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Moore Offers Kinder WTO, Critics Unimpressed

by Johanna Son

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(IPS) BANGKOK -- Mike Moore, the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Feb. 16 offered a new, gentler trade body that has learned the lessons from the Seattle "setback."

But to his critics, his remarks, which referred not only to economic but the "moral imperative" to make the world trading system work for the poorest countries, did not indicate real reform of structures and strategies biased against developing nations.

"No organization can remain unchanging and unresponsive to changing demands if it wants to stay relevant," he told the UNCTAD X conference here, which ends Feb. 19. "And we are changing."

But Walden Bello, director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South, says Moore's address to UNCTAD, a U.N. body recognized for its support for developing countries, was just an attempt to "see if he can get some that (U.N.) legitimacy."

"Since Seattle, the WTO has changed a little bit, but not much," added Yash Tandon of the Zimbabwe-based International South Group Network.

Indeed, an Indian member of Parliament, Shri Suresh Pachouri, bluntly told Moore that the negative perception of the Geneva-based body is due to "a genuine feeling that some of the WTO disciplines run counter to the development interests of developing countries."

"The WTO's agenda seems to be driven more by the interests of multinational corporations rather than equity considerations," he added.

Warns against a "simplistic or hasty" approach to complaints about 30 nation WTO elite
In the three months since trade talks collapsed at Seattle, Moore has been sounding out countries on concerns ahead of a new trade round that had been on the agenda last year.

In response to a query from South Africa, Moore said he many developed and developing countries were supportive of resumed negotiations -- but that they also believed that it could only be done after "a large measure of agreement" has been reached on key issues.

"There has been a fundamental change of position in Seattle, but I'm not in a position to stay there has been enough progress (for a round) yet," Moore said.

"In Seattle we were too far apart on a number of issues -- labor, agriculture, anti-dumping, investment, competition policy -- and until we are much closer and more flexible, we will not be able to reconvene," he added, calling his consultations part of "confidence-building" process in WTO.

To try to rebuild WTO's credibility, bruised by its and the U.S.' forcing of their agenda in Seattle and untransparent negotiations there limited only to some countries, Moore laid down the policies that the organization wants to get support on, slowly.

These are a package of measures for the world's 48 least developed countries (LDCs), improving funding for technical cooperation, addressing developing countries' problems with implementing previous trade commitments and improving the WTO's "internal procedures for consultation and decision-making."

"We will begin consultations on how we operate," Moore pointed out, conceding that many developing nations in Seattle "felt excluded or marginalised."

But he warned against a "simplistic or hasty" approach to complaints about the select, so-called "Green Room" negotiations involving about 30 of the WTO's 135 members.

He also drew the line at tinkering with the WTO's use of consensus to reach decisions, calling it a principle "at the heart of the WTO system and which is a fundamental democratic guarantee (that) must be upheld."

Bello says this is where Moore was "not really that frank." The real reason behind opposition to changing the consensus rule is the fact that the big economic powers like the U.S. and European Union would have "problems with a majority vote."

More than two-thirds of WTO members are developing countries, whose votes could easily outnumber that of industrialized nations who account for 80 percent of world trade.

The issue of the transparency of WTO negotiations remains touchy. Some officials from developing countries and even Supachai Panitchpakdi, the deputy Thai premier who will take over the post of WTO chief from Moore in 2002, has said the "Green Room" practice is needed in some form because it was difficult to negotiate among all members. He did say, however, that it should be made more inclusive.

Tandon says that despite Moore's more conciliatory tone about reforms in the post-Seattle era, the WTO still did not address the most crucial areas for developing countries suffering from the ill effects of hasty liberalization.

"The developing nations continue to demand issues of fundamental concern and none of these came up in Moore's remarks," he said, pointing to debt and terms of trade.

"The developing countries ask for one, two, three and four, and the industrialized countries talk of five, six, seven and eight -- and say they know what is best for the developing world," said Aileen Kwa of the Focus of the Global South.

She was referring to remarks Feb. 16 by Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development, that her country knew what the developing countries needed, including a new round of trade talks. "The mood among some developing countries is still to resist a comprehensive round. If developing countries (continue to be) defensive, they will miss opportunities," she said.

Moore, along with many developed countries, has been vocal about the need to give LDCs unfettered access to the markets of industrialized economies. He said he hoped to have positive results on an LDC package by Easter.

A provision on LDCs is being negotiated for inclusion in a draft plan of action that the UNCTAD X is to issue when the conference ends on Feb. 19.

But even the scope of this measure -- whether quota-free or duty-free entry or both -- has proven to be contentious even though the LDCs share of world trade is a mere 0.5 percent.

The EU has been calling for support for its proposal for duty and quota free access to exports by LDCs.

Gerrit Ybema, the Netherlands' minister for foreign trade, went further by suggesting that developed countries exercise "restraint" in starting dispute settlement mechanisms against LDCs if they are unable to comply with the transition periods for the liberalization of goods under the Uruguay Round.

The issue of implementation of such trade commitments was also a sticking point in Seattle, where developing countries opposed a new round to discuss more areas of liberalization while they were still having problems coping with recent commitments.

Reforming the WTO and what Bello called a "jurassic" institution will not be easy because it is in the end about politics, says Rashid Kaukab of the Geneva-based South Center and a former trade negotiator for Pakistan.

Then again, even criticism of the WTO is not always entirely supported by developing countries who prefer a multilateral trading system than having to deal bilaterally on their own, with giant economies, he noted.

Finally, there was one clear reminder at Moore's session Feb. 16 that the discussion was not being held in secretive fora: The Iranian representative could freely criticize the WTO for not acting on its application to join.

"I wish to mention here that our application for accession to the WTO has not been processed due to political motives," complained Shariatmadari, Iran's commerce minister.

"This could never have happened in Geneva," remarked Chakravarthi Raghavan of SUNS, a publication that monitors the WTO and trade issues there.

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Albion Monitor February 13, 2000 (

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