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Speaking Out in Defence of UNCTAD

GENEVA, Apr 12 2012 (IPS) - The reason the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is under attack is that rich countries do not want an organisation that carries out independent analysis, Rubens Ricupero, UNCTAD secretary general from 1995 to 2004, told IPS.

 Credit: UNCTAD

Credit: UNCTAD

In recent weeks UNCTAD has come under fire from powerful industrialised countries that wish to modify its mandate, which since its creation in 1964 has been the defence of the interests of poor nations.

According to officials in countries of the global South, the nations of the industrialised North see the agency’s advice on finances, the environment, food security, intellectual property and development as running counter to their own free market and free trade agenda.

Around 50 former senior UNCTAD staff members, including Ricupero, issued a statement Wednesday Apr. 11 in Geneva at a meeting with five journalists, including IPS, denouncing efforts to silence the United Nations agency.

Turkish researcher Yilmaz Akyuz, one of the signatories of the statement titled “Silencing the message or the messenger … or both?”, attributed the attempt to gag UNCTAD to leading countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), known as the “rich nations club”.

The endeavour to stifle UNCTAD is happening just when a broadly participative debate on the governance of international finance and of the entire world economy is desperately needed, said Akyuz, a former chief economist at UNCTAD and now chief economist at the South Centre, an organisation of developing countries based in Geneva.

The collective statement says that UNCTAD’s analyses of global macroeconomic issues with a development perspective have for years “provided an alternative view to that offered by the World Bank and the IMF controlled by the West.”

UNCTAD was “ahead of the curve in its warnings of how global finance was trumping the real economy”: it forecast the 1994-1995 Mexican crisis, the East Asian crisis of 1997 and the late 2001 financial and economic collapse in Argentina, the document says.

“No organisation correctly foresaw the current crisis, and no organisation has a magic wand to deal with present difficulties,” the communiqué says. “But it is unquestionable that the crisis originated in and is widespread among the countries that now wish to stifle debate about global economic policies, despite their own manifest failings in this area.”

John Burley, who worked for UNCTAD for 17 years in senior positions, and who coordinated the letter, said the attack by rich countries is aimed at important principles, such as the plurality of viewpoints in the international system, and freedom of speech in the organisation.

The attack, which will be debated at the 13th session of UNCTAD to be held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, Apr. 21-26, is not the first onslaught the organisation has had to contend with, said Burley.

Ricupero’s experience is illustrative. “When I arrived at UNCTAD in 1995 there was already a conspiracy afoot by ‘the usual suspects,’ the rich countries – not to change the mandate as they want to now, but to simply suppress the organisation they have never accepted since its inception,” he told IPS in an interview Tuesday Apr. 10.

The pretext then was the creation, a few months earlier, of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which supposedly would make UNCTAD superfluous.

“A clear indication of what I am saying is that the post of secretary general had been left vacant for nearly a year, something that had never happened before and has never happened since,” he said.

That threat was overcome by means of a vigorous reaction that “we launched with the backing of many developing countries,” Ricupero said.

The Brazilian politician and diplomat particularly mentioned the support from South Africa, which was then at the height of its international prestige under the presidency of Nelson Mandela (1994-1999).

The holding of the 9th session of UNCTAD in the northern South African city of Midrand in 1996 thwarted the conspiracy for a time, Ricupero said.

But the attacks were repeated later under a different guise, nearly always with the goal of limiting the agency’s mandate, he said.

“It is an open secret that over the past few decades, UNCTAD was deprived of the opportunity to work on areas that had been its original raison d’être, like commodities,” said Ricupero.

The pretexts for the rich countries’ attacks have varied over time, he said. They tend to be dressed up in false arguments such as the inefficiency of the secretariat, or the duplication of efforts with other organisations.

But in Ricupero’s view, the true motive is very different. “The rich countries don’t like an organisation that is outside their control, and has the capacity for independent analysis, giving advice to African countries, for instance, against the neocolonialist intentions of France and of European countries in general,” he said.

“The more the facts prove UNCTAD right in its forecasts, about the risks of finance-driven globalisation, for example, the more those who side with the powers responsible for the lamentable state of anarchy of the international monetary and financial system will try to silence it,” he said.

Against this continuing danger, there is only one weapon, “unity and vigorous reaction from developing countries,” he said.

Unfortunately, every time the rich countries have succeeded in cutting back UNCTAD’s powers, it has mainly been due to “the relative lack of interest, or qualifications, or the inefficiency, or lack of courage” of those who should be the first to defend “the organisation that exists to serve the world’s defenceless poor,” he concluded.

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