Summary: Information / Discussion
WTO and civil society
||18 July 2002, 11:30-13:00
Moderator(s):|| • Ms. Nadine Keim, Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations|
Presenters/ Participants:|| • Mr. Taoufik Ben Abdallah, Environnement et Développement du Tiers-Monde (ENDA)|
• Mr. Hans-Peter Werner, World Trade Organization (WTO)
• Mr. Vicente Yu, Friends of the Earth International (FOE)
• Mr. Mark Halle, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
||Karen Lee (ICVolunteers)
||Transparency, WTO, consensus, policy, openness, NGO, public participation, civil society
This session focused on the relation between the WTO and civil society in
developing countries. Building on Article V:2 of the Marrakesh Agreement, the General Council further clarified, in July 1996, the framework for relations with NGOs by adopting a set of guidelines which "recognizes the role NGOs can play to increase the awareness of the public in respect of WTO activities".
These act as instrumental guidelines for both Members and the WTO Secretariat in maintaining an informal and positive dialogue with the various components of civil society. Since 1996, WTO arrangements for NGOs have essentially focused on attendance at Ministerial Conferences, participation in issue-specific symposia, and the day-to-day contact between the WTO Secretariat and NGOs.
Today’s presentation deals with the controversial issue of the WTO’s receptiveness to external participation. The presentations
are based on the conviction that civil society’s participation in the WTO is constructive. It has a role in providing technical expertise assistance, information sharing, protecting social and environmental interests, and in mobilising public support for trade related issues.
As an introduction to the topic, Mr. Mark Halle of the International Institute for Sustainable Development explained the structure of the WTO. He described the WTO as a service unit dealing with trade policies of
Governments and the provision of specialised skills to developing world. He noted that it is only through the Uruguay Round Agreement that trade policy has direct bearing on issues such as health, education and intellectual property rights. He advocated NGO inclusion, citing them as a force for debate and dispersal of information. He also stressed that public participation is especially important in influence over
Government stances on issues. He thus suggested this as another site at which NGOs can work against the veto barrier. He thus emphasised the importance of free access to information and open debate, as well as more diverse representation of interests, through forums where interim interests, such as environmental and humanitarian interests can be supported.
While recognising the importance of openness in the WTO’s relations with the public, Mr. Halle also warned of the dangers when public representation is skewed in favour of particular interest groups, specifically commercial interest groups as evidenced by the NGO representation in Singapore and Doha, as well as increasing an arguably existing WTO Northern bias, if NGO representation comes predominantly from the richer countries.
Mr. Hans Peter Werner of WTO External Relations proceeded to give details of the WTO’s relationship with civil society. Although Article V recognises that civil society has a role in increasing awareness of WTO activities, there is yet to exist a mechanism by which NGOs can directly affect WTO decisions. He mentioned a panel procedure whereby civil society can submit documents for review, but added that due to the structure of the WTO,
Governments still have the veto power over any document.
He noted encouraging signs, however, of improvements to civil society’s influence over policies through individual
Governments, as politicians become more responsive to a better-informed public. He saw the WTO opening its doors to civil society in the near future as civil society continues to press for increased transparency.
Mr. Vicente Yu, WTO Program Organiser with Friends of the Earth International, gave an NGO perspective of relations with the WTO. Citing deficiencies within the WTO system with regard to NGO participation, he spoke of limited access and opportunity for input in dispute settlement, the somewhat
ad hoc NGO participation in negotiations and rule-making, the restricted access of documents, and the problem of lack of internal transparency which skews interests, preventing effective and balanced participation. He did however note that improvements have been made including new outlets for increased information availability such as the website, the WTO document dissemination facility (DDF) and the practice of NGO briefing after every major WTO meeting.
He concluded by stressing an imperative for both internal and external transparency as a move to address the democracy deficiency.
As an NGO
representative from Senegal, Mr. Ben-Abdullah Taoufik of ENDA Tiers-Monde, enforced the message of the need for increased civil society participation. Referring to specific examples in West Africa, Mr. Taoufik cited the unpredictable impacts of generalised liberalising trade policies, the difficulties of getting
Governments to commit to certain NGO objectives, and the lack of expertise and capacity within regions, as some reasons why the WTO should not be interested solely on international trade policy. He argued that trade policies are but one of multiple aspects to building world productive capacity. He also discussed the important position the private sector plays in defining trade issues.
Mr. Jorge Daniel Taillant of CEDAH reflected on the noticeable deficiency in the number of Latin American NGOs present at the recent conference in Doha.
He spoke of the difficulty and inefficiency of obtaining visas, as well as the deliberate separation of
Government officials and NGO delegates, hindering association and discussion, and the inability to collect documents after the conference. In response to this, Mr. Werner accepted that the WTO needs to work on greater transparency but that it was up to the voting members of the WTO i.e., governments to determine the passing of policy. He put the organisation at Doha down to unfortunate circumstances and said that it should not be seen as characteristic of WTO events.
Resulting from the discussion, some practical recommendations were made. These include the real time, online posting of documents and meetings, and better compatibility between NGO and WTO software, programs and agenda amendment formatting. An interesting suggestion made by
Mr. Halle was for the “naming and shaming” of countries who block certain policies, so that states are under the obligation to account for decisions and can be pressured by civil society to change. The conclusion of
the presentation was that civil society should continue pushing for permanent accreditation within the system or for mechanisms through which the WTO can institutionally address social and environmental impacts. Meanwhile, the best tool NGOs have is through raising public awareness and influencing
Government stances. For this, transparency is crucial. Finally, given
that the WTO is a consensus-based organisation, any change will necessitate the will of countries.
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