18 September 2003 Edition

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Cancun stalemate as developing countries hold firm

Social movements celebrated victory on Sunday 14 September afternoon as the 5th Ministerial meeting of the WTO collapsed when the developing countries, led by African delegates, walked out. Through an unprecedented alliance, backed by worldwide protests, developing countries achieved near equal footing in this week´s meeting, while rich countries for a change failed to impose their will.

Kenyan delegate George Odour Ongwen, who spoke on behalf of the alliance, announced that there was no consensus and that the ministerial had come to an end. Amid a scrum of cameras and microphones, the Kenyan delegate announced that his country was walking out of the negotiations because of the intransigence of the EU and US. Ongwen said these power blocs were insisting on imposing four new issues upon poor countries without giving anything significant in return.

On the same line, Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's trade minister, blamed the failure on the refusal of rich countries to heed the objections of the developing world. "They kept demanding things that others couldn't deliver," she said. The developing country members of the WTO refused to accept the EU's demand to expand the WTO by including negotiations on new issues, including investment, government procurement, trade facilitation and competition, resulting in talks collapsing in Cancun. The EU had linked the expansion negotiations to agriculture, even though the Doha Declaration delinked these two areas and required "explicit consensus" to launch new issues.

The announcement of the walkout came at about 3:30pm, while US trade representative Robert Zoellick was giving a press conference declaring the intentions of the US to continue negotiations on the new issues. As the press stormed out of the room into the hallway of the convention centre, they were met by the dancing and singing of NGO members celebrating the collapse of the meetings.

Developing countries have said for weeks that they were already overburdened and hurt from previous concessions, and were not prepared to negotiate until the issue of agriculture was sufficiently addressed. Unsurprisingly, the demand of rich countries to include the four new issues was a clear indication that they were not committed to development, or even to the so-called development agenda agreed upon in Doha.

In a statement made after the walkout, a South African trade minister said: "We were very well prepared. We made very concrete proposals on agriculture issues... We were all very impressed across our countries about the capacity we had. We said that it was our impression that this was the first time that by combining technical expertise we were able to sit as equals."

The collapse followed a night of meetings in which the EU and US used high pressure tactics, bribes, and threats to force less powerful countries into submission. This was a tactic used at the WTO talks in Seattle and every other WTO meeting and it was strongly resented by delegates from developing countries.

This crisis has ultimately been brought about by the very untransparent and non-participatory way in which the successive drafts of the ministerial text have been undertaken. At Cancun itself, the drafting was technically left to the facilitators to carry out. The five facilitators, who were appointed and not elected, "supervised" the drafting of texts on issues under their mandate (and at least in some cases it is known that the Secretariat had a significant role in preparing the drafts). After the reports or texts were passed on by facilitators to the Conference chairperson, revision of parts of the texts were carried out under his supervision, on occasion changing the text.

During the drafting process, no role was given to the delegates, whose functions had been confined to providing oral or written input at meetings. Thus, delegates ended up negotiating not with one another but with the facilitators or the ministerial chairperson. And the delegations did not see the revised text until 13 September at 1pm, which was already very late in the Conference schedule.

The usual attempt by the conference chairperson to generate a sense of crisis (that time is running out) and the usual appeal to accept the draft, however imperfect, does not seem to have worked this time. Many developing countries found that their views, even when collectively put forward by groupings of 30 or even as many as 80 countries, had been ignored, and instead a clear and unfair bias had been shown towards the developed countries. This bias was most blatantly evident in the text on the new issues.

Speaking from Cancun, Conall Ó Caoimh, policy officer of Irish NGO Comhlámh, said: "Strangely, the text shows little progress on the issues of interest to developing countries, yet those issues pushed by the EU and US are included, despite the fact that there is no consensus on them. If this is what the rich countries mean by a 'Development Round', trade rules are set to stay unjust. The fine words from politicians are not matched with actions in Cancun."

Although 70 developing countries had formally submitted a letter to the facilitator, Canadian Minister Pierre Pettigrew, stating their views against the launching of negotiations on all four new issues, the 13 September Cancun draft still carried decisions to directly launch negotiations on two issues (trade facilitation and government procurement) whilst indirectly launching negotiations on investment and half launching the remaining issue (competition).

This generated a profound sense of frustration and outrage among many of the countries that had stated their no negotiations position. Similarly, the 32 developing countries championing stronger language on agriculture were angry that their concerns were not at all addressed. The Group of 21 developing countries on agriculture found that the agriculture section had been hardly changed, and they expressed dissatisfaction with the draft. The African countries that had so effectively highlighted their case for reform to the cotton subsidy regime were outraged at the paragraph on the cotton initiative which offered them "peanuts or less than nothing", as one angry diplomat put it.

Protestors, many of whom who spent the day inside the hotel zone blocking roads near the convention centre, trickled back into the city, where impromptu parties broke out in celebration of the collapse of the talks.

Much is still at stake, however, as US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick threatened that the US will now concentrate on regional and bilateral trade agreements like the Free Trade Area of the Americas to get what it wants. Critics of global capitalism everywhere are already preparing for the Miami FTAA ministerial conference.

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