The sixth Ministerial conference of the WTO ended on December 18, with the adoption of a Ministerial Declaration in a carefully choreographed closing session designed in a way to prevent delegations from speaking or taking an active role in decision-making.
Indeed, the choreography had gone on the whole week, and remarkable as it may seem, the closing session was the only official meeting of the whole Conference, except for the opening ceremony on December 13.
The Director-General Pascal Lamy was later to brief journalists that over the week, 450 meetings were organized, six major gatherings and over 200 consultations by facilitators.
Some were heads of delegation meetings, others consultations and plenary sessions on the various issues, yet others were "Green Room" exclusive meetings to which a select few were invited.
Yet, there will be no records or minutes of these meetings or of the negotiations. Who said what, indeed which countries were invited or were present, will not be known or at least will not be made public.
For all intents and purposes these were "non meetings." The WTO spokesman referred to the Green Room meetings in terms of: "If the Green Room does exist, and if there was a meeting….."
Yet, the leaders of the conference kept congratulating themselves for the "transparent, inclusive and bottom-up" process.
The closing session was an example of the process. But more than the other meetings, nothing could be left to chance. After all, it was the only official meeting, and nothing should go wrong, as the only record of the Conference will be what is said here.
Chairs were arranged theatre-style, with no tables in front of delegates or microphones or the name card of the countries. There were no standing microphones either in the aisles. A more participation-unfriendly arrangement would be hard to imagine.
One could not help make a mental comparison with formal sessions of UN conferences, or even of the closing ceremony in Doha, where delegations were seated behind tables, name cards and microphones and where many members and regional groupings spoke.
At the Hong Kong closing session, any delegation wanting to speak would find it very difficult, if not near impossible, to make an intervention, especially since the Chair, John Tsang, Hong Kong’s Commerce Secretary, was often not even looking at delegates before proclaiming "It is so decided" and banging the gavel after reading out decisions on various items.
In this intimidating scenario, a strange and significant event took place. The Chair introduced the most-important subject of the Ministerial Declaration and proceeded to announce some changes to the draft on cotton and annex F on LDCs.
He proposed that the Declaration be adopted, and quickly proclaimed "It is so decided", and pounded the gavel, before anyone could have the chance to say anything, thus having formally steered the adoption of the Ministerial Declaration.
He then stated that the statements expressing reservations on the text at the Heads of Delegation meeting (just prior to the closing session) are also "duly noted."
By that time, most people in the hall knew that in that HOD meeting, a few countries had made reservations on parts of the draft Declaration, and there was some uncertainty how this would be dealt with.
The Chair then proceeded to the next item, proposing that the conference take note of reports transmitted by various WTO bodies. At that point, a woman quickly went up to the stage, went up to Tsang, interrupting him, and spoke to him.
The woman was Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of Venezuela, Mari Pili Hernandez. She insisted that the Venezuelan and Cuban delegations be given the right to make their reservations public in the meeting.
The Chair, after some resistance, finally allowed them to speak. On the floor, a microphone materialized; it must have been arranged before by those who intended to make an intervention despite the conditions.
A representative of Cuba said his delegation intended to make a statement of reservation at the plenary, but as it might not be the best time to do so, he would hand in the full statement to the Secretariat so that Cuba’s views can be reflected in the records. The statement would contain specific reservations that Cuba had on the Declaration.
The microphone was then quickly passed to a delegate from Venezuela. "We too wish to reiterate our reservations expressed at the heads of delegation meeting," he said, mentioning the services and NAMA parts of the text as the areas in which Venezuela had reservations. "We would be grateful if they are duly reflected."
This event, unusual for the WTO, became the highlight of an otherwise quick and businesslike session. It was the first time that members had registered reservations to the text at the closing of a Ministerial.
The meeting then proceeded, with the gavel being pounded when a few other decisions were taken. There was no announcement on the "road map" – what would happen after Hong Kong. This was strange, since deciding on a road map for future work was one of the well-publicised three aims of the Conference, the other two being stock-taking and negotiations.
Later, at a press conference, Tsang said that there is a new deadline of April 13, 2006, to attain the full modalities in agriculture and NAMA. This deadline is also stated in the Declaration in paragraphs 10 and 23.
There was no discussion or information how the decision on the full modalities will be taken. There was silence in particular on a question that was often speculated on at Hong Kong – whether there would be another Ministerial conference to finalize and adopt the crucial decisions on the modalities, and if so when and where.
Despite attempts to make the Hong Kong meeting a "success", there was no hiding that it had failed to achieve the target of "full modalities." The recalibration of ambitions for this meeting had threatened to make it a "non event." Tsang told the delegates that "success is where no one is happy and given the grumbles heard at the last HOD meeting, this conference is very successful."
Lamy in his speech said the meeting started with 55% of the Round completed, and "we leave with 60% completed." There was, he said, new political energy which is needed to finish the Round.
Tsang’s reference to "grumbles" at the HOD meeting was interesting. For much of the last 24 hours, it was "touch and go" whether there would be an agreed text at all. The previous day (December 17), there had been more than a few grumbles when the first revised Hong Kong draft appeared.
The December 17 text contained many problems which induced a great deal of frustration for delegations from developing countries. These related to LDC duty and quota free market access (no clear commitment on binding, the abandonment of access for all products), agricultural export subsidies (no agreement on the end date), a weak commitment on cotton (no progress on the most important issue of domestic subsidy) and most of all, the text on services (with the retention of almost all the controversial points on qualitative benchmarks, plurilateral, modal and sectoral negotiations).
At a HOD meeting on December 17 night, many developing countries expressed many concerns and pointed out many shortcomings in the text. They felt that there was too little development in the text and too little real SDT elements.
Some felt that development only appeared as a token, as an attempt to disguise the offensive demands of the rich countries, and disarm them so that they could accept the parts of the text that were problematic to them.
On agriculture, almost all speakers (from developing and developed countries) stressed the need for an end-date for export subsidies, many said this should be 2010. Many developing countries (including Africa) said the SDT provisions are not clear enough .
On NAMA, many developing countries (those from Africa, in particular) said there was too little development in the section. The ACP Group disagreed with the mention of Swiss formula in paragraph 14 and wanted that paragraph bracketed.
On the paragraph 8 flexibilities, many developing countries (such as Brazil, India, and Africa) wanted more clarity in the text that these must stand alone and not be a trade-off with the formula. Africa also demanded that paragraph 6 (of NAMA July framework) countries should be exempt from tariff reductions.
On services, some developing countries felt that there was too little development in the text and that the annex was still a threat to the national objectives of developing countries.
Some countries also rejected the text because of the way it had come into existence and brought to Hong Kong. Several developing countries said (some strongly) that the text must still be improved and that the brackets in the paragraph on services should be maintained.
A whole-night Green Room meeting (Saturday night/Sunday morning) was not conclusive, with a reported exchange when EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said he had no mandate to give a better offer and Brazilian Minister Celso Amorim angrily replying that everyone had then been wasting their time.
Just as the Green Room meeting was ending on Sunday morning, Mandelson finally said the EU could agree to an end-date of 2013. This was not the 2010 that Brazil and others wanted, but they took up the offer.
A new revised draft was issued on early afternoon Sunday. Its main new features was an end-date of 2006 for agricultural export subsidies, additions to NAMA, and filling in of dates and percentages in annex F on LDCs. There was no significant change in the services annex.
A key question in the remaining few hours before the closing was whether the developing countries could accept the draft without changes, in particular the annex on services.
Besides the major developed countries, which wanted Annex C untouched, India (and a few other major developing countries) lobbied those developing countries that had objections to several points in Annex C to refrain from "rocking the boat" and to agree to adoption of the draft Declaration as a whole.
They tried to persuade the ACP Group and the African Group that participation in the plurilateral negotiations mentioned in Annex C were voluntary in nature, and not mandatory. Several experts had earlier pointed out that despite the changes (in paragraph 7b), participation of countries requested to take part would be mandatory.
At the HOD meeting on the afternoon of 18 December, many of the delegations having objections to Annex C or its components toned down their criticism or refrained from making any. Some continued to express their criticism, but said they could go along with the text. But Cuba said it rejected Annex C and had reservations on the NAMA section. Venezuela also voiced strong reservations on both services and NAMA.
At this last HOD, both Brazil and India were upbeat on the new draft and indicated their support. At a press briefing before the closing session, Brazil and India also expressed their support, and that of the G20 for the Declaration.
Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath even revealed that he had talked to members of the G90 and dispelled their misconceptions and concerns over the services text, and that they would now agree to its adoption.
By the time the HOD ended, the corridor talk was that Cuba and Venezuela still had reservations and might be planning to make it known at the closing session.
The seating arrangements and lack of microphones were part of the props that made that seem improbable, if not impossible. Despite the choreography, the two delegations succeeded in making their point heard, and this will be on record.
It took a Vice Minister prepared to jump on the stage to get the attention of the Chair and to insist that her delegation be allowed to speak, to make that happen.
Third World Network – www.twnside.org.sg
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