within its time-frame, Ms.Sharma said that the WTO had been conceived of as a permanent negotiating forum. But the major powers found they could not havetheir way through this, and hence they have now gone back to a process of ‘Round’. But their desire to have all their agendas completed in a Round within this time, was not feasible, and the development priorities set in Doha must be first met.

Khor warned that unless these reforms are undertaken, particularly before and at Cancun, “we are going to see a continuation of a very unsatisfactory and undemocratic process that will be contributing to outcomes that will not have the legitimacy of the public or of all the members.”

Sharma added that it was not just the NGOs that have come up with reform proposals but also many developing countries such as the Like Minded Group of countries in their proposal of 19 April 2002, which detailed some of the basic building blocks that are required for an inclusive, transparent and democratic decision-making.

Sharma outlined the experiences of Seattle and Doha where in Seattle a text was issued that was full of brackets but the text had divergent views of member states.  What was transmitted to ministers at Doha was a clean text, on the Chair’s own responsibility,  but a text that was not agreed upon in any sense. She questioned the idea of Chairs being able to transmit a ministerial text on their own responsibility given the fact that the WTO was a rules-based member-driven organization.

The WTO General Council Chair, Amb. Carlos Perez del Castillo of Uruguay last week released a ‘skeletal’ operational text of a Cancun ministerial declaration for members to consider. Sharma complained that the WTO members in Geneva essentially have only three weeks, due to a two-week vacation at the WTO next week, to look at the text and come up with their critiques and opinions.

“In the 21 months since Doha we have not come to any agreement on many critical issues facing members like agriculture, industrial products, and services.  Now we have the four- page skeletal text with the entire set of documents in brackets,” Sharma said.

Does the Chair have the authority under the WTO rules to present a text on his own responsibility, she asked, adding that this is a fundamental question, especially now when some delegations are saying that they could not agree to this text even in its skeletal form.

Aileen Kwa of the Bangkok-based NGO Focus on the Global South also asked what kind of picture the Chair was portraying when it brings out an operational text on its own responsibility. “Where are the chips falling, what views are being represented?”

She pointed to another problematic issue in that all the Heads of Delegation (HOD) meetings currently  taking place are informal ones, with no formal records.  Some developing countries have been asking that there be more formal meetings taking place in the General Council.

Asked to comment whether these reform proposals by the NGOs would be able to influence WTO delegations with just a few weeks left before the Cancun ministerial, Khor said that the NGOs wanted to raise the awareness of the public and policymakers in the capitals on these issues.

“The way that reforms can be enforced is that if a sufficient number of countries that are not happy with the process are able to take a stand saying that they would like a different process and are able to communicate this to the chairman of the General Council, to the Chair of the Cancun Ministerial in Mexico and to the general membership. If they can make enough strong positions themselves, this can change,” he said.

Sharma pointed out that two weeks ago some countries met with the General Council Chair to say that they wanted the issue of internal transparency to be addressed.

Sharma added that it was only yesterday that the NGOs found out that there would be a final General Council meeting at the end of August. Previously no meeting had been scheduled for end August, and the WTO’s calendar of meetings had no such indication of a meeting to officially transmit the operational text to Cancun.

This was because some countries in the African Group complained to the Chair that there was a serious problem in that there was no formal process apart from the General Council meeting this week to transmit the text to Cancun.

Trade diplomats said Monday evening that even now they were not sure as to what exactly the GC chair and the DG planned to do at the end of  the 25-26 August General Council meeting.

Sharma said that a group of NGOs had decided to launch a Cancun Democracy Challenge that will have a set of 11 benchmarks that the NGOs think are a fundamental basic necessity for a ministerial conference to have a legitimate outcome.

Asked about the issue of the consensus based system of the WTO and how to make it work and whether it is possible at all to get any agreements at the WTO through this system, Khor said that in the UN system, there were complex agreements achieved because there was a political will and people knew that there was a climate change problem or that the environment was in crisis.  Decisions were reached at the endthrough a decision-making process that was much more transparent and democratic. Through democratic and transparent decision-making, many delegations felt they had ownership of the process.

The WTO should not be any different from the practice of the UN system, he said. Even on the agriculture issue in WTO, he added, if you have a democratic process of decision-making with the political will, you can have both a decision that is sustainable and legitimate as well, Khor remarked.

Celine Charveriat of Oxfam International also pointed to the issue of political will. Some countries like informality in that it would be the way they can  get their agenda through and the Quad countries have been in that category.

It is in the Quad’s interest to retain the current process but “we feel that if you keep pulling on the same tricks over and over in not delivering on meaningful reforms and continuing with that undemocratic process, at some point you will wreck the WTO. “And if there is some failure in Cancun, this will be because of that type of manouvering by the Quad countries,” Charveriat added.