In Doha, you were either with the free-traders or ‘terrorists’. The equation had shifted by the time the World Trade Organisation (WTO) got to Cancun. The developing world upped the ante at the “fifth ministerial” of the WTO at Cancun, Mexico. The meeting was declared a failure. It was the occasion when developing countries finally said ‘no’ to a top-down mode of negotiation and agreement with respect to reforms in agriculture, trade, market access, improvement for non-agricultural items, and the launch of negotiations on competition, investment and so on. The unity in the negotiating positions of the developing countries, forged strictly on economic lines, was a surprise to many on both sides of the north-south divide. For these three-fourths of the WTO membership, entertaining the ‘hope’ of benefits purportedly accruing at some stage of their economic growth from decisions arrived at in multilateral fora, was not particularly ‘rational’ when contrasted with the perennially suffering domestic constituency back in their countries.
From day one of the Cancun meeting, the WTO member nations disagreed on practically all items on the agenda. The European Union (EU), the main demandeur for the inclusion of these issues, was more interested in bundling the issues of competition policy, investment, trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement (collectively known as the ‘Singapore issues’) without actually wanting to give up its ‘mothering’ of the agricultural lobby back home. Despite the EU and Japan trying their best to start negotiations on these issues, the G-21 (group of developing countries led by India, Brazil, China and South Africa) made it clear that they were not ready to start negotiations on any of the new issues unless there was tangible progress in the areas of agriculture, implementation issues and review of provisions for Special and Differential (S&D) treatments for developing countries (Pakistan joined the G-21 at a later stage in the conference).
First discussed in 1996 in Singapore (from which it gets its name), these issues were again brought up in Doha in 2001, after the failure of the Seattle ministerial in 1999. However, India took a strict position and it was on the insistence of India that the Doha Ministerial Declaration mandated the members to decide in Cancun by “explicit consensus” whether or not to start negotiations on the Singapore issues. Following the Doha procedures, the chair of the conference appointed group facilitators or “friends of the chair” who had to moderate the discussion and report back to Heads of Delegations (HOD). The facilitator for the Singapore issues, Canadian Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew, reported to the HODs that there was no consensus among the members and suggested that the way forward should be to find a compromise solution somewhere in between. While the majority of the developing countries remained firm on their stance, the EU continued to insist that negotiations had already been launched in this area in the Doha Declaration, and did not agree to the definition of “explicit consensus”. It was clear to many that the EC appeared to be backing out of its previous commitment.
The G-21 kept demanding the elimination of agriculture subsidies in rich countries. In a press memo, the Chairman of the US Committee on Finance expressed disappointment with eight G-21 members who were in the process of seeking Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with the US. “This makes me question their interest in pursuing the strong market access commitments required to conclude the FTA with the US”, he noted. This was an indirect threat that proponents of G-21 may be deprived the US FTA. There were reports that the EU and USA had tried their best to split the G-21 members, clearly their best efforts were not enough.
While the outcome of the ministerial was seen as a victory for civil society groups and representatives from hundreds of NGOs, at the Cancun Convention Centre, NGO representatives were in reality not allowed to enter the premises where the actual negotiations were taking place–not even as observers. All that these groups could do was to organise parallel sessions at the NGO centre (Hotel Sierra, a kilometre and a half away from the Convention Centre). The conditions at Cancun were worse than they were at Doha. The maximum number of representatives from each NGO was restricted to three, and only one representative was allowed to enter the Convention Centre at any given time. However, civil society organisations did manage to protest during the inaugural session of the Cancun meeting. On day one, about two dozen representatives stood up during WTO Director-General, Supachai Panitchpakdi’s inaugural session, with tape-sealed mouths and placards critical of the WTO and its procedures. Chants of protest greeted Panitchpakdi’s insistance that WTO was working for the benefit of developing countries. Amidst the civil society protests, more than 10,000 farmers were stopped by the local police and were not allowed to enter the Conference Zone. It was then that a South Korean farmer, Lee Kyong Hae read out his protest statement and stabbed himself in the chest. He was later pronounced dead at the local Cancun hospital. Hae´s sacrifice was a demonstration enough to the conference participants that WTO can be catastrophic for small farmers, many of whom cannot compete with the heavily subsidised commercial farming of the USA and the EU.
The Mexican Foreign Minister Ernesto Luis Derbez, also the Conference Chair, felt that though the conference was being closed without an agreement on the Ministerial Text this outcome was actually a reflection of the transparency in the WTO system. Director-General, Supachai Panitchpakdi, on the other hand, described the failure as a huge loss for the developing countries and poor nations. His request for members to restart the process in Geneva by keeping multilateral interests over national interests can only be sympathised with, since it has been evident for some time that the big players from the OECD are doing anything but that as far ‘national interests’ are concerned.
Not surprisingly, the developing world was seen to be asking for the moon. EU Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy repeated his controversial remarks about the WTO (delivered earlier at Seattle) to the effect that the failure of Cancun negotiations once again proved that the WTO was a medieval organisation. To him, the EU had gone out of its way to be flexible so as to accommodate the developing countries, an act of magnanimity that was not reciprocated by the other side. “They (the developing countries) attended the meeting with a set-mind and never wanted to get the benefit of the EU’s generous offers”, observed Lamy. He proposed a revamping of the “decision making process” in the WTO. The US Trade Representative, Robert Zolleic claimed that US had done best to broker a deal,but he accepted that failure of the Cancun meeting was the collective responsibility of all concerned and remained reluctant to put the blame on any single party.
The positive outcome from Cancun was the inclusion of Cambodia and Nepal, raising the WTO’s membership to 148. The rest of the agenda items were derailed due to the failure of the talks. In a sense, this derailment reflects significant changes in the international geo-political environment. The Doha conference was successful largely due to the effects of 11 September 2001. Then, it had been possible to link the two questions together and posit false equations. In Doha, it was a question of being either in favour of trade liberalisation or on the side of the ‘terrorists’. This time the developing countries backed by civil society protests, both in their respective capitals as well as in Cancun, were able to neutralise the pressure tactics of the powerful trading blocs.
Cancun failed. What is next? The agendas have been sent back to Geneva, and it is left to negotiators at the WTO headquarters to find a consensus on starting the negotiations on the Singapore issues as well as on the modalities of the Agreement on Agriculture by 15 December this year. Will the members feel sufficiently equipped to negotiate on these issues in Geneva in bilateral talks? Will it be easy for the developing countries to pass on quick feedback as well as instructions from their capitals to their negotiators in Geneva? Will the negotiators be invited to attend the exclusive meetings of the working groups in Geneva?
The answers to these and many more questions will determine the real meaning of the failure of Cancun, and how much of a triumph of Third World economic solidarity it was. Cancun was about the unity of the economically weak. Geneva will show whether that unity can be sustained in the face of certain attempts by the EU and the US to split the developing countries. All said, if the WTO is to survive, it must remain a rule-based organisation working on the will of the majority of the members. That is not the case today, and Cancun’s failure represented yet another attempt to make it so.
Islamabad to civil society: get lost
The official delegations from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and many African countries included representatives from civil society organisations who were able to give inputs to their governmental counterparts. In the case of Pakistan, offers from similar groups to be on Pakistan´s official delegation were ignored by the Ministry of Commerce. And this was not a cost-cutting measure either, because the groups who offered their services already had their accreditation to attend the Cancun Conference and had pledged their own expenses towards the arrangements. Instead, representatives from trade and industry were included. In the absence of civil society representation, it was one of the presidents of the Chamber of Commerce and Industries who attended the “green room” meeting (typical of the exclusive meetings structures of the WTO Ministerial) on the Agreement on Agriculture. The services of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and Action Aid, groups that had been working intensively on the Agreement on Agriculture at the national level and the international level, were never sought. At least for Pakistani critics of the global organisation, the conduct of the Pakistani government was not very different from that of the WTO Secretariat in excluding NGOs and civil society organisations from the process.
In Cancun Pakistan, which was a member of G-21 as well as the Strategic Product Group (comprising 23 developing countries that were demanding special measures in support of their food security and rural livelihood), actually showed a willingness to start negotiations on the Singapore issues, provided they were linked to progress in agriculture. This was one of the main reasons Pakistan could not take a leading role among the G-21 partners. In fact, Pakistan’s stance in Cancun on various issues was kept a secret without a single public briefing by the official delegation during the whole conference. This time around, unlike in Doha, the negotiations on agriculture were not left to the Ministry of Commerce. In fact, for the first time a senior representative of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (MINFAL) was part of the official delegation. He, however, did not seem to have the time to consult representatives from outside the government, trade and industry circles present in Cancun.
The Sustainable Agriculture Action Group (SAAG), a network of civil society organisations working on agriculture and related issues, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), and Action Aid were present in Cancun. Four representatives from these Pakistani NGOs, including this writer, were denied the opportunity to meet the Pakistani Commerce Minister. Even an early morning meeting was denied.
At least in Doha, the then Trade Minister was able to hold a press conference on the Development Box, along with various other trade ministers from developing countries. There, Islamabad emerged as the champion of food security rights of the developing world, at Cancun, Pakistan squandered an opportunity of enhancing its image at the international level. The performance of the official delegation disappointed many who had looked forward to a progressive stance.
There is an increased awareness about WTO among major stakeholders in Pakistan (including government officials, trade representatives, media, as well as NGOs). Sadly, as the future rounds of negotiations with a belligerent OECD promise to be tough and demanding, the Pakistani government does not give the impression of preparing seriously to participate in what may well be a historic encounter between the ‘developed’ and the ‘underdeveloped’.