By Chakravarthi Raghavan* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis
GENEVA (IDN | SUNS) – As trade ambassadors in Geneva, having packed their bags are wending their way across half-the-world, and trade ministers from around the globe, gather in Bali for the biennial Ministerial Conference of the WTO from December 3 to 6, the multilateral trading system is once again trying to prove the ‘uncertainty’ principle of quantum theory in physics.
At the same time, the WTO (World Trade Organization) is also trying to prove one constancy in its history (stretching back to the old provisional GATT of 1948 to the present, a definite treaty-based organization, purportedly a rules-based system), namely, as in the Lewis Caroll tale, ‘words shall have the meaning’ attributed to them from time to time.
Just last Tuesday, November 26, after a meeting of the General Council (GC), Director-General, Roberto Azevedo told a press conference, “the process in Geneva is over…. if we had more weeks here we would not do it.”
Earlier, the General Council had, as Azevedo had proposed, taken note of and forwarded to the Ministers at Bali, a package of 10 texts on Trade Facilitation (TF), Agriculture, Cotton, and Development and LDC (Least Developed Country) members, each with a square bracket on top and another at the end, indicating the texts are not agreed.
Azevedo himself in his recommendation told the Council that ‘they are not agreed texts’, but that he would use the texts “simply to brief ministers on the state of play as of now, but not agreed texts for adoption.”
Hardly had the General Council ended, and some key negotiators had already left Geneva to go to Capitals to brief their ministers and on to Bali, the WTO methods of shadow small consultations began.
Even at the GC, Brazil, Chile, Hong Kong China and a few others wanted negotiations to be continued at Bali (contrary to the specific understanding among Members) that Bali would not have a negotiating agenda. The GC did not adopt that suggestion, others, such as South Africa specifically saying No. Brazil itself is known to have called a meeting of the G20 to push ministerial negotiations at Bali, and for key members (Argentina, India, South Africa) to agree to the package.
However, reportedly, Argentina remained firm that without firm commitments and actions to phase out export subsidies (as had been proposed by G20), it could not lift its objections. And some others at the meeting, ruled out negotiations at Bali.
There was also another unannounced meeting, called by the TF facilitator, one where the LDCs (whose coordinator, Nepal, handling these issues all year long, had just left Geneva having been promoted in his career by his home government), had their new acting coordinator, Solomon Islands, who had just taken over, and was told that LDCs could not have another day to assess their position, but must come in that morning itself, for a meeting with the facilitator of the TF talks and the US and EU (described as ‘stake holders’ in some reports), to remove square brackets and clean up and okay the second part of the TF draft concerning treatment of LDCs.
A deal of sorts
Very shortly thereafter a deal of sorts (without any clear commitments from stake holders on financial support for LDCs acting to facilitate trade), was announced. And. the African and ACP coordinators (the ACP coordinator has an advisor, who was formerly an USTR official!), quickly came out with a statement to hail the breakthrough, and ask everyone to ensure a successful Bali outcome.
Not surprisingly, the London pink paper the Financial Times, (only the colour of its newsprint, but very blue and a mouth-piece of sorts for the City financial interests), announced gleefully Friday (November 29) in its reportage under ‘Global insight’, that deal or no deal, the dynamics in the WTO are changing, and traditional ‘north-south’ divisions among members is being eroded. It added with equal glee, that the government of the (former English empire) India is isolated at the WTO, with only South Africa, Zimbabwe, and ALBA countries Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela backing it, and India is no longer speaking for ‘poor countries’.
Within India, as in many other developing countries, thanks to irreversible progress of democratic processes and internet, alternative media and horizontal communication processes, the public have become more alert. Even businesses that once sang the tune of US and EC and their corporations, have become more aware. Just this week India Inc came out strongly in support of the government’s food security moves, and has publicly asked the government to reject the dubious Azevedo ‘peace clause’.
As one Indian official is reported to have commented, ‘the government is more concerned about domestic opinion’, and can’t be isolated from its public, and not too worried by western media painting India as the spoiler.
The outlook for Bali, cutting the propagandist outputs from all sides, is such that a soothsayer, particularly one of the Delphic oracle type could be more successful in predicting the outcome.
Not a negotiating ministerial
As clearly as one can assess the changing dynamic at the moment of writing, Friday (November 29) afternoon, the Geneva preparatory process apparently has failed, and on the face of it, Bali is not to be a negotiating ministerial.
However, some of the contrary messages, and interventions at the GC on Tuesday (November 26), suggest that behind the scenes, there is sustained effort at pushing the WTO processes back to its old discredited ways, a few stitching up some sort of outcome that, on current indications, will be to the disadvantage of developing countries (including the host country and many countries from the South whose coordinators are vociferously calling for a package to be adopted in Bali).
As an alternative scenario, to a successful adoption of package at Bali, some of the scenarios that the trade officials seem to envisage are repetition of post-Montreal mid-term review in Geneva; post-Brussels Arthur Dunkel promoted outcome, a text that he put forward as a package, with any individual part to be opened only after consensus for any change, but in fact parts relating to the US and EU modified by them to suit their mutual interests in November-December 1993 and forced down on others; and the continuing post-Doha secretariat/DG attempts to distort the mandate and convert it from development round to a market access round, market access for the US and EU corporations in developing world (including now, the Azevedo pushed TFA), while developed countries shut more firmly their own markets to developing country exports of goods and services.
Whatever path they take, it is time developing countries stand up for their own rights, and not fall into the same traps as before; and insist that any Geneva process after Bali that the DG wants to facilitate, should be one that sticks to the letter and spirit of the WTO General Council decision of 2002, on how the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) and its bodies, as well as the TNC chairs and vice chairs (and the new term ‘facilitators’) of negotiating bodies, should function in preparing reports or presenting texts.
It is also time for Ministers of developing countries to regain confidence of their own people, by standing up and making clear at Bali (and Geneva thereon), that it is not for developing countries to act and enable the US and EU to gain confidence in the WTO system as an instrument to deliver for them, but it is for the US, EU and secretariats of international organisations to act to regain confidence in them of the developing world and their people.
*Chakravarthi Raghavan, a leading Indian journalist, is Editor Emeritus of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS). He previously held the post of Chief Editor of the Press Trust of India. This article, originally published in the SUNS, is being reproduced with the permission of the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 30, 2013]
GMedia collage: Bali conference Logo and WTO’s Azevedo