by Aileen Kwa, Focus on the Global
Aileen Kwa is a Research Associate with Focus on the Global South,
currently based in Geneva. She works on WTO issues pertaining to developing countries. A
large part of her work is to track WTO negotiations, and to send out analyses to NGO
groups on the problems developing countries are experiencing in the negotiating process.
She also works with Geneva-based developing country delegates to the WTO on a variety of
Aileen Kwa's publication, Power and Politics in the WTO, was
launched at the Seminar and is available through the Focus on the Global South website www.focusweb.org
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is often portrayed as the pinnacle of the multilateral
system of global economic governance. It prides itself for being a rules-based
organisation, without which, world trade would descend into the anarchy of the jungle. And
then, we are told, the poor and weak would go to the wall.
This report, Power and Politics in the WTO, unveils a different
reality. The WTO is in fact one of the most undemocratic organisations around. At critical
moments of WTO negotiations, there simply are no procedural rules. The rules of
decision-making that do exist are frequently flouted.
Formally speaking, the WTO makes decisions through consensus and a
one-country, one-vote system. Yet actual decision-making is done with a great deal of
informality, and largely behind closed doors between only about 2530 Members. The
consensus arrived at is then imposed on the rest of the Members as a
take-it-or-leave-it package. In such a system, the majority of developing countries are
reduced to damage control and scrabbling to secure negligible benefits. Most receive
nothing, and silently acquiesce against their better judgement, condemning themselves to a
system that has so far proved highly unbalanced and detrimental to their interests. They
do this to avoid the political and economic repercussions of displeasing the powerful
The result? Highly inequitable trade rules that favour the interests of
the powerful. The poor and weak are going to the wall. And precisely because of the
WTO and its rules. The marginalisation of the majority is a serious concern since the
WTOs 23 agreements have sweeping social, economic and political implications on all
its 144 members.
How is it that the less than fair trade rules are endorsed by
developing countries? What is going on behind the scene that allows this to happen? This
report presents sordid evidence of the manipulation and subversion of decision-making and
rule-making at the WTO. It illustrates the exact points in the process and strategies used
by the influential Members and the less than neutral WTO Secretariat, that allow the will
of the majority to be subverted.
Developing country negotiators are the ones that bear testimony to the
decision-making and process problems at the heart of the trading system. The report draws
on extensive interviews with delegates who are daily grappling with these problems.
Quotes from the publication
We are simply asking for fair and equitable rules that would take into account
our development needs and allow us to participate fully in the trade system. But instead
we risk being pressured once again into accepting rules we dont need and cant
Ambassador Nathan Irumba, Mission of Uganda and Representative of the Least
Developed Countries (LDC) at the WTO.
This is quite a remarkable statement. Six years after the founding
of the WTO, and three years after the debacle of the Seattle Ministerial, the
representative of the poorest members of the WTO feels it is still necessary to ask for
fair and equitable rules.
But the WTO prides itself exactly on being a rules-based
organization. The argument is that without the rules of the WTO, world trade would descend
into the anarchy of the jungle. And then, we are told, the poor and the weak would go to
This image, as we are about to demonstrate, is not true.
This paper will show that at crucial points in the WTO system, there
simply are no rules. Attempts to set fair and equitable rules are routinely
rebuffed. Some rules are made up on the spot in a way that cannot be fair and
equitable. And the rules that do exist are commonly flouted, not just by the rich
and powerful countries, but also by the supposedly neutral WTO staff.
But there is one respect in which the WTO scenario outlined above is
quite true. The poor and the weak are going to the wall. And precisely because of
the WTO and its rules.
The claim is made not by ideologues with an axe to grind, not by ivory
tower academics, not by people who can be brushed aside as anti-WTO activists. It is made
by the people best placed to know, by ambassadors and government officials to the WTO.
These are the people who are supposed to represent the interests of the weak and the poor.
Their own words show how the South is marginalized in the WTO.
Developing countries are reduced to damage control and scrabbling to
secure negligible benefits. A few with sufficient negotiating clout are given minor
rewards to ensure their compliance. Most receive nothing, and silently acquiesce against
their better judgment, condemning themselves to the enlargement of a system that has so
far proved to be highly unbalanced and detrimental to their own interests. Theyat Doha in November 2001 put more
agreements on the table. Member states are required to change their national laws to
ensure compliance with WTO agreements. Non-compliance can result in a country being hauled
before the Dispute Settlement Body, the WTOs own court of law.
This report presents evidence of the manipulation and subversion of
decision-making and rule-making at the WTO. How is it that less than fair rules are
endorsed by developing countries? What is going on behind the scene that allows this to
happen? We show the exact points in the process and the strategies that allow the will of
the majority to be subverted.
Unless the rules by which the WTO itself operates are made fair,
developing countries are unlikely to make progress in bringing more equity to any of the
substantive areas: TRIPS, services, agriculture, nor in the new negotiations launched at
Doha. This was felt keenly by many countries before the Doha ministerial. One delegate had
this to say at that time:
It is not a question of substance. Nobody can say that we have
not participated. We have done so, and we have simply been ignored. The text [Doha draft
declaration] does not take our interests into account. We will not have a third draft, not
because we have no time. The text came in on Saturday. By Monday, we sent a letter signed
by 20 developing countries to make changes in implementation. And he [the Chair of the
General Council, Stuart Harbinson, ambassador of Hong Kong] simply said no. We all know
why he said that, because our Ministers will have a difficult time. We are in the worst
possible situation, and it is a question of politics, not a lack of arguments.
B. L. Das, former Indian Ambassador to the GATT, also describes how
developing countries end up compromising their own interests:
If [developing country
negotiators] feel that any proposal is not in the interest of their country, they oppose
it. Their opposition is quite firm sometimes, and they stick to their line almost till the
very end. But finally when intense pressures are built up in the capitals or if all other
countries have acquiesced in the proposal, they also drop their objection and remain
sullenly silent. Decisions are taken to which they become parties even though they had
earlier raised objections. And in this manner their countries get bound by the obligations
imposed by the decisions. The immediate political cost of withholding consensus appears to
them to be much heavier than the burden of these obligations in the future.
The strategies used by the powerful to bring about such an outcome are
the topic of this publication.
The voices of developing country negotiators that appear in this paper
are seldom heard by the public. Yet they are the ones that bear testimony to the
decision-making and process problems at the heart of the trading system. A conscious
effort has been made in this document to bring these voices to the fore. Almost thirty
interviews were conducted after the Doha ministerial for this purpose. Most delegates, out
of fear of repercussions on their jobs or pressure on their capitals, have chosen to