Internal Transparency and Decision-making processes at the WTO

By Michael Taylor,2014-11-25 11:00
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Internal Transparency and Decision-making processes at the WTO

    Internal Transparency and Decision-making processes at the WTO:

    Critical Issues and Recommendations

    WTO NGO Symposium, 1 May 2002

Workshop Organised by Focus on the Global South

The 3 speakers at the workshop were:

    Aileen Kwa Focus on the Global South

    Sabrina Varma South Centre

    Shalmali Guttal Focus on the Global South

    The workshop was moderated by Rashid Kaukab of the South Centre.

    The following are presentations that were delivered at the workshop.

1) Aileen Kwa - Focus on the Global South

It is very important to do a comprehensive unpacking of the practice of consensus.

    The process of trade negotiations at the WTO does not look at what developing countries need, nor is it even about finding a middle ground between the developed and developing countries. But in the most critical negotiations, we tend to see the positions of developing countries move towards becoming in fact not very different from the original proposals of the developed countries. This process may take some time, and some ‗carrots‘ are given out along the way, yet in the final outcome, it is largely the proposals of the powerful countries that prevail.

    What is happening here? How is this situation allowed by the majority? One major reason is the behind the scenes pressures exerted by developing countries. Various developing country delegates have spoken about this (although asking to remain anonymous). This presentation draws on interviews that have been conducted with delegates post-Doha. These are some comments have 3 such delegates have made:

Delegate 1:

    ‗September 11th is an act to be lamented by all humanity, but what gives cause for even greater regret, are the economic benefits that were attained by the industrialized countries through such a disaster. We cannot deny that many of the countries that were making a difference in the WTO have been undermined, and their officials even removed, simply for raising their voices in defence of the interests of their countries. Their requests were simply to have justice, transparency and a functioning system at the WTO. The result is that the WTO a member-driven organization - continues to

    be governed by bad practices and arbitrary decisions. These are being imposed on others as a result of the supreme power of a few.‘

Delegate 2:

    ‗During the preparations for the conference in Qatar, the pressure on the capitals

    increased, this time requesting the withdrawal of many of the ambassadors in Geneva


    who defended the interests of their countries and who opposed the launching of a new round. The truth is that the launch of this new round would never have taken place if it had not been for the lack of transparency and interference on the part of the WTO secretariat and the political pressures used by the developed countries - mainly the United States and the European Union.‘

    ‗The pressures for changes of position and for the withdrawal of Ambassadors is permanent, and has no apparent logic, beyond the arguments that the delegations in Geneva act as the enemies of the multilateral system, of the developed countries, and even peace in the world‘.

Delegate 3:

    ‗Experience so far shows that developed countries have most often insisted on their positions while pressing small developing countries to give up their positions… In

    some cases there is an attempt to bypass the Geneva based delegates and even to create a wedge between them and their capitals. This unfortunately has led many delegates to remain silent. When a delegate feels that his career might be at risk, it affects his performance.‘

The Practice and ‘Manufacturing’ of Consensus

    In practical terms, consensus means that no decision is formally objected to by any member present at the meeting. It does not mean active agreement, merely the absence of objection.

    According to the Director General, the rule of consensus is the ‗democratic guarantee‘ of the institution, since everyone in theory has a voice. However, the reality is quite different. How democratic decision-making is by consensus, depends on the ability of countries to voice their dissent. The power politics within the institution means that dissent by any country in a formal meeting, which goes to the extent of blocking consensus, is rare.

According to a Southeast Asian delegate:

    ‘Many developing countries think that consensus is good, because we can singularly [sic] say no. But

    in reality, this is used against developing countries. Only the US or EU can say no. No single developing country, or even a small group, can say no.’

    The strategies used to manufacture consensus can be categorised into five broad areas:

    1) Institutional and procedural deficiencies that marginalise the majority

    2) Use of bilateral threats to arm-twist and silence developing country


    3) The bias of the WTO secretariat and the fact that it meddles in negotiations

    4) Technical assistance as a tool to elicit consent

    5) Divide and rule strategies used by the powerful countries


    This presentation will focus mainly on the first two aspects, and touch only briefly on the third.

    1) Institutional and Procedural Deficiencies that Marginalise the Majority

    Through lack of procedural clarity, there is much room that is left for developed countries to manoeuvre their agenda into the negotiations.

    Consultations and decision-making at the WTO usually takes place through ‗concentric‘ circles - it starts from the US and the EU coming together on a decision, and from here, the group is expanded to the other QUAD members Canada and

    Japan, and then to other OECD countries and several developing countries (sometimes known as ‗Friends of the Chair‘ or ‗Friends of the Round‘), and finally, expanded to developing countries that could be resistant, but hold clout e.g. those in

    the Like Minded Group India, Pakistan, Malaysia etc.

    The following are institutional and procedural deficiencies that allow this ‗manufacturing‘ of consensus to take place:

Outright Exclusion of the Politically Weak

    A significant number of delegations are left out of consultations, or included only on some issues and not others. Usually, the excuse by the majors is that they have nothing valuable or different to say, since if they did, they would have already been 1included in the core circle.

    The developed countries however, are careful that the politically stronger developing countries, the ones with the most potential to ‗rock the boat‘, are included at some point in the process. Exclusion of the politically weak in the decision-making process matters much less, since there will be little risk that they will hold up a consensus.

    Bulgaria recently took strong objection to their exclusion from the process of selecting the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) chair. Their statement is evidence of the extent of non-transparency.

    ‘The representative of Bulgaria, referring to the chairman’s statement (which

    appointed Mike Moore, the director general as the chair of the TNC), said that he had received the document in the informal meeting just prior to the present meeting, and his delegation had not been involved in its preparation…

    His delegation had made it clear that it wished to be involved in the informal consultations on the negotiating structure and other aspects, but it had been excluded from those consultations and its views were not reflected. The state of internal transparency in the organisation needed to be improved. The problem of transparency

     1 Interview with a European Commission delegate, March 2002.


in the negotiations needed to be dealt with in a much more specific way through the 2adoption of clear and explicit rules’.

There are No Binding Rules About the Conduct and Role of the Chair!

    The non-existence of binding rules in the area of procedures and how negotiations are conducted has given the chairperson of any negotiations enormous powers. This is highly problematic and experience with the recent ‗chairs‘ have shown that giving

    such a broad mandate works against the interests of developing countries. The chair essentially has the ability to decide whether or not to consider all positions with 3similar weight, or to give prominence to one or two positions over others. Much

    depends on the personality, inclination, and the ideological leanings of the person, as well as the pressures exerted on him/her, and how the person reacts in the face of these pressures.

    One developing country delegate relates his experience:

    ‘In a situation where so many decisions are taken informally, and different

    weights are given to the views of different players, and the chair follows these unwritten rules, it is much harder to get your input to the text than some players. There are no rules which say that all inputs submitted in writing must be distributed and reproduced. So you have to work twice as hard to get your input into the draft as another member.’

    The problematic role of the chair was very much in evidence in the preparations for Doha. Even as the chair of the general council, Stuart Harbinson acknowledged that 50 per cent of the members disagreed about having new issues launched in Doha (and developing countries would assert that it was more than 50 per cent). Nevertheless, he removed brackets on the new issues in the second draft of the text, giving the impression of consent.

    Another delegate from Africa, obviously wary about the extent of powers the chair can ‗arbitrarily‘ exercise said,

    ‘Harbinson’s consultations were centered on the positions of the big players.

    He is somebody who says he is consulting and building consensus. It is like the same person being the accountant and the auditor. You are everything. Even if there is a mistake, you are auditing the books and you don’t see it. A number of countries made

    noise that they were not being consulted on the selection of chairs for the negotiating groups in the TNC. There must be more transparency in the consultations. Maybe you make a table you consulted 50 countries, and what their positions are. You have to show everyone the results of the consultations. Right now, only Harbinson can tell you what he did. There is no proof that he has consulted with delegations, and there is no proof that they have agreed. So the real decisions may have been made by very few. We have to have a system that we can monitor.

     2 WTO, TN/C/M/1, 14 February 2002, Trade Negotiating Committee, Minutes of Meeting 28 January and 1 February 2002. 3 Narlikar A. 2001 ‗WTO Decision-making and Developing Countries‘, South Centre TRADE

    Working Papers 11, November.


    'What I have learnt about Harbinson’s style is that he is ‘sympathetic’ to every group. He goes to one group, and tells them that this is a very good paper. But at the end of it, he brings you the same list, and tells you that this list is what has been acceptable to everybody. Maybe it used to be good in the old days (GATT) when countries divided-up the positions and distributed them amongst the major players. But now you have 144 members.

    'Regarding the selection for the chair of the general council (for 2002, Canadian Ambassador Marchi), Harbinson came to the African group to say that most members expressed reservations, but we don’t have anybody else for the job. This is the best we have. When it is a one-man show, it depends on what the man wants, not what the group wants.’

Problems with the Informality of the Process

    The lack of rules and the informality of the Process, basically means that it is a process of consultation and discussion that takes place behind closed doors. In that process, it means that those with the most clout will carry the most weight. There are indeed, few countries that would challenge a decision that has been put forward as a done deal.