Ben Lilliston is communications coordinator for and Mark Ritchie is president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a group based in Minneapolis, Minn., that works to keep family farmers on the land.
Monday, 12 Nov 2001
This morning, day three of the World Trade Organization meeting in Qatar, felt different. For one, I got a good night’s sleep — no 3 a.m. wake-up call from jetlag, as happened the previous nights. Still, the day got off to a familiar rocky start: In the lobby of the Movenpick hotel, which was built especially for the WTO conference, delegates, the media, and NGOs quickly ran out of patience with the Qatari bus system, upon which we all depend to get to the conference center in the Sheraton.
Because of the high level of security surrounding the meeting, most attendees spend a remarkable portion of their time passing through checkpoints, getting their bags searched, and accidentally setting off alarms. Once we make it through those security stations, we must take assigned buses to a designated transfer point. From there, we’re brought to the Sheraton conference center, where we must pass through yet another steady stream of checkpoints and searches.
This morning, I visited the Qatar Exhibition Hall, which is where the nongovernmental organizations are based. It’s a good 10-minute walk from the Sheraton and we found out that most members of the press — based in the Sheraton — aren’t interested in taking the short hike in the hot Qatar sun to hear critics of the WTO. So we’ve had to take the initiative and go to the Sheraton to air our points of view. Meanwhile, in the Exhibition Hall, you can hear regular rehearsals for a variety of street theater. At noon today, a group performed an entertaining parody of the WTO process with the U.S. and E.U. trade reps appearing as puppets for big business.
After arriving at the Exhibition Hall, our crew set up shop and began the process of steadily uploading interviews, press releases, and reports onto our website.
??$, reporting about what is going on at the WTO meeting is more important than it was in Seattle, where the press was everywhere. In Doha, the U.S. press consists mostly of a few national dailies, and there have been severe restrictions on the participation of NGOs. From our unofficial count, only five U.S. NGOs critical of the WTO are here. (Businesses also count as NGOs.)
Why is the WTO in Qatar? Last year, when the WTO asked its 142 members who wanted to host its next conference, 141 members meekly left the room. They had seen what happened in Seattle, as well as ensuing global meetings in Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Davos, where critics of corporate globalization held massive protests. Only the tiny country of Qatar, a peninsula just off of Saudi Arabia, stepped forward to hold the meeting.
The WTO thought they had struck gold. It turned out the Qataris had only about 5,000 spaces for lodging. This gave the WTO the perfect excuse to limit the number of entry visas to the country, and thus limit access for anti-WTO protestors. The increasing tensions in the region associated with Sept. 11 further discouraged many delegates and NGOs from attending. The WTO, which is still longing for its salad days of relative obscurity, couldn’t have picked a better venue to avoid scrutiny.
But the WTO has become too important to ignore. So, despite the obstacles, representatives from some 200 NGOs around the world have traveled to Doha in an attempt to voice concerns about the WTO’s impact on the environment, labor issues, human rights, farming, and economic development. I can tell you firsthand, a WTO meeting is not for the squeamish. Like camel dung in the desert, the closer you get to the WTO process, the more it stinks.
As I steadily interview representatives monitoring the negotiations, it’s obvious just how fragile the WTO system is. Although countries seem to enthusiastically buy the WTO’s line that free trade is good for everyone, it quickly becomes clear that most don’t believe the propaganda — particularly not when it comes from the world’s favorite punching bag, the U.S. As a part of the WTO negotiations, the U.S. has called for reducing agriculture subsidies by countries around the world. Never mind the $22.9 billion in direct government subsidies to U.S. agriculture in 2000. Moreover, the U.S. has also called for more enforcement of patents. Forget about last month’s threat to cancel Bayer’s patent on the antibiotic that treats anthrax. Nearly every person we meet from another country talks about how badly the U.S. is behaving during negotiations.
Countries from the developing world are extremely upset with the process, charging that the current agreements on agriculture, patents, and services have not benefited them, and that they’ve been closed out of the negotiating process. The U.S. and the European Union, the powerhouses within the WTO, have been aggressively pushing for a new round of negotiations that would expand trade talks to include other issues such as investment and procurement. Developing countries want to fix the inadequacies of the existing agreements before the WTO’s jurisdiction is expanded.
While I gather information and interviews, other IATP staff meet with delegations from other countries lobbying for more favorable agriculture trade rules. At this stage, the meeting is a constant guessing game, with the media and NGOs stumbling over each other, trying to find out what the heck is going on.
The day ends at 10 p.m. with a conversation with a Nepalese waiter in a local Indian restaurant. He came to Doha, he tells us, because he could find a job that paid a decent wage. “The Qataris do not do this kind of work,” he says. Even the unemployed Qataris are paid more each month by the government than he earns in his job. The complex issues of globalization follow us even to the dinner table. On the bus back to the hotel, a fried Chinese diplomat blows up at our bus driver because we wait in the bus for a good 15 minutes before we leave. The WTO has two days to bring 144 countries together on an agreement, or risk another embarrassment. Everyone is feeling the pressure.
Tuesday, 13 Nov 2001
Although today is the first day of really serious negotiations, we have been in round-the-clock work mode for the past three days here in Doha. In some ways a great deal has happened, but in other ways it seems like just the tip of the iceberg. I hope this short report can convey some part of the feeling here in the desert.
By far the most important accomplishment thus far is the huge victory we have won in the area of the negotiations called TRIPS — Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. This is insider trade lingo for the patents on drugs and medicines. In the previous round of trade talks, the pharmaceutical industry won new trade rules for drugs to protect its private interest over public health considerations. Although there was some opposition at the time, it seemed that there was little that could be done to stop the new rules from coming into force. However, two years ago several governments facing overwhelming AIDS disasters, including Brazil and South Africa, decided that the health of their people had to come before WTO patent rules and joined with a number of public interest groups to challenge these provisions.
In less than two years, this coalition of NGOs and governments from mostly developing countries was able to defeat the combined power of the g
lobal pharmaceutical industry and their allies in the governments of the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, Australia, and Canada. It was a giant victory for civil society.
That victory was also important because of the signal it sent about the growing influence of the global trade justice movement. Here we are in Qatar, where any protest is difficult and we are very few in number (due to understandable fears for personal safety), yet we are being incredibly effective — not only blocking many bad proposals but also in advancing our own positive agenda. We know what we want to see in the way of positive fair trade rules, and we have built alliances with enough governments, especially in developing countries, to strongly influence the outcome of this meeting.
IATP has a small team here in Doha: just five of us from our Minneapolis and Geneva offices. In total, there are only about a dozen public interest NGO folks from the U.S. here, working together with around 70 NGOs from all over the world. Still, a wide range of concerns is represented, and there is a pretty good balance in terms of North-South representation. Certain topics, like the drugs issue, have dominated discussion so far, but there have been workshops and other events on almost all of the key topics — from forestry and fisheries to food safety and gender issues.
To date, almost every meeting has been characterized by cordiality. However, everyone is beginning to tire after so many days of working and so little sleep. I suspect that nerves will begin to fray, tempers will begin to flare, and confilcts will begin to erupt. We were told tonight that the organizers have informally reserved all of the meeting spaces for two extra days, so it seems we could move into an extended negotiating session very soon. We’ve also been promised that tomorrow morning we will see a new “final version” of the declaration that the WTO secretariat would like to issue at the end of the meeting. That draft will tell us a lot about whether the 144 members of the WTO can reach an overall agreement.
Thursday, 15 Nov 2001
Although I was up all night last night with food poisoning, the kind and generous people at the hospital here in Qatar took excellent care of me and I am back in the saddle at the Ministerial.
The government negotiations have now concluded their main business: agreeing on the final text for a declaration. While we do not have every last little wrinkle ironed out, the penultimate draft has been posted on the IATP WTO website. We will put in the final changes when they are made public. All of the main sessions are secret, so it takes a while to get exact details.
Here is a quick analysis of the outcome of the talks from my perspective:
- The early-on public health victory was sustained throughout the talks, with some weakening at the insistence of the U.S. government later in the week. Still, overall, this was a big win.
On the good side, environmental considerations show up in a variety of places, at least in the rhetoric. Even the ag section includes non-trade concerns, such as consideration of the landscape, biodiversity, and so forth. Another good outcome was a strong signal from developing nations that they do not want the WTO to dictate the rules for investment, government purchasing, and similar issues that worry many environmental groups. For example, the right to use eco-labels as a tool to encourage governments, schools, hospitals, and other public institutions to “buy green” has been preserved for now.
On the bad side, there is an agreement to consider subsidies for fisheries, along the lines of what the WTO has been doing with agriculture for the past 10 years. Thanks to the WTO negotiations on agriculture, government spending on subsidies in the farm and food sector has gone up … and up … and up. A much better outcome would have been an agreement to start negotiating the phase-out of export dumping of fish. Although some environmental groups view the inclusion of fisheries subsidies as a limited success, those of us who have been following the WTO for quite a while are alarmed by the idea of extending the WTO’s power into this sector.
Another bad measure is the attempt to sneak drinking water services and other “environmental products and services” into the ambit of WTO rules. In the U.S. we saw this kind of “mission creep” with the NAFTA treaty, and we know that it must be stopped quickly to protect global public goods and human rights.
On the ugly side, future talks will include negotiations about the relationship between Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and WTO agreements. The current language seems to suggest that countries that have not signed MEAs cannot be “prejudiced” under WTO rules. This would strongly discourage countries from signing global environmental treaties, because countries that didn’t sign would be protected by the WTO from any of the potential sanctions that might be imposed on them in an environmental challenge.
Maybe the most daunting outcome of the meeting is that we now have a “round” of negotiations to worry over for the next six to eight years. What that means is that there will be simultaneous negotiations on a wide range of topics — almost all of which will have some implications for the environment, family farmers, and consumers. This will stretch all of us to the limit, as did the previous Uruguay Round.
On the other hand, there are now thousands of groups all over the planet that are deeply engaged in and informed about these issues — and, perhaps best of all, dozens of governments that are our allies. The partnership that began to emerge in Seattle was even stronger in Doha, signaling a very new era for the World Trade Organization.