The most incompetently organised and manipulated international conference

Linus Atarah

Linus Atarah in Seattle

The street scenes of police battling with protestors that dominated reports of the Seattle trade talks and carried over television networks all across the globe reflect exactly what happens in the corridors of negotiations here. It is a totally chaotic situation where ministers, delegates and even negotiators do not know exactly what is going on.

"It is the most incompetently organised international conference that I have ever been to", said Chakarvarki Raghavan, a veteran journalist who has been following trade negotiations over twenty years. It is also the most manipulated trade talks where everything is so vague that many think it is a deliberate attempt of the host nation the US to ram through its interests, delegates here say.

It is somehow surprising that the talks are so ill-organised and so incompetent given that it is taken place in nowhere than in the most powerful and technically sophisticated power in the world that we are often told everyday.

Even at one stage Pascal Lamy the EU Commissioner for trade expressed his exasperations by shouting, "for heaven sake this is Seattle can I get a microphone that works"? As an indication of the poorly organised nature of the conference, even basic facilities such as microphones suddnely stopped functioning in the middle of a speech.

"Whoever organised it, whether,Microsoft Bill Gates or the United States Trade Representative (USTR) or the Washington State, it is so incompetently orgainsed and the sentiments are so widepsread inside the conference. It is so difficult to get the normal things that everyone expects in a meeting", said Raghavan. Apart from being incomptently organised, it is also a conference where misinformation and manipulations are so blatant."This is the one meeting that I have come across that is the most manipulated of all the international conferences".

It is even reported that at one stage disagreements are so intense on the final declaration that ministers booed at Mike More, the director of WTO, leading one of them to comment that the scenes of the streets have invaded the conference rooms.

Ministers and trade diplomats here that one talks to easily voice their frustrations over the fact that the information flow is so poor and everything is so much behind schedule that the likelihood of reaching some form of agreement is very slim indeed. The negotiations are clearly in danger of ending in a stalemate, forcing them to transferred back to Geneva, headquarters of the WTO.

According to sources close to the negotiations here there is no transparency whatsoever because people are asking, "on what basis are you working?, whom did you consult?, where did the consultations take place? on part of the document are you going to address?, and how is it going to be put before us?

Such questions are being asked because there is no agreement with anybody on what to produce as a final declaration, the same fundamental questions that were posed to Mike Moore, director of the WTO and Charlene Barshefsky, the US Trade Representative two weeks ago are still asked Wednesday, two days before the conference is going to close.They were still unable to answer these questions.

Here is a question of a country where democracy is most proclaimed and yet the people on whose behalf democracy is proclaimed do not even know what is happening inside. Even negotiators don't even know where a particular text is coming from, same as ministers. They can only make a guess.

Given such a chaotic situation, experts here say the talks are likely to end inconclusively. Or two things may happen, one is that at the last moment, Barshefsky and Mike Moore may produce a paper and tell delegates that "look this is the United States and it cannot afford to lose this meeting and if it ends in a failure I am prepared to issue a delegation". That would cause telephones to ring across the capitals waking up Prime Ministers asking for instructions on what to do, and then a paper of some sort would be produced.

The inability to reach any final declaration before the Seattle talks began, and the continuing in wrnagling in Seattle shows one defect of WTO' constitution. In the WTO votes are not taken, rather all decisions must be reached by consensus. Given this situation since the trade diplomats could not reach any consensus on the various proposals presented to it by governments, inevitably it gave rise to a stalemate.

Some minister complained that in the wrangling to produce a final document some texts which were in the original versions of proposals that was mostly those put by developing countries to reflect their interest were found mysteriously removed and replaced. The texts were lost and nobody knew exactly where and when. Right opposite the headquarters of the WTO in Geneva is the United States mission, joked one minister, perhaps the texts were somewhere lost in between the two buildings.