African countries agree to withdraw consensus

Linus Atarah

Linus Atarah in Seattle

The dust has not yet settled over the disagreements and confusion that marked the Seattle trade talks
as the negotiations draw to their final conclusion Friday. A final declaration is expected Friday that should form the basis for launching of next round of trade negotiations. The US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told ministers the conference would conclude at 18:00 Friday.

However it is unclear how the conference will conclude. Ministers and negotiators were still milling around in the cafes and in the pressroom without a clear idea of the outcome of the meeting. The danger of a breakdown of the
talks is very imminent, and even WTO officials are prepared to admit. "Never underestimate the prospect of a
breakdown, it is at a very delicate stage" WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters here Thursday.

This is accentuated by the fact that trade ministers of the Organisation African Unity and the African Economic Community the African countries issued a press statement here Friday to expressed their "disappointment and disagreement" at the way the negotiations are being conducted in the WTO Third Ministerial Conference. They have threatened to withdraw their consensus and that would pave the way for the negotiations to collapse, since without it there cannot be an agreement to carry through the final proposals.

All procedures -- that is, the step by step approach in an international meeting of such nature -- are
simply disregarded and final texts are drafted in secrete rooms, deleting views put across by African countries as if they had not participated in the working groups.

"There is no transparency in the proceedings and the African countries are being marginalised and generally excluded on issues of vital importance for our peoples", said the statement.

Given these circumstances the statement said, "we will not be able to joint the consensus required to meet the objectives of this Ministerial Conference". That essentially means that the talks will collapse since without a consensus, as required by the WTO rules, there will not be a final declaration on the basis of which to launch the next round of talks.

However, Yash Tandon journalists on Friday that it does not yet signal the collapse of the talks because he hoped the US Trade Representative would still do something to address the concerns of the African countries in order to salvage the negotiations.

Like most of the developing countries, the African countries are demanding that the Uruguay Round gave them very little and so they are not prepared to engage in another round of talks loaded with new issues while they are still struggling with the problem of implementation from the previous negotiations.

"After the Uruguay Round the African countries faced barrage of criticisms from their constituencies that we had traded the family cow for a bag of potatoes", said Yash Tandon the Zimbabwean delegate in the talks. So they very careful that a similar incident will not be repeated this time.

Similar sentiments of withdrawal of consensus were also heard among the Latin American delegates. The African countries for the first time in such international meetings have been able to reach a common position and are firm on it that there should not be the inclusion of new issues in the next round of talks without addressing the repair of the Uruguay Round. These new issues are investment and competition policy and government procurement.

They would also like a repair of a whole range of issues in the previous agreement, including TRIPS, TRIMS, Subsidies, Services, Agriculture and on Special and Differential Treatment.

According to Tandon the US Trade Representative Charelene Barshefsky is under political pressure to produce an agreement at all costs therefore she is all out to ram proposals through disregarding all procedures.

For instance, the Kenyan delegate who was supposed to chair the working group on Implementation left for his hotel because the working group was postponed with no new time indicated. But later on the working group went ahead without him anyway. Kenya is at the forefront in the struggle of the African to prevent the inclusion of new issues in the next round of trade talks.

Similarly on Thursday in a subtle attempt to sabotage a meeting of the African delegates, the microphones suddenly the
microphones went mute for half an hour.

Tandon pointed however, that in trying to marginalise the African and other developing countries, the US is acting against its own interest because the functioning of a proper multilateral trading system requires the support of all countries.

In another incident on Friday the Fiji delegate waited for a meeting on the workgroup on Agriculture that never took place. However, at a meeting of a Committee of the Whole comprising all of the WTO member countries at the conference a text suddenly emerged purporting to have been drafted by the working group on Agricuture that never took place. The Fiji delegation was utterly surprised and immediately launched protest.

There has been a general outrage at the way the US and its powerful allies have manipulated the Seattle Ministerial Conference of the WTO. The African Trade Network comprising a number of civil society organisations also issued a statement denouncing the way the rules of the WTO are being changed in a most undemocratic manner.

"When we talk about trade we are talking about real people who suffer the consequences of these trading structures, said Mohau Pheko of South Africa member of the ATN. In the light of these the African Trade Network urged civil society groups in the US and the EU to call on their governments to behave according to the rules and stop being bullies.