GENEVA -- The WTO meetings in Qatar, November 9-13th, open against an explosive and extremely dangerous backdrop. Developing countries at the Doha Ministerial Conference are under intense pressure from the WTO Secretariat and the major powers, (particularly the US and EU), to accept a new round of trade negotiations. The centerpiece of such negotiations would be new agreements in several critical (but inappropriate) areas including: investment, competition, government procurement and trade facilitation.
The last round of WTO talks in Seattle collapsed suddenly in almost total chaos, like a house of cards. No new round was agreed up, there was no Seattle Declaration, not even a brief statement outlining follow up to the meeting. As trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights activists, students and many others protested in the streets there were also battles raging inside the conference center between delegates from Northern and Southern countries. A basic cause of the Seattle debacle was the non-transparent and undemocratic nature of the WTO, the blatant manipulation of the organization by the major powers and the refusal of many developing countries to continue to be on the receiving end.
If the past few weeks are any indication, things have only gotten worse since the Seattle Round two years ago. WTO officials and representatives of the US and EU have subjected the rest of the organization to incredibly manipulative practices, including the last minute distribution of a biased, one-sided draft Declaration, (prepared by the Chairman of the General Council with the assistance of the WTO Director-General), favoring the major countries and ignoring the views of most developing countries. This left only a few days for delegates to read and respond to the draft before the one and only General Council meeting to debate and decide on the draft Declaration and three other documents. What's more, the Chairman of the General Council refused to include opposing views of many developing countries in the text or in an annex.
There are also indications that the WTO Secretariat and the major developed countries will, once again, attempt to have a non-transparent and exclusive process in Doha, with "Green Room" meetings of a handful of pre-selected countries to work out wording on specific issues, which will then be put to all Members to accept --- a repeat of the process in Seattle that caused such an uproar and led to that meeting's collapse. However, the Qatar leaders hosting the event have stated they would now allow a repeat of the non-transparent and undemocratic Seattle process. Officials from developing countries and NGOs hope that this pledge will be met, but fear that the major countries and the Secretariat will muscle their way into conducting the meeting using the usual "Green Room" and other backroom techniques.
The developing countries have a lot at stake in Doha. They do not want the conference to launch negotiations for new WTO treaties that would enable large foreign companies to take over the business of local firms and citizens and curb the right and ability of governments to implement their own development policies. They were shocked when the draft ignored their views, with even the study option removed from sections on investment and competition. The draft commits Ministers to negotiate new treaties (with only a minor "concession" that the negotiations be preceded by two years of pre-negotiations.)
Even WTO officials admit that the members are "split down the middle" on these new issues. Most developing countries do not want any negotiations to begin. Yet the text commits the WTO to start negotiations on all four issues: investment, competition, procurement and trade facilitation (in the case of investment and competition, it commits the WTO to begin negotiations in two years' time after the 5th Ministerial. In effect pre-negotiations over the next two years would amount to the first phase of actual negotiations).
Officials from Southern countries worry that the draft sets up a terribly un-level playing field, forcing them to argue their case without having their position reflected at all in the essential parts of the document. The developing countries are also critical of the section of the text on "future of the work programme," which sets up a comprehensive negotiating agenda, with the "single undertaking" (all issues to be decided in a package). Developed countries also want to set up a super organ called the Trade Negotiations Committee to move this agenda forward.
Finally, the countries of the global south are frustrated and extremely upset that the Chairman of the General Council and Director-General of the WTO Secretariat transmitted the draft to the Doha Ministers' meeting, without agreement or consensus on the text. The draft may be "clean" by not reflecting divergent views, but it is manipulatively deceptive, as it hides the views of a large number of countries, and it favors one side against another.
The countries whose views have been left out include Tanzania, speaking on behalf of the least developed countries group, and Zimbabwe on behalf of the Africa Group. Together these groups represent about 50 nations that do not want negotiations to begin on the four new issues. Several Asian and Caribbean/Central American countries are also not in favor of negotiating the new issues. Prominent among them are India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Barbados and Jamaica.
Critics fear that the pre-Doha process has been so cleverly (or deviously) developed that the major countries will successfully ram through their unpopular agenda despite the opposition of a large number of other members.
The developing countries thus face a huge, uphill battle, which is much more difficult than the one they faced in Seattle. Although the Seattle process was most undemocratic (with only the Ministers of a few countries invited to take part in exclusive Green Room meetings, while the others were left in waiting in their hotel rooms), at least the draft Declaration reflected the different views of the Members, making it clear to everyone what those differences were.
With the cards stacked against them in Doha, the developing countries have to insist on their right to a democratic and open decision-making process, in which each country has the opportunity to have their views expressed and more importantly to have their views reflected in a final Declaration that is "owned" by all.
Will democracy triumph over the manipulation of a few? Given the non-transparent processes so far in Geneva, and the poor record of previous WTO Ministerial meetings, especially in Seattle, we cannot be too optimistic. But miracles can happen.
CorpWatch's 2001 coverage of the WTO was made possible through the generous support of the Humanitarian Group for Social Development.
Martin Khor is Director of Third World Network based in Malaysia.