GENEVA, 9 November – The WTO Ministerial convenes this evening with the majority of developing countries deeply unhappy with the process of negotiations leading up to the Doha meeting and dissatisfied with the substantive issues on the agenda. To say the least, the Geneva preparatory process has kicked this ministerial off on the wrong-foot.
Last night (8 November) the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) met and reiterated their position on not accepting any negotiations on new issues. An African delegate said: "We have been polite, patient and diplomatic in communicating our concerns on the proposed negotiations in new areas. It is now time for us to be vocal and ready to say NO with a capital N." (see South Bulletin, Doha Highlight, No. 1, 9 Nov 2001).
The Chairman of the General Council, Stuart Harbinson, and the Director General, Mike Moore transmitted to Doha what many developing country delegations have termed a "one-sided" draft declaration. In the covering note attached to the draft, dated 5 November, two items stand out, if only for their (unintended) irony. Moore and Harbinson state that
"The substantive preparatory process under this mandate was conducted in informal meetings in which we made transparency and inclusiveness a top priority."
To add insult to the injury caused in Geneva, they also claimed in the cover note that
"On the basis of the consultations held from the beginning of the process, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of Members did not wish to repeat the method of preparation followed prior to the Seattle Ministerial Conference. The latter was a process driven by formal proposals which resulted in an unwieldy compendium which could not be refined. Instead, Members clearly preferred a method whereby the Chairman and the Director General would produce, on the basis of consultations, their best approximation of a compromise solution among the differing positions of the membership."
For the majority of developing country members, these statements could not be further from the truth. While both Moore and Harbinson are congratulating themselves for the good work done so far, they have in fact been primarily responsible for stonewalling developing countries, ignoring their positions completely, and forcing through a document that could not be more biased against the interests of developing countries. Unlike the Seattle text, this "clean" text belies disagreement in nearly all areas. The most controversial is that it promises to start multilateral agreements on investment (a la MAI), competition, transparency in government procurement, trade facilitation and industrial tariffs.
The African Group and LDCs have made it patently clear in their preparatory regional meetings, as well as in their many statements here in Geneva, that these new negotiations are not in their interests. However, the EU, the US and their allies purport to know better the interests of these poor countries. In the coming days in Doha, Ministers from developing countries will be cornered, pressured, threatened, strong-armed or bribed into accepting what they know is not going to benefit them. Other national interests will be put on the line (access to certain markets, financial and food aid) and it remains to be seen whether they will be resist the pressures.
DEVELOPING COUNTRIES STONEWALLED IN PREPARATORY PROCESS
When the second draft declaration came out on 27 October, many developing country delegates in Geneva had reacted with shock and frustration. The first draft had already not reflected their positions. Instead of bringing more of their positions on board, the second draft further ignored them. While even the Chairman, Harbinson, had acknowledged that half the Membership were against introducing investment and competition agreements, this second draft removed the square brackets in these sections. The option not to start negotiations was dropped, leaving only text agreeing to the commencement of negotiations by the 5th Ministerial.
Many developing country delegates in Geneva were very angry. Mr Chifamba, the delegate from Zimbabwe (and co-ordinator of the African Group) said that he was "shocked, although not surprised because we have always been marginalised anyway."
Quick to react, Nigeria issued a strongly worded statement to the General Council, (which they asked others to help distribute widely). It said,
"Nigeria finds the revised text released by the Chairman of the General Council unsatisfactory because it is one-sided. The text generally accommodates in total the interests of developed countries while disregarding the concerns of developing and least developed countries. It is empty of contents on the issues of interest of developing countries including issues of Implementation, Special and Differential Treatment (S&D), LDC Issues, Subsidies and Countervailing Measures and TRIPS and Public Health…
"For instance, while not giving much in Implementation that has been on the table since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round Agreements, it pushes vigorously the New Issues in favour of major delegations…The text shows not much regard for our countries. We request the Chairman to indicate alternative views from the developing and least developed countries in order to send a balanced document to Ministers…
"It is rather unfortunate that the Chairman has decided to adopt this non-inclusive attitude by side-tracking the views of the developing and least developed countries. Nigeria considers it a serious omission that the Draft has not projected the crucial differences in our views. This portends that there is no level playground in the WTO if one side only is heard in arguments and on issues that affect all our countries…"
When the General Council convened formally on 31 October, however, Harbinson held firm that he would make no changes to the text, no matter how many delegations protested. In fact, he even pointed out that he did not wish to engage in detailed substantive discussion!
His remarks in the opening of the meeting were as follows:
"These texts clearly do not purport to represent agreed elements in any way at this stage, although we may be closer to agreement in some areas than in others. However, nothing can be considered to be agreed definitively in the absence of agreement overall, and that is a decision that will be for Ministers to take in Doha. As far as the process in Geneva is concerned, it is our judgement that we have taken it as far as we possibly can, and that further consultations will not take us any closer to improving the texts. For the same reasons, and while I clearly do not want to limit the right of delegations to speak, I believe it would not help the process for delegations to engage in a substantive discussion in the General Council at this stage on specific portions of the text.
"The Director General and I do not plan to revise these texts further. We intend to transmit them to Ministers on our own responsibility…"
The deep anger and frustration of delegates was palpable at this final General Council meeting.
Tanzania, representing LDCs said
"… the current Draft falls short of the kind of text we would be comfortable with as it has not sufficiently accommodated our major preoccupations. Certainly, we did not expect all our proposals to be accepted in toto as part of a consensus text, but we did expect our major proposals or reservations to be reflected, even if they were to be put in square brackets or as separate options to be considered. I commend your effort in trying to avoid the kind of text we had for Seattle with so many brackets and options, but at least in that text it was clear what was accepted to the membership and what were the differences which had to be addressed by our Ministers… The Draft text which we now have is seemingly clean but as you have admitted in your introductory remarks and in the cover page, this is not an agreed text in any part at this stage, and this means that even if there are no physical brackets on any part of the text, there certainly are many ‘mental’ brackets to be untied in Doha. In that sense, this text may perhaps be more complex and more difficult for Ministers to use for consensus than if the differences in key areas were made more explicit."
Egypt also expressed their frustration. Pointing out problems with the process, they said
"…transparency, as we have repeated in the many occasions we had to discuss this important issue, is not only a matter of flow of information or expression of a Member’s opinion, as important as these maybe. More crucial, it should guarantee the participation of all Members in the process of decision-making and ensure a sense of ownership by all Members of the final outcome.
"We thought it is important to start with this note because we are deeply astonished that the Revised Draft Declaration issued on the 27th October seems to ignore many of the views and positions expressed by my delegation, as well as – according to our notes – those of many other developing countries." Egypt then went on to say that in fact, the process and agenda so far seems to reflect that only ‘mere lip-service’ is being paid to development concerns.
RULES-BASED BUT THE WATCHWORD IS ‘FLEXIBILITY’
A key concern of many developing countries in the last leg of their fight leading up to Doha had been over the legality of transmitting a draft declaration that did not contain brackets, but which was also not a consensus document. Was it in fact according to the rules in the book for the Chair to transmit "on his own responsibility," a seemingly clean text carrying the General Council stamp?
India, at the 31 October meeting took a strong view about the strategy that had been used to "manufacture" a "clean" text and transmit it to Doha. The Indian delegate said:
"By opting for a text which does not bring out the differences in crucial areas, especially in respect of new issues, you are probably forcing many of us to put the entire text in square brackets.
"Mr. Chairman, I have very serious problems with the suggestion that your text should be transmitted as it is to the Ministers. Such a course of action, we strongly feel will not be appropriate. I do not think it is fair to cause any disadvantage to any Member of the Organisation through a Chairman’s text. WTO is a forum for negotiations. Sometimes, we acquiesce when a Chairman comes out with a text after wide-ranging consultations. Today, we are dealing with a momentous issue, which will have tremendous impact on the commercial, economic and social life of billions of people. This is, therefore, not an ordinary issue. While we appreciate your constraints, I must say that it is not possible for me to acquiesce in a situation where a draft ministerial declaration is transmitted to the Ministers without reflecting concerns and objections from a large number of countries including mine. You will recall, Mr. Chairman, the Seattle text that was transmitted with the consensus of the General Council contained various options relating to various issues in square brackets. I know that it has been a fashion to criticise that text saying that it was unmanageable. However, that text had the merit of not prejudicing anybody’s position. We feel that by opting for a clean text without appropriately reflecting the different positions at least on major issues, we have swung to the other extreme."
The delegate of India went on to suggest that if appropriate revision of the text is not considered possible, then there should be a "clear covering letter as an integral part of the Draft Ministerial Declaration explaining the main differences encountered and options suggested on critical issues during the preparatory process."
At the same meeting, Jamaica, too, was very vocal on the matter of legality and the transmission of such a controversial text. Their ambassador said that "for a rules-based organisation, there was a lot of informality at a crucial stage." He "wondered" at the way in which the rules are put in place. "In other international organisations, procedures are very precise."
Incredibly, when reacting to this comment, WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell said that their research showed that there was a level of "inconsistency" in the procedures about whether the Chair and DG could in fact transmit such a text, but that the watchword was "flexibility" (see SUNS 1 Nov 2001).
‘RULES-BASED’ BUT FINAL DECISIONS BASED ON POWER
As the process came to a close in Geneva last week, and bags were being packed for Doha, delegates from the South were barely able to contain their disappointment, frustration and helplessness. The general sense was that they had over-stretched themselves, participating in all aspects of the substantive negotiations, but that they had been ignored. When it comes to the crunch, it seems that the most important decisions – even in this rules-based organisation – are in fact made based on the playing out of power politics.
A delegate from an African LDC country said "We all know what’s going on, the substantive issues are not the issue now."
Echoing the same sentiment, a Caribbean representative said, "It is not a question of substance. Nobody can say that we have not participated. We have done so, and we have simply been ignored. The text does not take our interests into account. We will not have a third draft, not because we have no time. The text came out on Saturday. By Monday, we sent a letter by 20 developing countries to make changes in implementation. And he (the Chairman, Stuart Harbinson) simply said no. We all know why he said that, because our ministers will have a difficult time."
Voicing concerns about the process of negotiations that will take place in Doha, she continued:
"Nobody will know how he will chose the Chair (of the negotiating groups). Will they be his friends? Who will chair these groups, how many working groups are we going to have? We are in the worst possible situation, and it is a question of politics, not a lack of arguments."
Her concerns seem to be spot-on. As of today, in Doha, six working groups and their Chairs have already been set up, with the majority of Membership not knowing how these groups and Chairs were chosen (see South Bulletin, Doha Highlight-No. 1, 9 Nov 2001).
Behind the ceremony of the Ministerial opening is an intense fight over power. The rich countries are banking on their military, economic and political might to coerce developing countries to an agenda that would benefit their corporate interests. Developing countries have power in numbers and in moral authority– since they are the ones the rich claim to speak for– and, unfortunately, the searing legacy of the Uruguay Round Agreements which is still wreaking havoc in their countries.
* Aileen Kwa is a policy analyst with Focus on the global South. She is based in Geneva.