For strategic coordinaton

Print edition : August 28, 1999

WITH the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to be held at Seattle in the United States, between November 30 and December 4, fast approaching, social organisations across the world are trying to influence the stand of the gov ernments in their respective countries. A two-day conference of consumer groups, organised in Bangalore by the Jaipur-based civil society Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) on the occasion of the G-15 ministerial meeting, supported this strategy, an d called for unity among the countries of the South (developing countries) in achieving their goal.

The message from the conference titled 'Southern Agenda for the Next Millenium: Role of the Civil Society' was primarily three-fold - oppose any new round of negotiations, discuss existing problems, and, most importantly, urge governments of the South to involve civil societies as they prepare for the Seattle Round.

The conference exhorted developing countries to coordinate strategically in order to identify common interests and negotiate collectively to advance them. It called upon the civil societies to ensure that equity and social justice are given priority at t he negotiations and the interests of consumers, rural and urban workers, small farmers and other vulnerable groups are safeguarded. The conference asked governments of the South to encourage, support and collaborate with civil society organisations in th eir countries, and not to put issues such as investment and government procurement on the agenda of the WTO until existing and negotiated issues were resolved satisfactorily.

Pradeep Mehta, secretary-general of CUTS, said: "While civil societies in the North (developed world) are pushing issues, in India (as in other developing countries) the Government does not even want to acknowledge our presence. The U.S., for example, is encouraging trade unions to talk about social clauses. The Indian Government should want us to be part of the bandwagon opposing new WTO rounds like the Millennium Round, which is being advocated by some countries of the developed world. Civil society p articipation can help sharpen the Government's agenda on specific issues like environment, labour standards, investment policy, competition policy and government procurement - issues that are likely (disregarding the G-15 opposition to it) to be pushed a t Seattle."

Delegates at the conference, such as former Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey, opined that developing countries should realise that "bargaining positions of countries are not equal". He cited the example of the U.S., which, because it was not pleased with the conclusions of the initial round of negotiations on telecom and financial services, saw to it that another round was held. This it did by first using the Association of Petroleum Exporting Countries (APEC) forum as a building block, getting APEC to endorse the need for a fresh round of negotiations. Subsequently, the U.S. stand was reaffirmed at the recent ARF Foreign Ministers' meeting in Singapore.

Dubey also felt that the G-15 would be unable to forestall the WTO sponsoring another round (the Millennium Round), of discussions which would in all probability take up such issues as e-commerce and investment. Dubey said: "For one thing the G-15 is not organised enough and for another, it is too vulnerable."

The conference also expressed the need for the governments of developing countries to be pragmatic - by refraining from saying 'no' for the sake of it, realising their positions, strengthening it and then bargaining effectively.

The message conveyed by the conference was that governments from developing countries should work at two levels - public posturing and private preparation. While a G-15 ministerial meeting can provide the public posturing, it was according to Mehta, equa lly important to put forward privately one's concerns and be prepared to negotiate them".

Mehta said that non-governmental organisations like CUTS could make effective contributions if they were allowed to participate in the negotiating process, "We are not asking for a seat at the negotiating table since the WTO is a contractual body. What w e want is transparency. For example, we could be given the annotated agenda in time. This will help us talk to our governments and, through our sister organisations, to their governments."

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