Dispatch From Doha

Dispatch From Doha

The WTO trade conference there pitted developing countries against the major powers.



A final declaration for the fourth WTO Ministerial Session was finally issued on November 14 after negotiations that extended well past the original deadline. Trade czars Robert Zoellick of the United States and Pascal Lamy of the European Union are hailing the agreement as launching a new global round of trade negotiations. Many analysts dispute this, saying that negotiations on investment and competition policy–which are are the top of the US and EU agenda–cannot be launched until after the fifth ministerial in 2003, and only after a "written consensus decision" is issued by the WTO.

Overall, however, the declaration was a defeat for the developing countries whose demand that the ministerial focus its work mainly on implementation issues connected with the previous trade round–the so-called Uruguay Round– which received only perfunctory mention. Developing countries did win an important concession giving public health precedence over patents, which the pharmecutical industry had strongly resisted, but as a number of observers have pointed out, the declaration leaves unchanged the language of the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), which could serve as the basis for future legal challenges to their efforts to override pharmaceutical patents. The European Union successfully watered down developing country demands for getting rid of agricultural export subsidies and the United States refused to accede to developing country demands that it accelerate the phaseout of its textile quotas.

Yet the developed countries' victory may well be short-term since their arm-twisting was greatly resented and resisted by the poor countries. The declaration, in fact, could only be finalized after India agreed to abstain at the last-minute, after resisting for hours. The legacy of the Doha summit may well be the continuing erosion of legitimacy of the WTO.

* * *


As the Fourth Ministerial entered its final day of intense negotiations on November 13, developed and developing countries still seemed to be locked in a stalemate on a number of key issues, including agricultural subsidies, trade-related intellectual property rights and public health, a review of anti-dumping rules, and extending WTO coverage to investment, competition policy and government procurement. The future of the WTO hangs in the balance. Members of the WTO secretariat say that the organization cannot afford another Seattle in Doha. Failure to create consensus around a Ministerial Declaration may well lead to an unraveling of the trade body.

* * *


About 100 NGO delegates staged an anti-World Trade Organization demonstration on Friday, immediately before the opening of the trade body's fourth ministerial session in Doha, Qatar. Standing on both sides of the entrance to the huge Al Dafna Hall at the Sheraton Hotel, the protesters, with tape on their mouths, held up signs saying "No Voice at the WTO," calling attention to the lack of democracy, transparency and civil society input into the organization's decision-making processes.

After over 5,000 delegates had filed in, the demonstrators started chanting "What do we want? Democracy!" An effort by Jose Bove, the French anti-McDonalds activist, to lead the demonstrators into the hall was at first repelled by Qatari security forces. A few moments later, however, the demonstrators were allowed in. Fulfilling a pledge made at an open session earlier in the day by Crown Prince Sheik Jassim bin Hamad, security forces did not arrest or detain any of the activists.

Desperate is the only word to describe the actions of the trade superpowers represented at the meeting. Tremendous pressure is being exerted on developing countries to endorse a new round of trade negotiations. The weapons include manipulation of the WTO's undemocratic system of decision-making and blunter forms of trade blackmail.


Intense Security


Massive security preparations have turned Doha, a city of over 600,000, into a high security zone, to the consternation of ordinary Qataris, many of whom claim that the United States is exaggerating the dangers of holding the conference in the Gulf city. The security arrangements have isolated the conference site and are making transportation to and from hotels an exercise in resourcefulness for many delegates.

An armed attack by an allegedly deranged Qatari gunman on a munitions base on the outskirts of Doha, used by the United States, earlier in the week has heightened the tension. Even before that incident, the office of the US Trade Representative had moved to gather representatives of US NGOs from their separate lodgings to join the US official delegation at the Ritz Carlton, which has been converted into an armed camp, with logistical connections to US warships waiting in the Gulf for possible evacuation of American delegates. There is more than enough space in the hotel, since the number of people in the official US delegation has shrunk from about 300 to fifty.

So paranoid is the US security force at the Ritz Carlton that they prevented Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland-based think tank Food First, from riding on the same bus from the hotel to the conference site after they discovered that she is an Indian citizen. She said that they also refused to give her access to US official briefings or provide her with a security phone and gas mask, which they were distributing to other members of the American entourage.

The dramatic shrinkage in the number of official delegates is not confined to the US delegation. The Canadian delegation, usually one of the biggest, is down to fifty. Says Maude Barlow, a noted critic of her government's trade policies: "People were suddenly all getting sick or disabled at the last minute, and to try to cover the cost of the government plane, they even invited me for the ride to Qatar."


Differing Priorities


The smaller number of key actors from the United States and other members of so-called "Quad" (European Union, Canada and Japan) is not, however, likely to change the dynamics of the conference.

The majority of developing countries want the Ministerial to focus on matters related to the implementation of the commitments made under the Uruguay Round. This position was laid out in a recent declaration of the Group of 77, which identified "104 implementation issues" that needed to be "meaningfully resolved, with urgency before the Fourth Ministerial Meeting and without any extraneous linkages."

Developing countries have been groaning under the weight of implementing the twenty-eight different agreements that comprised the Uruguay Round agreement, while the big trading powers have refused or been slow to implement their commitments to provide greater market access in agriculture and textiles to developing countries or cut back the massive subsidization of their agricultural interests.

The European Union and the United States, on the other hand, have put some of their differences aside–temporarily–to present a common front for a new round of trade negotiations that would focus on expanding the mandate of the WTO to cover the so-called "new issues" of investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation. Essentially, these are the same issues that formed their common agenda of global economic liberalization prior to the disastrous WTO Ministerial in December 1999. Learning from Seattle, the EU and United States have de-emphasized their disagreement on agricultural trade issues, and the United States apparently does not intend to make the linkage between trade and labor standards–a key point of conflict with developing countries in Seattle (and, for different reasons, also an issue of great concern to US labor unions)–an issue in Doha.



Controversial Draft Declaration


The proposed draft declaration for the Ministerial meeting is an example of the sort of underhanded tactics that the big trading powers are resorting to. According to Aileen Kwa, a Geneva-based analyst who monitors the WTO for Focus on the Global South, the draft does not emphasize the developing countries' stated priorities of implementation issues, the "Special and Differential Treatment" of developing countries, greater access to developed country markets, and reviews of the agreements on Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMs), Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), and services (GATS).

Instead, the draft projects an alleged consensus on negotiations on the issues of competition, investment policy, government procurement, and trade facilitation that are the priorities of the minority of rich and powerful trading countries. "Despite clearly stated positions that the developing countries are unwilling to go into a new round until past implementation and decision-making are addressed," says Kwa, "the draft declaration favorably positions the launching of a comprehensive new round with an open agenda."

The draft has been openly denounced by Nigeria as "one-sided" and "showing not much regard for our countries." Bitter complaints from the poor countries prompted Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong, chair of the WTO General Council, to walk out of a briefing in Geneva last week. Many governments are incensed that the draft fails to acknowledge the strong stand they have made on the principle that nothing in the Trade Related Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs) shall prevent them from taking measures to protect public health by overriding patents.

The draft was a product of consultations conducted among an inner circle of about 20-25 participants–the so-called Green Room process–that effectively excludes most of the members of the WTO. In the lead-up to Qatar, this exclusive process has already held two "mini-Ministerials," one in Mexico at the end of August and another in Singapore on October 13-14. How one gets invited to these meetings is very murky. Kwa cites the case of one ambassador from a transition economy who was promised an invitation to a Green Room meeting by the WTO Secretariat but never got one.

Then there was the case of an African ambassador who wanted to attend the Singapore mini-ministerial: When he approached the WTO secretariat for an invitation, he was told that it was not hosting the meeting. When he tried the Singapore mission in Geneva, the response was that the mission was simply coordinating the meeting and was not in a position to send out invitations. Developing country disaffection with the Green Room process was one of the reasons the Third Ministerial collapsed in 1999. At that time, Charlene Barshefsky, then US Trade Representative, admitted that the WTO decision-making process was non-transparent and inequitable and had to be changed. Stephen Byers, the UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was even more emphatic, saying that the "WTO will not be able to continue in its present form. There has to be fundamental and radical change in order for it to meet the needs and aspirations of all 134 of its members."

That moment of candor was, however, forgotten quickly as the developed countries realized that in an organization like the WTO, where the developing countries are in the majority, the big powers can only dominate through such non-democratic mechanisms as the Green Room and the so-called "Consensus System." Barely two months after Seattle, Michael Moore, WTO director general, told developing countries at the UNCTAD X gathering in Bangkok in February 2000 that the green room/consensus system was "non-negotiable." And there the matter has lain since.


Capitalizing on Tragedy


The trade superpowers have not wasted any opportunity to push for a new trade round. The smoke had not yet cleared from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York before US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick seized on the tragedy to press for even greater trade liberalization via the WTO and other mechanisms, asserting that free trade was one of the best ways of countering terrorism. Others have been more brazen: At a recent conference in Budapest, David Hartridge, an influential senior official at the WTO Secretariat, openly declared that the September 11 terrorists and activists against corporate-driven globalization shared a propensity for "violent behavior" and warned people from going to Geneva for demonstrations against the WTO in mid-November because "there will be violence."

While the developing countries held the line in the months after the disastrous collapse of the Seattle Ministerial in December 1999, many observers fear that their resolve might now be weakening in the face of concerted pressure from the developed countries. Aside from being subjected to the WTO's exclusionary decision-making process, some countries are being bludgeoned more directly. According to Shefali Sharma of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the United States has sent letters to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and several other countries revoking their preferential trade status on some trade agreements owing to their opposition to liberalization of government procurement, which is at the top of the US agenda for the Ministerial.


Last Hurrah?


The powerful trading countries may well get their way and ram through a declaration that agrees to a comprehensive round of trade negotiations in Doha. But the greatest obstacle to trade liberalization may no longer be the developing countries but the global economy itself, which is contracting very quickly owing to the very interlocking of economies brought about by globalization and liberalization. In both developed and developing countries, pressures to save domestic industries, focus on domestic-demand-led growth, and counteract the vulnerabilities of export-led economies at a time of a deep global recession will probably stymie any significant movement toward more liberalization. The Fourth Ministerial may well turn out to be the last hurrah of the WTO and the project of radical economic globalization of which it was the crown jewel.

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