WORLD Trade Organisation (WTO) members meet in Cancun, Mexico next month for a no holds barred fifth ministerial meeting racing against time to beat the January 2005 deadline
Trade ministers agreed at the fourth meeting in Doha, Qatar two years ago that negotiations would have been completed by January 2005.
The September 10 to 14 ministerial meeting follows the stalemate in previous meetings leading to the customary North-South political divide.
For the WTO, established eight years ago as a successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) to reduce tariffs and other barriers that inhibit fair trade practices, it has to fend off severe criticism from members particularly from the developing world for its double standards.
Among the criticisms labeled against the WTO have been the organisation’s unfair practices.
Negotiators from developing countries have since branded these informal meetings as a non-transparent and non-accountable system of decision-making, which has contributed to the crisis of legitimacy of WTO.
“This non transparency led to a stalemate even at WTO summit in Seattle,” said a negotiator. “After Seattle there were expectations that reform of the decision would be at the top of the WTO agenda.”
Instead, he said, the organisation lurched into the Fourth Ministerial Meeting with its decision-making structure unreformed and Doha became a by-word for the perversion of democracy and thwarting of the will of the majority via intimidation, threat and bribery on the part of the strong.
Developing countries have hurled abuse at the WTO as a platform where real decisions are made in backrooms by informal caucuses whose members are not determined by formal rules and votes but by informal agreements among significant players, mainly the developed countries.
As such, they argue unequivocally, decision-making processes in the negotiations were flawed and characterised by manipulations by the powerful industrialised nations.
To combat such a practice, developing countries have ganged up into blocs that would negotiate for them at the crucial meeting.
Three East African countries, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have formed a legislative assembly, the East Africa Legislative Assembly.
Headquartered in Arusha, Tanzania the assembly would carry the voices of these three countries in Cancun.
Zimbabwe has joined the league and has said that it would work with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) as part of its preparatory measures.
Analysts say as long as member countries do not agree on what action to take, the fifth ministerial meeting in Cancun would turn out to be another debacle like the Doha meeting of 2001 where members reached a stalemate on what action to take.
They say the venue of the meeting, Cancun, an island and the restrictive measures to gain entry were a means to halt possible demonstration from activists and avoid the Seattle debacle in 1999 where demonstration disrupted the meeting.
For developing countries, preparations for the summit gives them time for soul searching on whether it was prudent for them to reject the WTO Agriculture Agreement in Geneva in January.
The Review Hearing focused on a draft text of Modalities on the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) issued by Stuart Harbinson.
Known as the Harbinson Draft, participants rejected it citing its inadequacy to address the concerns of developing nations on agricultural issues.
In a statement released at the end of review hearing, participants dismissed it.
“The draft text reveals the emptiness of the Doha Ministerial Declaration’s stated intention of placing development, food security and rural livelihoods at the heart of the Doha round,” they said.
But WTO has also brought considerable technical assistance to the developing countries.
In Doha ministers agreed to recognise the needs of developing and least developed countries for enhanced technical support and capacity building.
This culminated into the Doha Developmental Agenda where members agreed to recognise the case for multilateral framework to secure transparent, stable and predictable conditions for long-term cross-border investment, particularly foreign direct investment that would contribute to the expansion of trade and the need for enhanced technical assistance and capacity building.
They pledged to work in cooperation with other rele-vant intergovernmental orga-nisations, including the United Nations Centre for Trade and Development (Unctad) and through appropriate regional and bilateral channels, to provide strengthened and adequately resourced assistance to respond to these needs.
As agreed in Doha, WTO last year pledged CHF30 million doubling the target set for a new Global Trust Fund that would boost technical assistance and help developing countries build capacity and participate fully in freer trade.