WTO takes another hit over lack of credibility and transparency

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

On 13-14 October, some 22 Trade Ministers, apparently chosen by the WTO Director-General Mike Moore from a select list, gathered in Singapore for a meeting which, inter alia, discussed a possible change of venue of the Fourth WTO Ministerial from Doha to Singapore.  (Since then it has been confirmed that the WTO Ministerial will be held in Doha.) The inability of the Director-General and the General Council Chair Stuart Harbinson to provide satisfactory answers about this exclusive meeting, in particular about its status, organisation and proceedings, has seriously damaged the trade body’s credibility and exposed once again its lack of transparency.

THE credibility, transparency and hence legitimacy of the ‘rules-based’ World Trade Organisation received another blow on 16 October, after an informal heads-of-delegation (HOD) meeting, where members were provided with ‘information’ about a 13-14 October meeting of ministers of some 22 countries at Singapore, how it came to be organised and what happened and did not happen there.

The statements and explanations at the HOD meeting by General Council Chair  Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China, WTO Director-General Mike Moore and Singapore ambassador Chak Mun See, and some official statements from Singapore prior to and after the meeting, did not seem to add up. One trade ambassador said official explanations can no longer be relied upon, even by member governments or by their Geneva representatives in reporting back to capitals.

Officially, as of 16 October evening, the WTO’s position was that the Doha venue of the Fourth Ministerial meeting, set by the General Council, remained and that only the General Council could change the venue by consensus at a formal meeting.

Trade officials and many diplomats in private said (and were planning on that basis) that the meeting could not take place at Doha, given the concerns of several trade ministers, including from the US, EU and others, about the overall security situation in that region.

At the same time, there were some doubts and concerns as to whether the venue could be changed to Singapore (as had been reportedly favoured by all but a few of the participants at the 13-14 October Singapore meeting) without more damage to the governments in the region and elsewhere.

Several ambassadors and trade diplomats, particularly from the Arab and other countries in the region, said that if the meeting could not be held in Doha, it should be held in Geneva, where the WTO is headquartered, if necessary at a lower or non-ministerial level. Many others were more concerned about the substance of the meeting.

Confusion worse confounded at ‘information’ meeting

The informal HOD meeting for the afternoon of 16 October had been convened at short notice (that went out on the previous day), and the notice said that this would be an ‘information’ meeting to hear a stock-taking report from the Chairman of the General Council and by the Singapore ambassador.

The meeting was held in one of the smaller committee rooms of the WTO building, and could hardly accommodate all the country representatives and even one aide each, with many having to stand against the walls and attempting to follow the proceedings without the help of interpretation.

The smaller room was apparently chosen, according to some delegations, in the view that many delegations might not attend and it would be easier to reach or build a consensus!

The meeting was ‘informal’ and trade officials did not provide any formal briefing on it. It was an ‘information’ meeting at which the General Council Chair reported on the status of the consultations and the work that remained, while the Singapore ambassador gave a read-out of the situation after the Singapore meeting, the trade officials said.

Chairman Harbinson told the meeting that he would be issuing a revised schedule of meetings and consultations planned in the days ahead, and that he would bring out a revised draft of the Ministerial Declaration at the end of October. He was planning to postpone the formal meeting of the General Council (set for 23 October) to a new date, for forwarding the accession documents of China and Taiwan to the Ministerial meeting.

This would mean that the documents would not satisfy the ‘10-day’ rule, but Harbinson hoped that no one would object on that score.

A number of countries spoke up complaining about the lack of transparency in the Geneva process, and questioned Harbinson about the ‘Singapore process’.

Honduras sought clarifications on the status of the Singapore meeting, while Zimbabwe and a few others questioned the status of the meeting and why it was being given special status by the Singapore ambassador’s being asked to report, while this had not been done for other similar (and more formal) regional meetings, including those of least developed country ministers and of the African trade ministers.

When  Harbinson reportedly said that it was not a WTO meeting, and that some delegations had been invited to Singapore, Moore spoke of other regional meetings that were important too.

However, the Philippines repeated the complaint of Honduras, while Kenya intervened and in effect challenged the Harbinson-Moore responses that it was a meeting organised by Singapore.

The Kenyan ambassador said Kenya and its trade minister had been keen to attend the meeting and that she had approached the Singapore hosts but was informed  that  it  was not organised by them, that they were only providing the facilities and that the WTO secretariat had organised it.

When she had contacted the Director-General’s office, there had been no response.

In an intervention later, Moore would appear to have said that an invitation had been received by him from Singapore, and that he had attended that meeting. He did not appear to have answered or contradicted the Kenyan remark about the WTO handpicking the invitees, though he spoke of the other regional meetings (besides that of the LDCs and the African one) including of the Central American and Caribbean regions, all of which were important, but only if they provided inputs to the WTO General Council process.

Turkey joined those expressing concerns about such meetings, and said meetings like these gave Turkey some misgivings. There was no internal transparency in the WTO. Zimbabwe then raised the question as to why the countries who had hosted and chaired the LDC and African meetings had not been called upon or provided with an opportunity to give information about them.

Morocco, however, had no problems with the Singapore meeting which seemed to have been a useful meeting and had brought together a number of countries, and argued that the question of internal transparency was a false problem in the WTO. The Singapore meeting was an important meeting, but could take no decisions. Cuba supported Zimbabwe. Costa Rica, Guatemala and Chile also had no problems with the Singapore meeting.

The Singapore ambassador, who spoke at some length outlining the views of the participants on the various parts of the draft Ministerial Declaration, according to trade diplomats, did not answer the question about who organised the meeting, ‘selected’ the participants and issued invitations.

[A report out of Singapore on 5 October, which was carried in the WTO’s daily clipping file circulated to delegations on 5/6 October, had quoted a Singapore trade ministry spokesman as saying the list of 22 ‘select trade ministers’ had been drawn up by the WTO Director-General.

[Trade officials would only comment that this was not a statement of the Singapore trade minister, but of a spokesman. Given Singapore’s governance structures, however, it is difficult to believe that the spokesman would have provided information without authority.]

El Salvador took note of the information about the Singapore meeting provided to the HOD and noted that there had been no ‘concrete results’. However, in addition to matters of substance discussed, according to press reports of briefings held at Singapore, including by the Singapore trade minister, there had been a discussion there about changing the venue of the meeting from Doha. This was an important and hot topic, on which a decision could be taken only by the General Council. The Salvadorean ambassador wanted to know about the discussions and outcome in order to be able to report to his government.

Harbinson agreed that only the General Council could formally decide on changing the venue.

The ambassador of Qatar thereupon intervened to say that the Emirate of Qatar was very committed to hosting the Fourth Ministerial meeting, that as hosts the preparations and arrangements for the meeting were going ahead, and that Qatar could assure full security for all the participants.

In the kind of light-hearted remark made to relieve tensions and which passes for humour in the WTO, Morocco would appear to have intervened to praise the facilities at Doha (having just attended the meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference there) and referred to the excellent facilities there for playing golf, with Harbinson admitting that he had played golf there too.

Trade officials could not explain or comment on the fact that while the ministers who were at Singapore had discussed the issue of shifting the venue from Doha to Singapore, with the Singapore government being ready to host a meeting at short notice, no one appeared to have been ready to brief the HOD on 16 October.

All that the WTO spokesman would say on record was that shifting the venue was an issue of substance and all substantive decisions at the WTO must be taken by the General Council and on the basis of consensus.

Reports from out of Doha on 17 October morning said that the government of Qatar was considering the issue (with every indication that the US government was ‘talking’ to Doha and perhaps trying to persuade it to withdraw the host invitation voluntarily), and  would come back and report to the WTO on 18 October.

The earliest that the General Council could meet on the venue issue was thus 19 October.

However, on 17 October evening, a number of African and Asian diplomats, particularly those from Arab countries, were arguing that if the meeting could not be held in Doha, a scaled-down version should be held in Geneva instead of shifting the venue to Singapore.

A number of others however underlined that with the US and EU unwilling to meet at Doha for security reasons in a situation of a ‘war’ being fought in the region, WTO members had to be realistic in shifting the venue.

However, some of the ambassadors said unattributively that given the biased way Singapore had conducted even the 22-member meeting - for example in presenting the Tanzanian minister’s view of the LDCs’ positions and their opposition to negotiations on any of the ‘new issues’, as a plea for a ‘development’ round Đ the Ministerial meeting, with a less controversial agenda, should be held in Geneva.                                            

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS Đ issue no. 4990), of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor