Headlines, North America

TRADE: Developing Countries Assail WTO “Dictatorship”

Abid Aslam

SEATTLE, Dec 3 1999 (IPS) - Trade ministers struggled against a deadline Friday at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference, trying to reach agreement on a new round of talks to reduce global trade barriers.

WTO officials remained tightlipped on the progress of talks to narrow differences on a wide range of issues – particularly farm policy – and refused to make any predictions on the outcome of the conference, due to end at 6:00 pm (0200GMT Saturday).

Secrecy at the talks led one Third World delegate to quip that transparency could be found only in the men’s room, where toilets lacked partitions commonly installed to provide privacy.

His joke reflected seething anger at WTO Director-General Mike Moore and US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, chairwoman of the 135-nation body’s third ministerial conference.

It also came as poor countries launched their first formal backlash against major trading powers’ domination of the Seattle conference.

The WTO talks, which began Tuesday, were aimed at framing the agenda for a new round of global trade negotiations over the next three years. US officials sought to paint the conference as open and democratic but Third World delegates complained they had been shut out of crucial sessions.

“There is no transparency in the proceedings and African countries are being marginalised and generally excluded on issues of vital importance for our peoples and their future,” Ghana’s Minister of Trade and Industry, John Abu, declared on behalf of member states of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Ministers from Latin America and the Caribbean, in a communique, registered their “express disappointment with some procedures…allowing for lack of transparency in the preparation of very important texts.”

Both blocs vowed to pull out of a final agreement unless their concerns – chiefly over participation, labour standards and agricultural subsidies – were addressed.

More than 100 WTO members are developing countries. Their anger came to a boil during round-the-clock negotiations Thursday, prompting WTO chief spokesman Keith Rockwell to advise reporters to “never underestimate the potential for a breakdown.”

Drama notwithstanding, US and WTO officials said last-minute horse-trading began Friday and a sufficiently non-committal text would be agreed, allowing members to begin follow-up negotiations at WTO headquarters in Geneva. Despite the anger in many quarters it was in no delegation’s interest to go home empty-handed, officials said.

Not that there was any shortage of spleen.

Barshefsky riled Third World delegates by saying that, if consensus on draft proposals for a ministerial declaration were not reached, then she would resort to “a more exclusive process to achieve a final outcome.”

This infuriated the poor countries and a number of delegates railed against the US officials “dictatorial tendencies.”

OAU members responded by saying they were “particularly concerned over the intentions made public by authorities to produce a ministerial text at any cost, including the modification of procedures designed to secure participation and consensus.”

Latin American and Caribbean ministers added that, “as long as due respect for the procedures and conditions of transparency, openness and participation that allow for adequately balanced results in respect to the interests of all members do not exist, we will not join the consensus required to meet the objectives of this ministerial conference.”

Delegations had arrived in Seattle with no agreement on the outline of a declaration to be adopted by the close of business Friday. Barshefsky and Moore, hoping to make the negotiations here more efficient, handed responsibility for ironing out differences on specific issues to a series of working groups open to all members.

This provided an unprecedented degree of participation, Barshefsky insisted.

“I can’t believe how a country which is finally included in the process could be unhappy with the transparency of it,” she said. “All countries – all countries – are included in every working group.”

According to chief Caribbean negotiator Shridath Ramphal, however, heads of delegation from Dominica and Suriname were barred from the working group on agriculture.

WTO officials said they were unaware of the incident but Ramphal argued it was another demonstration that the only proceedings effectively open to all members here were the parties.

“All the real business is conducted in closed consultations,” said the former Commonwealth chairman and Guyanese foreign minister.

Access to those sessions, known as “green rooms”, was limited to members invited or endorsed by Barshefsky and Moore. The meetings were held at undisclosed locations and delegates from poor countries complained that it remained unclear which members had been consulted on what.

The United States mounted a major campaign for a comprehensive new round of market-opening agreements following the Seattle talks. The agenda included agriculture, services, government procurement and investment. US negotiators also pushed labour and environmental conditions, which they added under pressure from domestic groups.

Developing countries felt they had been short-changed under existing trade agreements and urged a comprehensive review of these before launching new initiatives. They also opposed adding labour and environment to the WTOs ambit for fear that wealthy countries would use the issues to shield workers at home from foreign competition.

They supported Japanese calls for a review of anti-dumping rules, which the United States was believed to have abused in a bid to protect politically influential business and labour constituencies from competition from cheap imports. US negotiators said they would brook no discussion of the subject.

Poor countries misgivings heightened when the working group chairmen unveiled draft agreements lacking reference to proposals by Third World delegates.

Officials from the South also were stunned by the sudden appointment of an informal working group chaired by Costa Rica and charged with writing a declaration on labour standards. The group, which had not been formed by the conference itself, was quickly dissolved when all developing countries challenged its legality under WTO rules.

This followed a meeting Thursday in which numerous delegates rose to assail the proceedings. “The bangs on the table were so loud that they went around the room and there was applause,” Ramphal said.

Barshefsky emerged from the drubbing she received at that meeting and denied any serious dissatisfaction with her running of the conference.

“I am not aware of that situation so I find it odd that perhaps the delegations might have come to you but not to me or (WTO chief) Mike Moore,” she said in response to a reporter’s question about the earlier meeting.

“What you see here is a reflection of economic clout very broadly,” Rockwell, the WTO spokesman, told IPS. He added, however, that political inequality also was characteristic of the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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