Transparency of WTO decision-making ducked

Geneva, 17 July -- The demand voiced by many developing countries at Singapore at the final informal plenary of heads of delegations for "transparency" among members of decision-making within the WTO appears to be ending up as how to provide information about WTO activities to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

At Singapore, many developing country delegations and their ministers felt completely frustrated by the informal consultation processes among a relatively small number of delegations on issues that were of priority interest to the developed world -- information technology (with the side negotiations between US and EC for sectoral zero-tariff negotiations on spirits and a few other items), efforts to get new issues on the WTO agenda such as investment, competition, 'trade-linked labour standards' and environment negotiations.

The major agenda before that first meeting, "implementation of the Marrakesh agreement" figured only in speeches of ministers to near-empty plenary halls, and the initial attempts of the WTO leadership that the subject had been covered in the plenary met with some outraged comments from the media and non-governmental organizations of the developing world. The Southern NGOs in particular sharply brought up, and convinced many of the development NGOs of the North, that a priority objective should be to demand that the WTO processes (of discussion and consideration of issues) and decision-making should be made fully transparent to their own governments and delegations, and civil society should be able to know about these matters and take the issues before their own public and government before commitments are made at the WTO.

At the final press conference, WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero agreed that this was a problem, and promised (as part of the celebration of the t anniversary of the multilateral trading system) to work to bring about "transparency with efficiency" inside the system.

His initial efforts to start the "transparency" process among delegations, through regular "informal heads of delegations" meetings, quickly was brought to a halt - caught up in differences over the role of the Director-General and the secretariat within the WTO treaty and that of the official WTO bodies (starting with the General Council).
The US and other majors who preferred the non-transparent processes of setting the negotiating agendas of the WTO and decision-making -- beginning with bilateral US-EC talks, talks among the Quad (Canada, EC, Japan and US), and then an amorphous circle of other delegations, the socalled "invisibles", and discussions over lunches and dinners, with the formal meetings no more than a 'recording' exercise for decisions already taken -- did not want anything else to come in the way.

And some of the developing country delegations (who anyhow could not be ignored in any decision-making process, since they could say 'no'), were also somewhat chary of the role of the DG and secretariat -- more so when at one of the informal meetings (after Singapore), the Director-General would appear to have made the comment that no issue (new or on WTO agenda) could be excluded from the discussions.

But with key developing country delegations suspicious of a secretariat's role in pushing the new issues on the WTO agenda, and the way studies were prepared and issued, they too wanted to keep the process under their control, and that of the WTO bodies, noting that the WTO treaty (unlike the UN Charter or charters of specialised agencies) limited the role of the secretariat.

And the United States, trying to 'cater' to its 'environmental lobby', and more so of that section which tried to preserve the "quality" of life through environmental protection actions, including through unilateral trade restrictions, began pushing for allowing NGOs to participate in some (but not negotiating or decision-making meetings) and present briefs to dispute panels, and to make some documents and reports public.
At the Geneva Ministerial meeting, where the public demonstrations from citizens groups became confrontational, while the groups made clear that their opposition was to the "neo-liberal" trade system, the US used it to bring up the NGO participation issue. The Director-General also floated the idea of an NGO forum with which he and WTO officials could meet regularly and exchange views.

This idea was taken up by a section of Northern NGOs, but the proposal was shot down by several others - who said the fundamental issue remained "transparency" of decision-making, beginning with transparency of the WTO processes to their own governments.

But one of the groups, the ICTSD (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development), an umbrella centre set up as a result of an initiative of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), after a "consultation" process, has presented a memorandum to the General Council chairman -- "civil society statement on openness, transparency and access to documents in the WTO".

Signed by 96 groups out of 302 who were 'consulted', this called on the General Council (in the review of document derestriction) for derestricting and making available to NGOs and public agendas, issue papers/documents, notes and minutes of meetings of WTO Council and subordinate bodies, position taken on items by WTO members, as well as other relevant documents except for "strict negotiating texts". These also called mechanisms to make available to WTO members inputs from NGOs in terms of background documents NGOs request to be distributed, and for NGOs "with relevant knowledge" to be invited to make submissions as experts before dispute panels.
Many of the 302 groups consulted, but had not signed on as of 10 July, included several prominent and leading NGOs of the South and of the North too - who were not opposed to derestriction and publication, but felt this did not meet the real issue of the secrecy and non-transparency of the WTO system, and its functioning in the interests of the majors and their corporations.

But a number of developing country delegations drew a distinction between 'internal transparency' or the WTO obligations of "transparency" among members, and 'transparency' to the outside world and need to keep civil society informed, and said that the WTO being an intergovernmental organization of members with contractual rights and obligations, the members were there to negotiate with other members, and not with "civil society" as such, and that it was the responsible of each government to take steps to inform its civil society and discuss with them and generally promote acceptance of what has been agreed to at the WTO. (SUNS - Chakravarthi Raghavan)