QPSW at the WTO

Monday, December 19, 2005

Never the twain will meet? (photo: Martin Kunz)

Sunday 18th December: It’s over, but only just

Probably the best move that our delegation made today was to take the morning off from the conference centre to join Hong Kong Friends for Meeting and lunch. In what has been a tiring and frustrating day for all, it was good to take some time out, meet new Friends and think about something other than tariffs and quotas!

When we arrived at the conference centre just after three, it soon became clear that for those of us restricted to “Phase 2” of the conference centre very little was happening. This was not really surprising as we had heard on the news earlier this morning that yesterday’s Heads of Delegations meeting where the revised ministerial text was discussed, had gone right through the night and broke up about eight this morning. It would take time to make the necessary revisions to the text and for ministers to discuss the night’s outcome amongst their coalition groups, with the relevant ministries in their capital cities and with the rest of their delegations.

According to those we spoke to, a number of press conferences had been cancelled and everyone was quite literally sitting around waiting for news. Eventually word got around that another version of the draft text had emerged and the usual scramble started as people rushed to get hold of a copy. Delegations however seemed to be locked down pouring over the changes that had been made and making decisions as to which parts of it could be considered acceptable. This paper, with a number of minor amendments was in the end. adopted as the formal ministerial conference declaration.

India, Brazil and then the rest of the G20 were the first to break the silence. India came out fairly heavily in favour of what was being proposed. Minister of Commerce and Industry, Kamal Nath welcomed the proposed deal, stating that it established “contours” for the rest of the round and that at last things seemed to be heading in the right direction. Crucially we learned, that providing there were no major amendments when the heads of delegations met again, G20 countries were all prepared to accept what had been proposed with regard to agriculture. As agriculture had been a major stumbling block in these talks, it seemed finally that an agreement was in sight.

It is clear however; that on this crucial issue, the G20 did not get everything they wanted. In fact a number of the group’s members, particularly Argentina and Tanzania seemed to be quite reserved and certainly much less keen on the deal than India purported to be. This having been said a number of concessions appear to have been made on at least some of their demands. These, the group emphasised were only possible because of the newfound unity between the various developing country groups that made up the so-called G110 (see blog from Friday 16th Dec). The group had been particularly vocal about the need to establish a date for the end of agricultural export subsidies, preferably before 2010. The EU had been especially reluctant to grant this, but after a long night of hard negotiations, and probably in light of Brussels’ decision yesterday about the EU’s budget, a date was finally set for 2013.

On other development issues, it appeared that there had been some agreement on providing the 49 Least Developed Countries’ goods with duty and quota free access to developed and some developing country markets, which would make it easier for them to sell their goods abroad. Whilst this is certainly a move forward, this agreement was only for 97% of LDC goods, rather than the 100% of goods that they had hoped for. As such it is likely that some countries will put restrictions on the types of Least Developed Country products that can be exported on this basis.

There were a number of areas where some developing countries and some NGOs have expressed concern. In particular groups including Oxfam and Action Aid came out heavily against the agreement on services, which they said would make it more likely that developing countries would have to open up key services like education and health to foreign competition. The World Development Movement claimed that this would wipe out the gains that had been made in agriculture and on duty and quota free market access for the poorest countries.

As ministers went back into negotiations the waiting started again. Rumours circulated that there were still a number of sticking points, particularly on services and on cotton. The former at least was confirmed at the conference’s closing ceremony later on. After about 5pm information screens announced the closing ceremony was due to start in half an hour. 5.30 came and went and the start time was put back by half an hour, this happened again, and again, with rumours that a deal was about to be announced, then that discussions were likely to continue well into the night.

Eventually around 10pm it became clear that something was about to happen. At what felt like a hastily arranged closing session, which we watched from the big screens in the press centre, the chair moved to adopt the draft text and banged his gavel to signify that this was so. Not long afterwards there was a moment of shock as first a Cuban delegate stood up and said that his delegation had reluctantly accepted the agreement and had significant reservations about the text on services. This was shortly followed by a Venezuelan delegate who said that he had similar concerns about the text on agriculture, services, and industrial goods. However, at this point the ministerial declaration had been officially adopted and there was no going back. The chair noted these objections and then promptly moved on to other items of business.

So where does this leave us?

Well, as had been expected for the last month or so, the conference clearly did not deliver the full framework agreement that had been the original expectation. According to the WTO’s director General, the Hong Kong result means that its members are 60% of the way needed to complete the round. The official deadline and aspiration for completion is the end of 2006, although many believe that the real deadline is the end of 2007 when the US government’s mandate from Congress for negotiating trade agreements runs out. Negotiators will now need to go back to Geneva to decide how to take the talks forward and there is an expectation that another ministerial style conference will need to happen in the first half of 2006.

It will probably take some time to digest what has happened and find out what it really means for the world’s poor. A lot needs to be done before we reach the end of this ‘development’ round and before some of the thorniest issues are decided. The hope is, that developing countries will be able to maintain unity and that the political will be found in the developed world so that real gains can be made for the world’s poorest people.

QPSW will be providing more analysis on the outcome of the Hong Kong ministerial conference in the January edition of Better World Economics our newsletter on economic justice, available by email, or by post within the UK. For a free subscription send an e-mail to suzannei@quaker.org.uk

For more impressions from the Hong Kong ministerial conference see the website of the Quaker United Nations Office: http://www.quno.org/

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Protestors surround the conference centre (Photo: Martin Kunz)

The QPSW delegation meets West African cotton farmers (Photo: Martin Kunz)

Saturday 17th December. Waiting……and waiting

Today it seems as everyone – in the NGO and press centres at least have been playing a waiting game and at the moment it looks like this is set to continue.

There has been a marked difference in the mood of the meetings – both inside and out of the centre. Inside, yesterday’s many press and NGO briefings have turned into almost total silence on the part of the delegations as they work to bring about a successfully completion to these meetings by tomorrow afternoon. A number of press conferences have been cancelled at the last minute and the few that have actually happened have been fairly brief. It really does seem that everyone is locked down inside the negotiating room for the foreseeable future.

As the waiting continues, some of the campaigning groups here have been busy handing out merchandise promoting their positions. The most popular seem to be the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ tags which are like large ribbon necklaces and are being attached to people’s official conference badges. Others are wearing ‘no to annex C’ stickers referring to the text on services that has been so unpopular with the G90 grouping of developing countries. The African cotton producers are also doing the rounds and handing out small bags of raw cotton in bags proclaiming that “Subsidies of the North Kill the South Economies.”

It is clear that as we approach the end of the conference, almost everyone is getting weary. I’ve seen several people, press, NGOs and delegates catching the odd forty winks at the back of lecture theatres and even on the floor. Almost everyone in the NGO centre seems to have bags under their eyes. I assume at least that we NGO people are getting more sleep than the negotiators so it’s anyone’s guess how people are feeling in the greenrooms at the moment.

The big news came just after lunchtime when word got out that there was a new version of the ministerial text making its way around the centre. According to the people behind the documentation desk at that time, there was no public, official version of this so quite where it came from is anyone’s guess. However, whatever the origin it wasn’t long before what seemed like every photocopier in the conference centre was whirring away and had a backlog of people queuing to use it to make sure they got their own copy. Not long afterwards, some of the larger NGOs started producing statements, mostly opposing what they had seen.

In the areas that QUNO and QIAP are working on, the new text has seen a little progress, although not as much as developing countries would have liked. The Indian proposal that negotiations should begin on rules which would help to prevent bio-piracy (by requiring companies or individuals patents position on genetic resources to register the country of origin of the resource in question and any traditional knowledge on which it is based) has received some attention. The text as we have seen it does not mean that new rules will be definitely negotiated but the issue has been put on the agenda and must be now be discussed.

We are told that the heads of each delegation met this evening at 7pm and that after that negotiations about making final amendments to the text will continue through the night and into tomorrow. Some of the press can be heard gearing themselves up to take interviews at three or four in the morning.

As I write this most delegations seem to be assessing the new draft and preparing their responses to it. We have heard the G20’s initial assessment that on agriculture that there have been some “micro steps forward” but that their key demand that a date be set for the elimination of agricultural export subsidies has not been met. Brazil claims that the EU and US are busy blaming each other as to why a deal cannot be made here. We have yet to hear from either of those delegations since the new text came out so have no first hand information on their real assessments.

When we went outside the centre this afternoon to grab some lunch, we noticed that the already high levels of civilian security staff and police have been joined by what looks like hundreds of military personnel, a relatively high proportion of whom (well at least more than I expected) appear to be women. Dressed in full riot gear and some carrying full-length shields, they were marching in formation up the main street outside as another layer of barriers were hastily erected. Just a couple of hours later as crowds gathered round South Korean TV’s live feed in the press room, it became clear why. More protesters were being fished out of the harbour outside and soon after we were seeing pictures of what looked like a full scale riot going on outside. What we have seen looks quite vicious – on both sides and tear gas has been used in an attempt to disburse the angry crowd.

At one point this evening we were informed that the conference centre had been sealed and we would be stuck there until the blockades were lifted. Looking out the window, in the distance and behind the speedily erected security cordon there were huge crowds, mainly we were told consisting of Korean farmers determined to disrupt the meetings. After some waiting and much speculation about what was going on and that there was a route out through one of the luxury hotels attached to the conference centre, we Quaker delegates that were left decided to try and make it home. In the end it wasn’t actually a problem but it was clear that much of the area around the conference centre was sealed off and that the military was remaining prepared from the worst.

Its clearly going to be a long night for those left in the conference centre but for the rest of us, we’ll just have to wait to see what tomorrow brings.
To see reflections from other Quaker representatives at the Hong Kong talks, see the website of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) http://www.quno.org/economicissues/Dispatches.htm

Friday, December 16, 2005

A West African cotton farmer challenges the US Trade Representative. (Photo: Martin Kunz)

The new G110. Can the coalition last? (Photo QPSW)

Friday 16th December: A historic moment?

Today’s big news is the creation of a potentially crucial alliance between 110 developing countries of all sizes and stages of development. This was announced early this afternoon by ministers representing the existing G20, G33, African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) African, Least Developed Countries and Small Economies groupings. Each minister spoke in turn, stating that the time had come to put “development” back into the “development round” and that this would only happen if developing countries stuck together and resisted being divided.

Much has been made here about how the differences that exist between the Least Developed countries such as Zambia and the richer developing countries such as India and Brazil and how these will make it more difficult to get development related concessions from rich countries. (See this blog from 14th December) This press conference seemed at least in part to try and deflect such speculation and possibly also some of the heavy pressure that we are told has been put upon some developing country delegations to break away from coalition positions. The ministers recognised that they had their differences but reiterated that this wouldn’t stop them formulating and maintaining a joint position on key development issues. As the Egyptian minister put it, it was important that this group was able to resolve its differences among itself – not have others try to do it for them

The whole event was highly emotionally charged, and no doubt designed to be so. Several of the statements resulted in thunderous applause – at least from the NGOs present. At the end, a spokesman from Oxfam and the organisation’s honorary president, Mary Robinson the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights were invited up onto the stage to present their ‘Big noise’ petition about fair trade.

According to the Indian minister Nath “The economic architecture in the world is changing and the developed countries must recognise that”. There is as such, much hope that this represents a turning point in this meeting and the Doha Round more generally. However, at this point it really is too early to tell what impact this alliance will have and whether or not, given the different priorities of its members, it will last in substance beyond this conference.

Although we are told they have come under enormous pressure, developing countries are playing a role in this conference. As we reported last night the ACP countries, later joined by the rest of the G90, put forward an alternative proposal in the services talks, and several days ago India and others made proposals in the negotiations on intellectual property which, if accepted would enable them to start negotiations on protecting indigenous knowledge and genetic resources from bio-piracy. However, just because developing countries are playing a proactive role in these talks doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going their way.

The services talks especially seem to have become particularly contentious. The G90 proposals here, which give developing countries a greater number of flexibilities, have been heavily criticised by the EU, which has made it clear that it wants service liberalisation to become more structured and to happen more quickly. (See blog from 15th December for more on the services talks). There are now whispers around the conference centre that the EU and possibly the US will propose new texts furthering those demands and in doing so will widen the big differences that already exist on this issue. Those same rumours say that services are in danger of becoming the ‘Singapore issues” of Hong Kong. (The “Singapore issues” being a group of four issues that developing countries refused to negotiate on at the Cancun ministerial. These were seen by many as being the reason the meeting failed). Of course this is all just speculation and probably needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

There is also clear frustration in the air about cotton. Here, West African countries are demanding an immediate dismantling of the cotton subsidies which suppress international prices and are said to be ruining the livelihoods of millions of West African farmers. The vast majority of these subsidies are applied by the US, which has stated that it is unwilling to discuss cotton outside of the other talks on agriculture. The agriculture talks are not likely to be completed for some time and developing countries say that this will be too late. The frustration that cotton producing countries feel on this were clearly seen this afternoon when a group of at least a dozen traditionally robed African delegates, many from Togo, attended a US press conference and applauded furiously when one of their colleagues from the Cotton Producers Association of Africa, stood up and in French, challenged a slightly puzzled US delegation’s statistics in this area.

It seems as if the meeting is now moving into a completely different phase from what we have seen before. Although there is still certainly plenty of public showmanship, we are told that on some areas at least, substantive discussions are taking place . One of the NGOs here has collected and is now displaying all the different proposed ministerial texts, which have been ‘leaked’ and we are told that there is probably more to come. The talks are probably going to continue almost non-stop over the forty or so hours that we have left and there is an expectation that we will be seeing a new official draft ministerial declaration by the end of tomorrow. Of course, whether or not this will leave enough time for real negotiations to take place and for there to be agreement on this text before the closing ceremony scheduled for Sunday afternoon remains to be seen.

However one thing at the very least is clear – there’s going to be plenty of people going without much sleep tonight!

To see reflections from other Quaker representatives at the Hong Kong talks, see the website of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) http://www.quno.org/economicissues/Dispatches.htm

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Togo briefs the press (Photo: Martin Kunz)

Thursday 15th December: Christmas comes early for Mandelson?

Today I think I’m beginning to understand the pitfalls of being a journalist. It’s nothing to do with editorial deadlines; it’s what you have to go through to get a story!

This morning I found myself running around trying to catch various press conferences. The ladies and gentlemen of the press seem to face numerous health and safety risks – just trying to avoid tripping over the camera bags and cables at one meeting packed to the rafters this morning was a challenge. They face getting caught in crushes in an attempt to be the first to get that all-important press release or picture and seem to spend half their time running around trying not to be late for press conferences that get cancelled at the last minute when whichever delegate is supposed to be leading them gets pulled unexpectedly into meetings. Worst of all, in the attempt not to miss anything you end up relying on the generally less than desirable food supplied at the conference centre!

Perhaps the highlight of the morning in terms of a photo opportunity was the return of the fair trade carol singers who serenaded Peter Mandelson with a modified version of “jingle bells”- “trade for aid, is the game you play. Its empty through and through” and then proceeded to present him with a wrapped up “empty development box”. Because this all created quite a lot of noise outside of a press conference, us NGOs have now been put on warning that if there’s one more stunt like that we won’t be allowed in them any more.

In terms of more substantial matters, there have now been a number of the “greenroom” meetings or Chairs’ Consultative Groups (CCGs) as they have been recently been renamed. From what we have been told, some of these start as late as half ten at night and go on until two or three in the morning. These are closed discussions where key parties are invited by the Chair of the conference or relevant working group to discuss ways forward. In the past greenroom meetings had been heavily criticised for being highly exclusive and failing to take into account the views of the less powerful countries. We are told however that the new CCGs are different from the green rooms of old. All interest groupings (such as the G20, African Group etc) have a representative there who is charged with ensuring that other delegations within their group are kept in the picture about the discussions. There are now usually just over 30 countries represented at these meetings – although of course plenty of other unofficial bilateral, or small group meetings happen in-between.

The public sparring between the EU and US continues, as does the attempt to deflect criticism about their own positions by blaming others for their failure to negotiate in good faith. If the EU is to believed, few offers (apart from their own of course) are being put on the table and so that at the moment there is simply not enough to negotiate about. The EU is adamant that it will not make any more concessions on agriculture and that talks need to move on to other areas. The US on the other hand maintains that agriculture is key to moving forward.

Later on, led by India, Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Argentina, the G20 (the group of around 20, larger developing countries with a particular interest on agriculture) got in on this blame game too – particularly taking issue with the EU’s position on agriculture. In fact, the Brazilian minister not only went as far as saying that the EU’s arguments were ridiculous but suggested that perhaps Peter Mandelson had been working too late last night and should have used Indian Computers to generate their statistics because then they would have been more accurate!

Most of what we are hearing about other than agriculture is the special ‘development package’ for Least Developed Countries. So far negotiations on this have focussed on the proposal to give the least developed countries duty and quota free access to developed country markets. We understand that whilst most countries agree to this in principle, some have reservations about opening up their markets to all least developed countries on a permanent and legally binding basis whilst others want to exclude certain domestically sensitive products from the deal. In terms of all the sectors being discussed, there seems to be most optimism about making an agreement on this issue and the group of Least Developed countries reported that at the moment at least they feel that on this at least there is a lot of good faith in the negotiations. Most developing countries, not just the LDCs seem to be publicly supporting this particular issue although as the Egyptian minister pointed out this afternoon for the development round to be considered a success, other issues of interest to the wider group of developing countries will need to be addressed too.

There is plenty of other stuff going on out of the headlines. So far services have hardly been mentioned by the big players, but according to members of the Philippine and Malawian delegations much is in fact going on behind the scenes. Many countries, the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group (ACP) in particular are unhappy with the current wording of the draft ministerial declaration in relation to services. Their biggest complaint is that the draft text as it stands would take an EU position and change the way in which the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) is negotiated. At the moment, GATS is negotiated on a ‘requests and offers’ approach. This entails one country requesting another to open up a particular service sector. The second country does not necessarily have to agree to this. It can do so if it wishes to; or it can agree with certain provisos or simply refuse. This means that developing countries can be relatively flexible and are able protect certain service sectors if they want to. The current text would change all of this and move GATS within the normal mandatory negotiation structure, which would mean that all countries would have to negotiate and make concessions on services. The ACP countries are also concerned by the fact that the current text implies that future negotiations on GATS would cover government procurement – something that developing countries successfully resisted at the last ministerial conference in Cancun. According to the Philipino and Malawian Spokespeople, the African Caribbean and Pacific Group along with some other countries are preparing suggested amendments to the services texts and hope to take this forward shortly. Other sources however, suggest that a number of these countries are being strongly pressurised to drop these proposals and at this stage it is far from clear what sort of deal, if any will emerge.

It seems then at last as if some real negotiating is starting on at least a couple of issues although it is clear that agreement on them is still some time away On the others – well – I keep hearing that it is traditional for negotiators to keep things close to their chests for as long as possible. Just how long that is likely to be at this stage and whether it comes soon enough to bring about a good deal for development is just what everyone is speculating about.

Security prevents the presentation of a fairly traded football to WTO Director General Pascal Lamy en route to the conference centre. (Photo: Martin Kunz)

Wednesday 14th December: Trying to win hearts and minds?

Today after a first night of talks, what we are seeing is various delegations or country groups publicly jostling for position and trying to win the hearts and minds of the press and public.

I spent this morning attending a number of press conferences. NGO representatives are permitted to do this on the strict condition that we don’t (as happened at the last ministerial conference in Cancun), disrupt the proceedings. The conferences are a good source of information for us, particularly from the delegations that don’t regularly provide separate briefings for NGOs so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that everyone behaves themselves!

At almost each briefing gone were the general statements and hopeful pleasantries of yesterday. In their place were the sometimes forceful statements of position and amongst some, an eagerness to blame other parties for the problems encountered in this round so far. In many cases there was very little about what was said publicly that was actually new and if we are to believe the snippets that we are being told, this is also the case inside the real negotiations.

In terms of this morning’s public events, some of the most interesting were the press meetings held by the EU and the US. These key WTO members are in the process of having a public spat. There are clearly a number of areas where the two disagree, however the touch point today was the issue of American food aid. Perhaps trying to deflect criticism away from the EU’s own trade distorting export subsidies, Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson was keen to criticise the impact of US policy here. According to him, the five or so millions of tonnes of wheat and other foodstuffs that the US government buys from its farmers to distribute in times of natural disaster, famine and to assist development, is little more than an indirect way of subsidising agriculture, driving down food prices and restricting development in some of the poorest countries. The EU wants the US to switch this process to one of sourcing food aid from as near as possible to the region concerned in time of need.

At the US Trade Representative’s press conference immediately afterwards we were told in no uncertain terms that the EU’s analysis of this issue and some of the figures it presented were “absolute nonsense”. Furthermore they said, the EU had failed to consult food aid experts before taking this position and as such European policies on the provision of food aid were “missing an action”.

It is almost certain that much of these restatements of existing positions is political posturing. Both sides are keen to say that they are willing to negotiate seriously and in good faith but that others are not reciprocating this. The EU in particular, which seems to have taken much of the blame for the current deadlock in the agricultural talks seems to be particularly defensive.

Another interesting issue is a question about whether or not we are seeing a change in dynamic of the key players at this meeting and in the WTO more generally. In the past the WTO and its predecessor the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) had been criticised because agreements were essentially made by a group known as the Quad (The US, the EU, Japan and Canada) whose delegations made private deals which other less powerful members would basically be expected to accept. Over the last ten or so years that has seen to be changing with other countries, often led by the larger developing countries such as Brazil, now having more of a role. However, the fact that the 100 or more developing countries represented at the WTO are all at different stages of development seems increasingly to be presenting a challenge in terms of finding an agreement that suits all.

As the likes of India and Brazil are becoming economically stronger, it is clear that their interests are becoming more divergent from some of the least developed countries. Questions are being asked as to the extent to which these newly emerging countries may soon or perhaps are already negotiating deals that are in their own interests and which leave other, poorer and less powerful countries to fend for themselves. This question seems particularly relevant given that we are being told that a number of informal “G4” and “G6” meetings have been held here and in the run up to these meetings. The G4 consists of the EU, US, India and Brazil whilst the G6 is the same group with the addition of Japan and Australia. Although it is not yet clear what impact those meetings will have, it is certainly interesting to note this shift in interactions towards these countries which are likely to become more and more economically powerful in the future.

Another possible tension between developing and least developed countries seems to be coming from a number of proposals to differentiate between these two groups as part of these talks. Although up until now, the WTO does not formally distinguish between “poor” and “rich” developing countries, the EU is now quite openly trying to develop rules on the trade in industrial goods that would create a new distinction between the two. Another issue is that some feel that the special development package being talked about for the 50 or so least developed countries will detract attention away from the needs of those countries that do not fit into this category.

On the face of it the least and more developed developing countries are making an effort to show solidarity with one another. When asked about this apparent tension at an NGO briefing yesterday the Indian Ambassador was keen to point out that India had a good track record of working in solidarity with lesser-developed countries and that there was no reason to anticipate that this should change. This was a sentiment echoed by the UN who stated that developing countries have nothing to fear from the “ development package” that is being developed in the name of helping just the poorer countries. He then turned round and appealed to journalists to highlight their particular plight and immediate need.

Outside of all these meetings and briefings, yesterday’s hustle and bustle seems to have receded to some extent as the conference gets into full swing and the participants manage to work out the complicated one-way system for the escalators that need to be negotiated to get about the six floors and different sections of the conference centre. There are many trade related events going on throughout Hong Kong. These include a fair trade fair (see picture above), a trade and development symposium and a whole programme of civil society events that have been put together by the Hong Kong People’s Alliance. To the best of my knowledge there have been no major demonstrations outside and the nearest we got inside was a rendition of “say no to GATS” sung to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree” by a small group of NGO representatives wearing Santa hats!

The question of course on everyone’s lips is: What will tomorrow bring?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tuesday 13th December: Protests inside and out
(Photo: Tom Head)

Today the conference opened to demonstrations both inside and outside the conference centre.

The agenda for the coming week was formally set at an opening ceremony by Hong Kong’s Trade Minister and Chair of the conference John Tsang. Hong Kong’s strong economy and the role that its free trade economy played in the Special Administrative Region’s relative affluence was a theme of this and another two of the five opening addresses, which were clearly intended to encourage delegates to get into the negotiating spirit.

The most notable speech, in terms of the reaction it received, if not its content, was that of Pascal Lamy, the former EU Trade Commissioner and current Secretary General of the WTO. Almost as soon as he had started, a hidden banner was unfurled, signs taken out of bags and around 30 of the 200 NGO participants that had been allowed into the plenary session interrupted shouting “Yes to development. No to Doha round!” Our two Quaker colleagues, who were sitting not far away reported that the chanting was allowed to continue unchecked for several minutes and then the protestors were gently ushered to the back of the hall.

Throughout all of this Lamy, quite the professional, continued with his speech as if nothing had happened. He relegated the processes and language of the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to the past and lauded what he saw as the relative openness and transparency of the WTO today. He emphasised that although this made negotiations more difficult, it would ultimately result in a better agreement, which would enable each and every party to take something away and say that they had won. Other speeches were given by Amina Mohammed, Ambassador of Kenya and Chair of the WTO’s General Council and on behalf of Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General. The latter emphasised the development aspect of the round, called upon rich countries to eliminate their agricultural export subsidies and to invest in and improve upon the “human condition” of developing countries.

The formal business part of the conference started immediately afterwards, although it is clear from a number of the press and NGO briefings that I attended today that many delegations have been in town and involved in informal discussions for a few days already. This conference will essentially work on two tracks. The first formal and more public part consists of plenary sessions, which in addition to opening statements made by the 149 member delegations, will deal with the accession of Tonga to the WTO’s fold and at the request of Honduras and four west African countries, special talks about trade in bananas and cotton. The second track, the closed negotiations we understand will first focus on the issue of development, then move on to agriculture, industrial goods and finally services.

Although the entire Doha round is ostensibly about development, some, particularly amongst the NGOs have raised concerns about having singling out a special ‘development package’ as the first issue on the table. According to the Chair of the conference the reason for this was simply because there has been obvious interest in such a deal in Geneva, Brussels and elsewhere and so this is an issue where there is a higher likelihood of a successful outcome.
The package is particularly being pushed by the EU, which amongst other things wants all developed country members to offer duty and quota free access to goods from the 49 countries within the WTO that are classed as being Least Developed. Another proposal is for members, in conjunction with the World Bank and IMF to agree a ‘trade for aid’ package to help poorer countries implement WTO commitments. Whilst the market access idea seems to be generally welcomed by civil society, questions have been raised about trade for aid. Some NGOs are concerned that this would increase the debt burden of the poorest countries whilst others have suggested that were such a package to be agreed, developing countries might end up being beholden to rich countries in other parts of the talks. This latter notion was rejected by the Indian Ambassador at a briefing held for NGOs this morning, but there remains concern for other smaller and less powerful countries.

Even outside of these closed negotiations, the conference centre is buzzing with activity. A number of governments have been holding press conferences outlining their hopes and demands for the rest of the meetings and many of the NGOs represented here have been hosting briefings, debates and other events about the issues that they are working on.

The QUNO and QIAP delegations, which include a number of technical and legal experts, have been working hard to make contact with delegates from developing and least developed country groups who have a particular interest in talks on intellectual property as part of the TRIPS agreement. This is not necessarily an easy task as delegates generally are working in the ‘Phase 1’ part of the conference centre whilst NGOs and the press are restricted to ‘Phase 2’ areas. This means that there are relatively few areas where NGO participants and delegations naturally ‘bump into’ one another. This is certainly not helped by the fact that unlike at previous ministerial conferences, there appears to be few places outside of formal meeting rooms where participants can sit down, eat or chat. For some this is simply just unfortunate, for the more cynical, a deliberate ploy by the organisers.

A number of the delegations that QUNO and QIAP work with are relatively small, under resourced and at a disadvantage when it comes to taking part in complex and technical aspects of these talks. Every evening these Quaker groups are providing a space for delegates to meet, work with and receive advice from their experts in the hope that this will promote and support a fairer negotiation process.

News is filtering in that there have been scuffles outside the conference centre between demonstrators and police and that tear gas has been deployed. At one point this afternoon a number of small boats could be seen outside in the harbour which we have since learned were the authorities intervening in a peaceful protest whereby a group of around 50 Korean farmers jumped off a boat and started to swim towards the conference centre. We are also starting to hear about a number of people being detained at the airport. Some of these cases are relatively high profile, including someone whose release was secured directly by Pascal Lamy, but there are others less much less visible. We learned this first thing this morning from colleagues from the American Friends Service Committee who had spent hours at the airport last night working, ultimately successfully, to secure the release of someone from one of their partner organisations.

As I walked back from the conference centre to post these thoughts it is clear that security has been stepped up. Although the streets are calm and I saw no sign of the clashes earlier today, there are now armed guards in the area surrounding the centre. Our hotel has boarded up some of the windows on the ground floor and I came out of the lift on my floor to find half a dozen security people lined up along the corridor!

Tomorrow we hope there will be some news from the negotiations themselves. However, with the talks scheduled to go on for another five days it is likely to be some days before we get an indication of what kind of deal, if any, will result.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Where it all happens: the Hong Kong conferenmce and exhibition centre. (Photo: QPSW)

Monday 12 December: The week ahead

Although the formal proceedings have yet to start, few people on Hong Kong Island will be able to miss the fact that the WTO’s sixth ministerial conference is in town. Today the city’s famous Star Ferry, which travels between the island and the mainland, took its last journey until next Monday. The Star terminal is situated just next to the conference centre and part of its route is through the ‘no sail zone’ that will be enforced around the conference centre, which is situated on a sort of peninsula jutting out into Hong Kong harbour.

The ferry is not the only business that will be closing this coming week. At least one department store near the conference centre has signs up announcing that it will be closing tonight and a nearby commercial centre has taken the precaution of erecting protective hoardings around its perimeter. Litterbins on the underground system have been taped up ‘temporarily’ for ‘security reasons’ and signs warn people not to congregate in the entrance halls of the stations nearest to the conference centre.

Security is clearly going to be a theme for the week and with the possibility of 149 trade ministers in the same place at the same time, nobody is taking any chances. We are told that before the formal opening of the conference tomorrow the conference centre will have undergone a security sweep and that all delegates can expect to be greeted by a number of checks before being let in. As I left the centre tonight, entire sections of street were being screened off with steel meshing reaching several storeys high– presumably to demark what will tomorrow become a restricted zone and perhaps to protect the shop fronts behind it from bricks or other projectiles.

There is considerable speculation about how the protests planned throughout the week will be handled by both protestors and the authorities. According to the press all police leave had been cancelled and there are rumours that this is also the case for hospital staff in anticipation of large numbers of casualties. The Hong Kong People’s Alliance organised a first, relatively small demonstration yesterday. This seemed well organised and had an almost festival-like atmosphere. Although there was a large police presence it was definitely a relaxed one. Officers appeared to be wearing their normal uniforms and were mostly standing back watching the proceedings alongside the many spectators who had taken time out from their daily business to watch the carnival go past. The hope of course, is that other demonstrations pass in the same positive and peaceful manner. As I look out of my hotel window tonight towards the park that is acting as a base for the Alliance’s activities, a huge stage has been erected and preparations are being made for another rally and parade to coincide with the conference’s opening plenary session tomorrow.

So what can we expect from the rest of this week?

It is clear that in the last few weeks a number of governments have been downplaying the likelihood of a successful outcome to this conference. The meeting is, according to the Doha ‘development’ round’s timetable, supposed to result in a framework agreement that would go two thirds of the way towards completing the round. However major disagreements still exist, and the talk has been less of creating the framework than of stocktaking in order to reach a deal in the spring of next year. The extent to which this pessimism is an accurate reflection of the situation, political posturing, or simply an attempt to downplay expectations in an attempt to avoid negative press about whatever agreement does emerge will, we hope, become clear over the next few days. [for a fuller explanation of the issues under discussion see QPSW's occasional briefing on the talks at http://www.quaker.org.uk/Templates/Internal.asp?NodeID=91601 ]

Over this week we will see the formal process of every member country delegation publicly delivering a speech about their expectations and hopes for the round. The real work will however be happening behind the scenes where diplomats will be working to agree the wording of a ministerial text setting out how they intend to take negotiations further. A draft of this text is already on the table, however it is clear that there is much to be done in terms of discussion and amendments before this is formally agreed. In order to do this, talks have been split into a number of different subject areas including agricultural issues, development issues and industrial goods upon which talks will take place simultaneously. Each issue has been allocated a trade minister to act as chairperson. It will be this person’s job to co-ordinate the talks on that issue and eventually, if all goes to plan, produce the final wording, which will be slotted into the overall ministerial text.

Quaker organisations based in the UK (QPSW), Canada (Quaker International Affairs Programme – QIAP), Switzerland (the Quaker United Nations Office) and US (American Friends Service Committee) are represented here in Hong Kong and will be working on both the inside and outside of the conference centre. It is hoped that over the next six days these updates will give Friends a taste of what it is like to be here, information on the extent to which the negotiation process is progressing and of course some reflections on what this all means from a Quaker perspective.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Welcome to Quaker Peace & Social Witness’s Hong Kong Blog!

We plan to use this space to bring you daily updates from the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial conference in Hong Kong over 13-18th December 2005.

Staff from a number of Quaker agencies, including Canadian Quaker International Affairs Programme (QIAP), Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva (QUNO Geneva) and QPSW, will be working at these talks to support developing country negotiators and promote a fairer negotiation process.

We hope to bring you the first update from Hong Kong on the evening of 12th December (the early hours of 13th in the UK). Please return to this site after this date or to receive automatic notification of the first update send an e-mail to tradejustice@quaker.org.uk.

For more information on what Quakers will be doing at the conference see the September Edition of QPSW’s newsletter Better World Economics – available at: