Rich countries' post-Seattle manoeuvring


Tactfully buried in the World Trade Organisation's mountain of internal papers is the snippet that it's considering holding its next Ministerial Conference — its biannual peak decision-making meeting — in Qatar.

In contrast to the relative peace the WTO ministers enjoyed in Singapore in 1996 and Geneva in 1998, their third ministerial, in Seattle in November, proceeded only with the help of plentiful police brutality and virtual martial law. A decision to host the next ministerial in Qatar would undoubtedly be motivated by the desire to prevent further militant mass mobilisations and to stop more people coming to the same conclusion as the Seattle demonstrators — that the WTO exists to facilitate rich countries sucking more blood from the Third World through a lop-sided global trade order.

This side trick over the location of the next summit gives a taste of the endless manoeuvring and, if needed, arm-twisting, blackmailing and bribing which goes on all the time behind the WTO's glamorous front door.

Why join the devil?

It was these very gangster tactics that the imperialist countries relied on to ease the way for the WTO's formation in 1995 — as a body to enforce a much expanded world trade regime. Dubious new areas were added to the existing agreements on manufacturers, including the enormous service sector, investment, intellectual property rights and agriculture. Rules were added to punish violators through high tariffs and other forms of retaliation.

The bait was the reciprocal lowering of tariff and non-tariff barriers between WTO members, and the squeezing out of non-member competitors, who would have a bleak export future.

Not surprisingly, despite an eight-year resistance, many Third World countries eventually gave in and "agreed" in 1994 to join the new regime: 136 countries are now members.

The deal was sweetened by rich countries' promises to lower their barriers to some key Third World products, as well as a longer transition time for Third World countries to implement agreements.

Over the last five years, the poor countries have honoured their share of the obligations, leaving their vulnerable industries unprotected against technologically superior First World competitors.

The rich countries, however, have made at best token efforts to honour their commitments to the Third World. To help keep more Third World products out, the rich countries have liberally stretched the limits of "contingency" provisions, such as "anti-dumping" measures, exceptional subsidies and safeguards, in clear violation of the spirit in which those measures were first approved.

As Seattle, and the end of the grace period for a raft of market-opening commitments, neared, the need for change had become particularly pressing.

Many Third World members wanted the Seattle ministerial to agree on the need to reassess, slow down and ease their existing commitments which they had such great difficulty implementing. They also proposed to plug the loopholes the rich countries have been actively exploiting and demanded they get serious about honouring their commitments.

Rather than addressing these concerns, the First World members — led by the US, the European Union, Japan and Canada (the "Quad") — were more interested in expanding further the scope of WTO rules, including the launch of a new "Millennium Round" of trade liberalisation talks.

Explosion of discontent

When the Quad once again exploited the WTO's loosely defined decision-making "consensus", turning it into First World dictatorship in practice, the heat rose to boiling point. The brave defiance on the Seattle streets provided a final push.

Guyana's foreign minister Clement Rohee, who in 1999 was the chair of the Group of 77 (G-77) underdeveloped countries' alliance, told the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #4577 how some developing countries were, without consultation, forced a few months before Seattle to accept a "non-existing consensus" on the highly contentious selection of the WTO director-general.

(After a long and open battle which left the director-general and the deputy's posts unfilled for four months, the director-general's six-year term was split equally between the Quad's favoured candidate, New Zealand's Mike Moore, and Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi, whom most Third World members backed. Moore assumed the post three months before Seattle.)

Rohee said such a manipulative practice was replayed in Seattle through the "infamous Green Room process" (invitation-only small group negotiations headed usually by the Quad and confined to their trusted allies), which totally marginalised the overwhelming membership and hijacked the Seattle conference, reducing many poor country ministers to "mere tourists".

Rohee added, "Further insult was added to the wounds when on the second day of the conference, [US Trade Representative Charlene] Barshefsky [who also chaired the Seattle proceedings] announced she had the right to make changes to the procedures in order to arrive at a Declaration at all costs".

The revolt, inside and outside the conference hall, meant that even a declaration, let alone the launch of a whole new trade round, was beyond the ministerial — in the end, Barshefsky has forced to pull the plug and the conference dissolved in chaos.

Changes after Seattle?

Officially, Moore, who heads a 500-member secretariat, is there to serve all members. But there is little doubt whose interests he's most concerned about.

In the WTO's annual report released in May, he listed "the establishment" on December 2 (during Seattle) of an ad hoc group on Trade and Labour Standards. SUNS in May reported that the establishment of that group was clearly challenged at the ministerial and could not proceed as a result.

Thus with a simple administrative manoeuvre, Moore was able to record as a "decision" (for now) an issue hotly pursued by the Quad but overwhelmingly opposed by Third World members. The latter have been concerned that labour standards could be used as another pretext to legitimise more exclusion of Third World products.

The rich countries had also paid lip service to recognising the crushing difficulties of the least developed country (LDC) members, but little has been done. A post-Seattle review was to provide redress but instead of offering genuine help, the Quad's March 31 "confidence-building" proposals were a step backward.

Responding on behalf of the LDC members in an April statement, Bangladesh expressed "huge disappointment", pointing out how the developed members are backtracking from their repeated public pledge to provide duty-free market access to all LDC goods.

They now only offered market access to "essentially all" LDC products, excepting goods not consistent with their "domestic requirements and international obligations". The LDCs said they had little doubt that the "minute" number of products being excluded are the ones that really matter to them.

In addition, in an apparent move to split the Third World camp, Moore dragged the non-LDC Third World countries into the picture, claiming that they had indicated willingness to enhance LDC access to their markets. Many poor countries said the Quad's "confidence-building" measures surely helped in "breaking confidence".

While the rich countries' manoeuvring hasn't stopped, the revolt in Seattle — even that within the summit halls — scored a victory.

The united action of these Third World ministers helped stall a series of formal negotiations that would otherwise have taken place on new areas such as investment, competition policy, government procurement, trade "facilitation", new industrial tariff cuts, special treatment for biotechnology, and labour and environmental standards. But now, there is no Millennium Round.

Whether this breathing space can be translated into lasting gains depends on the battles ahead, both within the WTO and beyond.

The G-77 summit of Third World countries in Havana in April was one step. Participants characterised the WTO as a tool that the imperialist countries are seeking to sharpen, so as to consolidate the existing world order of inequality and to complement their other tools in the kit, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

They believed that the United Nations, despite the undemocratic structure of the Security Council, has offered useful room to give the Third World a voice. They resolved to fight imperialist domination within the bounds of the WTO, as well as to reverse the UN's growing marginalisation.

Whether they have struck an appropriate tactical focus is debatable. But to the extent their work helps counter imperialism and the unjust global order, they should be supported.

Yet these efforts alone are far from adequate to achieve the goal. The crucial link lies in the people's struggle — to develop the consciousness that the global capitalist order is rotten and can be changed, and that there is an urgent need for more people to take part in the bubbling, though young, international movement working towards this goal.