Power Plays in the WTO

posted by
on June 3, 2014

Power Plays in the WTO

 The African Union — which lacks official standing to participate in the World Trade Organization’s multilateral trade-liberalization negotiations — has nonetheless sparked a high-stakes diplomatic dogfight inside the WTO’s headquarters along the Rue de Lausanne in Geneva. The bitter wrangling threatens to derail the most significant negotiating success — the only such success — that the WTO has enjoyed in nearly two decades. (The WTO was launched in 1995, succeeding its venerable predecessor multilateral trade rules-making institution, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.)

Should the African Union’s power play succeed, the WTO’s credibility would be seriously damaged. “All the air will go out of our balloon,” as one European trade negotiator who asks to remain anonymous puts it. The reputation for effective leadership that has been forged by the WTO’s energetic new director general, Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, (who succeeded outgoing Pascal Lamy last September) would be tarnished. Most importantly, aspirations that millions of impoverished people from the poorer corners of the world have for better lives once again would be put on indefinite hold.

The story’s backdrop — and the agendas driving some of the secretive operatives whose fingerprints are all over the AU’s power play — dates to the anti-globalist passions of December 1999, when some of the same people famously helped wreck the WTO’s 3rd Ministerial Conference in Seattle. But the current news is pegged to important events that transpired only six months ago, on Indonesia’s famous resort island of Bali.

On Dec. 7, 2013 there were plenty of well-deserved smiles inside the convention center in Nusa Dua, Bali. After four days of intensive negotiations at the WTO’s 9th ministerial conference, the multilateral trade organization’s 159 member countries had finally overcome years of failure to negotiate a truly big international trade deal. “In recent weeks the WTO has come alive,” declared an exuberant Azevedo. “I am delighted to say that, for the first time in our history: the WTO has truly delivered.”

Win-win, for the global economy

Delivered, big time. The deal promised to boost global trade flows substantially, upwards of one trillion dollars in the coming years, according to economic guesstimates. The core of the Bali Package was a so-called “trade facilitation” agreement. Trade facilitation involves a win-win trade-off: more money and technical assistance given by rich Europeans and North Americans to poorer countries in the developing world. Trade facilitation dollars and euros help smooth international trade flows in places that badly need helping hands.

In the poorer parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, borders are notorious for being clogged. Blame the usual suspects: bureaucratic red tape that raises the costs of transactions by slowing them down, corrupt customs officials, bad roads, inefficient ports, and such. The WTO’s richer countries are already giving about $400 million annually in trade-facilitation aid to help streamline border crossings, according to OECD figures. (Unsurprisingly, Sweden and Norway have been among the most dedicated players, and also the WTO’s International Trade Centre and the World Bank.) According to the OECD, the poorest WTO member countries stand to cut their transaction costs by more than 14 percent, if the Bali Package is fully implemented. And as soon as it is, more trade-facilitation dollars are promised.

Bali was also a big win for multinational corporations — Apple, Vodafone, GE and Caterpillar, FedEx and UPS, Ericsson, E-bay, it’s a very long list — that are poised to profit from seamless movements of goods and services across presently difficult borders. But anyone with a heart would say the biggest winners — the point bears repeating — were the millions of presently poor people throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia who will have new chances to earn decent livings, thanks to the expanded commercial opportunities. Many of these deserving people have probably never heard of the WTO or its Bali Package. So there was good reason for the smiles last December in Bali.

But not everybody left Bali smiling.  A handful of the WTO’s more economically troubled members who are always suspicious of rich-country motives — including Ecuador, Bolivia, and some members of the African Union who had resisted the Bali Package — griped that the Bali deal was designed to be legally binding.

Also, in recent months, some countries like Uganda and Tanzania, which had supported trade facilitation in Bali, have apparently had second thoughts about implementing the agreement. “[R]atification of the trade facilitation agreement within the next 12 months implies that Tanzania shall be compelled to import even more goods from developing countries, thus further threaten its ailing local industries and ignite job losses,” reporter Bernard Ampulla noted in April in Tanzania’s leading Daily News. “Moreover, Tanzanian producers find it difficult to meet international competitiveness standards and other technical standards, this being an area which still needs a lot of capacity building.”

In Bali, WTO members had agreed they would draw up a formal protocol to implement the deal by July 31. The legally binding accord would then go into effect by the end of July 2015, or as soon as two thirds of the WTO’s member countries (soon to be 160, with the accession of Yemen) ratify it. Negotiators left the Nusa Dua convention center exhausted, but with high expectations that only the technical language leading to ratification remained to be ironed out.

Most importantly, the atmosphere of distrust and mutual suspicions that had dogged previous WTO ministerial meetings had started to fade away. The success in Bali spurred hopes for quick progress to (finally) conclude the broader Doha Round of trade liberalization negotiations that has made little progress since they were launched in 2001.

But it took only a little over three months for the old resentments to burst back into the open. Now, it is uncertain whether the Bali Package will be implemented on its intended schedule — or derailed.

Surprise attack from Addis Ababa

On April 27, the African Union’s trade commissioner, Fatima Acyl, issued a startling statement from the African Union’s headquarters in Addis, Ababa, Ethiopia. In it, the commissioner revealed that, at an “extraordinary session,” the AU’s trade ministers had decided that the Bali Package should not be implemented until the broader Doha Round would be concluded. (Acyl refuses to identify which African trade officials had attended the meeting.)

Acyl, a former deputy general of the Agricultural Bank of Chad, is a polished young woman, fluent in English, French, and Arabic. She was born in Washington, D.C. on May 5 (her biography does not list the year, nor note that the African diplomat is eligible to hold an American passport). She earned an MBA with honors at Ohio’s Xavier University, in Cincinnati. In the 1990s, she was an associate in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ offices in Chicago, Il. The personable Acyl was subsequently promoted several times, ending up as a manager. Her resume marks her as a rising African star.

But perhaps a lesser star in leading WTO circles in Geneva, where it has been noted that Acyl’s otherwise impressive resume does not identify any previous experience in international trade negotiations. The available public record indicates that since she was named to her present position in October 2012, Acyl has been inside the WTO’s Geneva headquarters perhaps only a handful of times, involving ceremonial occasions. The African Union has only an “ad hoc” outside observer status in the WTO, and has no role in official WTO negotiations. Acyl did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.

But there is no doubt that Acyl’s April 27 statement boldly asserted a leading role for the African Union, in instructing African ambassadors to the WTO on how they should handle implementation of the Bali Package.

“A number of our countries feel that the decisions reached in Bali, while noteworthy and commendable, were not the most optimal decisions in terms of Africa’s interests,” Acyl noted. “We have to reflect and learn from the lessons of Bali on how we can ensure that our interests and priorities are adequately addressed in the Post Bali Negotiations.”

Then she added the sentence that has resulted in the present WTO impasse in Geneva: “It is important that at this Ministerial, we instruct the negotiators of the Africa Group in Geneva to formally submit language on the Protocol of Amendment — the legal instrument that will enter the TF Agreement into force at the WTO — to the effect that the Trade Facilitation agreement will be provisionally implemented and in completion of the entire Doha Round of Negotiation.”

The Doha process has been halted several times in the past thirteen years, most recently in 2008. WTO members have failed to agree on a variety of thorny issues involving agriculture subsidies, intellectual property rights, enhanced access to protected markets for both goods and services, preventing environmentally destructive fishing practices, to cite some of the most politically sensitive.

The Bali Package’s driving idea with separating the Bali Package for early ratification was to demonstrate that the WTO could start delivering important economic benefits to all members — aiming to spark revival of the broader Doha process.

But now the African Union wants to hold the Bali deal hostage, as Africa’s bargaining chip in the overall Doha issues. Acyl admitted as much in her April 27 statement, asserting that withholding formal implementation of the Bali Package “creates strong negotiating leverage to achieve satisfactory outcomes” in the broader Doha negotiations. Whatever one’s views on trade liberalization, the “extraordinary” AU session constituted an extraordinary power play.

Talks in Geneva

Taking its cue from the AU, the WTO’s Africa Group of countries has followed the April 27 instructions. (The Africa Group’s members are essentially the same as the AU’s; with the exception that Morocco isn’t a member of the African Union. In Geneva, Lesotho’s WTO ambassador is the spokesman for the group.)

On May 26 the WTO’s trade-facilitation panel met in Geneva to draw up the official protocol for implementing the Bali Package. At that meeting, Lesotho’s Ambassador Nkopane Monyane, introduced a document that he said reflected the African Union’s April 27 statement — essentially recommending only “provisional” implementation of the Bali Package, based on the outcome of subsequent Doha negotiations. The ambassador suggested informal consultations to resolve the differences.

The next day, Uganda, which speaks for the least-developed WTO members, submitted language that would clearly peg implementation of the Bali Package to conclusion of the Doha Round. In the meetings, Tanzania and South Africa also played important supporting roles, according to diplomats who were present on both days.

Strip away the legalese and the bottom line was clear: The Africans had essentially sought to re-open the Bali negotiations. (Talk about punching above their weight in the WTO: South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Lesotho together comprise one-ninth of one percent of global trade flows.)

“No Bali, No Doha”

The African negotiating ploy has not been well received. When he heard about Fatima Acyl’s April 27 statement at a meeting in Paris last month, Karel De Gucht, the European Union’s trade commissioner, hit the ceiling. The gruff Belgian’s outburst was not meant for public attribution; EU officials decline to comment. But privately, several diplomats interviewed for this article say De Gucht issued a very blunt warning to the African Union: No Bali, No Doha. Kill the Bali Package, and you kill the Doha Round.

In last month’s Geneva meetings of the WTO’s trade facilitation group, representatives from a range of countries — including Norway, the EU, the United States, Mexico, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore — have echoed De Gucht’s warnings, although in more diplomatically nuanced language. The Bali deal has very generous terms for the African countries, they have argued. The pro-Bali WTO leaders have noted how the trade-facilitation deal was designed to take the political poison out of the air, and build confidence for the successful conclusion of the broader Doha process. Don’t destroy the crucial good will, the Africans are being urged.

The African side of the story

The only African ambassador who responded to a request for comment was Lesotho’s Nkopane Monyane.

The African Union “is a member driven organ based in Addis Ababa, that takes continental decisions not attributable to any single member,” the ambassador explains. “Lesotho as a member, with a resident Ambassador in Addis, has not made any effort counter the Bali process.”

Concerns that his country is out to delay or kill the Bali deal are based on mere “speculative misinformation,” he insists. “I will guarantee that you will not find any evidence, written oral or in any form of presentation, of Lesotho as a sovereign state advocating a delay in the implementation of the Bali Decision.” The ambassador adds: “Lesotho remains fully committed to the successful implementation of Bali, conclusion of the DDA and stability of the Multilateral Trading System.” (DDA refers to the Doha “Development” Round.)

Other experienced WTO watchers point out that Africans are legitimately concerned that the Europeans and Americans have been slow to detail precisely how they intend to implement their Bali (financial) promises. When the Africans say, “Show us the money” on trade facilitation, they aren’t necessarily being cynical, one senior European diplomat observes.

Moreover, there is plenty of room for skepticism that the rich countries still lack the political will to make the necessary bargains that would resolve the difficult Doha Round issues. The Africans are clearly right to complain that the Obama White House in Washington, D.C. has never assigned a high priority either to the WTO or its Doha process. It is important to understand that there are “good-faith” reasons for African doubts about the rich countries’ intentions, as another well-placed European trade official puts it.

Heading South

But not all players have reputations for supporting WTO negotiations in good faith. Enter the South Centre. Based in Geneva, the South Centre’s 51 member governments range from Algeria to Zimbabwe. North Korea (not a WTO member) apparently finds the intergovernmental organization as a listening post, as does Iran (not a member, but which has official observer status in the WTO).

On trade, the Centre serves as a useful platform to advance the views of WTO member countries that tend to resist trade liberalization: Malaysia, Bolivia, Cuba, South Africa, Venezuela, and Tanzania. The South Centre does not cultivate a reputation for transparency; it refuses to disclose the sources of its financing, other than to assert on its website that the majority comes from member countries.

Transparent or not, the South Centre’s fingerprints are evident in the ongoing African moves to delay or undo implementation of the Bali Package’s trade-facilitation deal. The legal arguments advanced by the African Union’s Fatima Acyl, for example, dovetail with language used by the South Centre. On Nov. 15, 2013, the Centre published a “South Experts’ Report” that argued that the WTO should reject any Bali Package that would be legally binding upon poor countries. The “least developed countries should be exempted from undertaking binding commitments,” the document asserted. The paper also argued that any deal that might be reached on trade facilitation in Bali only be implemented upon the subsequent conclusion of the Doha Round.

To veteran WTO observers, the fact that the African Union used the same legal arguments first advanced by the South Centre is no coincidence. The South Centre’s executive director, Martin Khor, declines to comment. (A Centre spokesman was not authorized to share any information that wasn’t already on the organization’s website.)

Khor is a well-known figure in Geneva, where his basic approach to the WTO is that it lacks transparency and is a forum where rich countries foist their will upon poor countries.

Khor played a leading role in the vociferous anti-globalist demonstrations that wrecked the WTO’s 1999 Seattle meetings. He opposed the launch of the Doha Round two years later, and in 2003 helped cause the acrimonious collapse of the WTO’s meetings in Cancun. Another South Centre activist who has long been in the same anti-globalist network is Aileen Kwa. Kwa has written a book based on the premise that the WTO’s Doha negotiations are “a byword for the perversion of democracy.”

Last December, Khor worked against adoption of the trade-facilitation deal in Bali as an official member of the delegation from Ecuador.

A Malaysian, he has long been considered close to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. (Long known for his tart tongue when it comes to anything American, Mahathir has recently blamed the CIA for a conspiracy to hide information on missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Khor, a columnist for the Malaysian newspaper, The Star, has also been railing against spying by U.S. intelligence agencies.)

Ironically, while Khor is a strong critic of any economic proposal tainted with American backing, he personally has long benefitted from American financial support. For example, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which formerly supported Khor when the activist was with the Third World Network, has given the South Centre $1.6 million since 2009. Last year, the Ford Foundation chipped in another $250,000 — saying that the money was needed because “financial markets need the oversight of democratic institutions to ensure transparency and accountability.” (Another irony: of well-heeled American philanthropy citing transparency as justification for supporting an organization that has North Korea as a member.)

The $1.8 million American cash from Ford and Rockefeller far outweighs what some South Centre members contribute in dues to the WTO. Last year, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda, for instance, contributed a collective $362,481 in WTO dues. Given the South Centre’s secrecy, it is not possible to compare the sums such member countries give to the WTO.

WTO watchers will have their next opportunity to learn if the Africans have released their Bali hostage when the trade-facilitation group meets again on June 24 in Geneva to consider adopting the protocol for implementing the Bali Package. Stay tuned.