Cancun Ministerial Starts In Shadow Of Protests And An Untransparent Process

10 September, 2003
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Cancun Ministerial starts in shadow of protests and an untransparent process
TWN Report from Cancun, 11 Sept 2003 (By Martin Khor)

The WTO's Fifth Ministerial Conference started on 10 September with an Opening Ceremony cum Business Session where some key procedural decisions were announced by the Conference Chairman, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, without an opportunity for delegates to either comment or approve.

The pattern was thus set for a repeat of a series of untransparent processes, similar or possibly worse than those practiced at the Doha Ministerial of 2001. Developing countries will be placed at serious disadvantage resulting from these processes and now face an uphill battle to avoid adverse outcomes in substantive areas such as the Singapore issues, agriculture and non-agriculture market access, implementation and S and D treatment.

Even as Ministers and other delegates listened to the ceremonial opening speeches and prepared for the tough negotiations ahead, the Conference's first day was overshadowed by other events in and outside the Conference hall that dramatically highlighted the deep public disenchantment with the WTO.

As WTO director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi was making his speech, about 40 NGO representatives wearing black tapes across their mouths stood up in the hall, displayed small placards with words such as "WTO Obsolete" and "WTO Anti Development" and chanted slogans including "Shame." This lasted for half an hour as security guards looked on helpless.

Outside, on the streets up to the border of the "Hotel Zone" where the tourist hotels and the conference center are located, thousands of farmers and indigenous people backed by NGOs marched in a peaceful demonstration against the WTO. A group of Korean farmers rammed a steel barricade on the road that was meant to prevent protestors from entering the zone.

One of the farmers, 56 year old Lee Kyung Hae, a former President of the Korean Farmers' Federation, climbed to the top of the fallen barricade and then stabbed himself. Taken to hospital, he later passed away. Earlier this year, Lee had protested for several weeks outside the gates of the WTO building in Geneva, handing out pamphlets about the plight of farmers and the destruction of rural communities by WTO rules.

His suicide shocked the other farmers and protestors on the streets, as well as the WTO delegates inside the hall, where the conference has so far been dominated by preparations for the agriculture negotiations to come. The fact that a farmers' leader had been driven to his death just a short distance from the WTO conference hall, due clearly to frustration with the WTO agriculture rules, added a thick layer of seriousness to the negotiatons which only yesterday some Ministers had referred to as a matter of "life or death" for small farmers.

The Ministerial Conference's Opening Ceremony came in three parts: an official ceremony (with speeches by Mexican President Vicente Fox, the WTO Director-General, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, UNCTAD Secretary General Rubens Ricupero (representing the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan), and the General Council Chairman, Carlos Perez de Castillo), an official portion of the Opening of the Business Session, and an "informal" portion of the Business Session.

During the whole procedure, the draft Ministerial Text drawn up by Perez de Castillo was explicitly "submitted" and implicitly accepted as the main basis for negotiations, though there was no formal "adoption" by the Chairman or "approval" by the delegates.

In his speech, Perez de Castillo dwelt on the Geneva process and described his draft Ministerial Text as being submitted "under his own responsibility" in close cooperation with the Director General and that the draft is not agreed on and that convergence in some issues had not emerged. He added he was submitting this draft to the Conference with a letter which he said accounted for the divergence of views in key areas.

Mexican Secretary Derbez, at the "informal" part of the Business Session, announced that informal meetings would be held to facilitate consensus on a Text. Each morning a heads-of-delegation (HOD) meeting would be held at which Ministers could bring two officials. A final HOD meeting would be held on the last day just prior to the concluding plenary, "to review results in all areas."

He announced the appointment of the following Ministers as "facilitators" for five areas: George Yeo of Singapore (agriculture), Henry Tang (NAMA), Mukhisa Kituyi (Kenya), Pierre Pettigrew (Canada) and Clement Rohee (other issues).

Derbez made special mention on agriculture: that all opinions and voices would be heard, that various contributions had been made and that these adopted a similar structure. [This reference to agriculture was apparently in response to the demand by the group of 21 developing countries that their proposal be taken on an equal footing with the Castillo draft text as the basis for negotiations].

Derbez then closed the Opening Ceremony. And thus were implicitly accepted or adopted the draft Text of Castillo (that the author had admitted was not an agreed text), the organization of work with its predominance of informal consultations; and the draft Text and the Chairman's appointment of facilitators.

The opening part of the Business Session was held in the same big hall that was the venue of the Opening Ceremony, where chairs were arranged concert style. Thus, delegations did not have cards with their countries' names, there were no microphones provided for delegates to speak from the floor, and the Chairman did not invite comments.

This procedure thus followed the practice pioneered in Doha, where the very contentious draft Declaration had been adopted at the ceremonial opening ceremony where delegates had no opportunity to speak. In fact, the "adoption" of the Cancun facilitators and organization of work was even more untransparent and non-participatory than what happened in Doha.

At the Doha Ministerial, the draft Ministerial Declaration tramsitted from Geneva by the Chairman of the Generalo Council on "his own personal responsibility", had been "adopted" at the ceremonial Opening. But the Chairman's announcement on the appointment of facilitators and the organization of work was done in a business meeting in a different room after the Opening Ceremony. Delegations had the opportunity to discuss and criticise the process. The Chairman however ignored the criticisms, and then proceeded with the scheme he had announced.

At Cancun, the announcements were made just after the inaugural session, and there was no opportunity for discussion or even adoption of the procedures and the facilitators.

Delegates from some eveloping countries privately voiced frustration and apprehension about how the Opening session had been run and also how this was a foretaste of more non-participatory processes ahead at the Conference.

They were particularly upset that the Minister of Canada, which is a well known strong advocate of negotiatons on the Singapore issues, was chosen to chair the discussions on these issues, as he would not be able to maintain neutrality. The officials noted that Mr Pettigrew had also been the facilitator for Sijngapore issues in Doha, and he had not been fair to the developing countries that opposed negotiations.

In fact the unhappy experience in Doha had led several developing countries to submit proposals in the General Council last year for implementing proper procedures for future Ministerials, including that ceremonial opening sessions should not be used to adopt business decisions, and that facilitators (if they are required) should be selected by members and not the Conference Chairperson.

These proposals for reforming the rule-less manner in which Ministerials are run were not accepted due to objections, principally from the major developed countries.

At a press conference this afternoon, Dr Supachai gave more details on how the "informal consultations" would operate. The facilitators would hold bilateral meetings with members, termed as "confessionals", and they would report to the HOD open-ended meetings each morning. To avoid "cramming" on the last day, facilitators are expected to give substantial reports of their consultations to the Chairman by Friday.

The Director General's description of the process would imply that a new draft of the Ministerial Text or Declaration would be issued on Friday or Saturday.

But it is not clear how the drafting is going to be done, and who will do it. It is also far from clear whether there will be time or procedures available to allow members to make comments on the revised draft or drafts, and more importantly, to revise the texts until everyone is satisfied or at least find it acceptable.

At previous Ministerial (for example Doha 2001 and Singapore 1996), revised (and final) drafts were produced on the last day or the last night --and it is unclear till now who did the drafting - following exclusive "Green Room" meetings. Members were then told not to alter any part of the text as this would "unravel" the whole draft and there was simply no time left for further negotiations, so every Member had to accept it.

At the end of the Singapore Ministerial, the then Director General Mr. Ruggerio, made a pledge to Members and the media that this practice of exclusive meetings and last-minute pressure for all members to accept a Declaration on a fait accompli basis would never happen again in future Ministerials.

Despite this, the practice of exclusive meetings and the eleventh-hour presentation of draft Declarations on a take-it-or-leave-it basis continued at Ministerial Conferences that followed.

The practice of Chairpersons conducting consultations with various parties (instead of enabling members to negotiate among themselves) and then doing their own drafting of texts started before the Doha Ministerial. It has now expanded to the extent that the Chairs of negotiating groups and working groups, as well as the Chairs of the General Council and of Ministerials, are now drafting the important texts "on their own responsibility". Even if the drafts do not enjoy the support by large numbers of members, they are nevertheless "sent on" or "transmitted" again on their own responsibility.

There is apprehension among several delegates from developing countries that the undemocratic and untransparent practice of drafting and re-drafting of texts will be repeated in Cancun.

The frustration of having to adopt an unacceptable draft as the basis for negotiations emerged especially in relation to agriculture. Brazil and other countries made clear they would not accept the Castillo draft. In the past few days, the Group of 21 developing countries made public their demand that this draft cannot be the basis (or at least the sole or even the main basis) for the negotiations on agriculture.

They demanded that the G-21 agriculture proposal (now an official Ministerial document) be given equal status as the Castillo draft. For a while, it seemed possible that Brazil and/or other countries might officially object at the Opening Session to the Castillo draft being the basis for negotiatons in Cancun.

This apparently led to Castillo making a mention at the inaugural session that there had been contributions from members in relation to agriculture. It was an implicit recognition that other texts count as well. But even in this case it is not at all clear that this gives the G-20 paper an equally prominent status as Annex A on agriculture in the draft text.

At this early stage of the Conference, it is also not at all clear to officials or Ministers what procedures are going to be implemented, and most importantly, how the all-important Conference texts are going to be drafted, and what time or opportunity will be available for members to revise the drafts to their satisfaction.

It now looks likely that a variation of the rule-less and unpredictable method of operating Ministerials that have characterized the WTO in its short history will again be repeated in Cancun.

If this indeed happens, the developing countries are likely to be on the receiving end of an imbalanced outcome. If this scenario unfolds, it then remains to be seen whether developing countries will stand against these practices in sufficient numbers and strength.


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