21 - 27 November 2002
Issue No. 613
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
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The 'green room' syndrome

It was business as usual at the World Trade Organisation Ministerial meeting in Sydney, writes Faiza Rady

At the World Trade Organisation (WTO) old habits die hard. Although the trade body had solemnly pledged to mend its ways, professing to uphold transparency and democracy in the wake of the 1999 Seattle debacle, things appear to be back to square one.

In effect, the WTO has once again shelved its good intentions in order to promote the agenda of powerful transnational corporations. On 14 and 15 November, a WTO mini-ministerial gathering quietly convened in Sydney, Australia, bringing together the trade ministers of a select group of 25 rich OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) member countries, ostensibly to iron out an agreement on health, agriculture and the highly controversial trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) for a December deadline set by last year's WTO round in Doha.

Billed as a meeting to look into ways of providing affordable medicines to impoverished nations (where people are dying of diseases easily treatable in the North), the Sydney Ministerial appeared to promote the "sustainable development" paradigm professed at Doha.

Wrapping up the two-day meeting ministers sounded upbeat, saying that they should be able to table an agreement by December. They further claimed that they would balance the demands of the transnational pharmaceutical industry with the needs of developing countries struggling to combat life-threatening diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Robert Zoellick, the US's trade representative, asserted that there was sufficient consensus on producing cheaper drugs to satisfy all concerned parties. "We're not totally there yet, but I came away believing this is something we will do by the end of this year," said Zoellick. Outdoing his American counterpart, Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile preached the morality and ethics of promoting "sustainable development" in the South. "This is not an economic issue," said Vaile. "This is a moral obligation that needs to be undertaken by the developed world."

However, above and beyond lofty semantics, moral obligations have yet to be translated into binding treaties. Analysts believe that the WTO's exclusionary and secretive top-down approach to solving TRIPS-engendered inequities between healthcare in the North and the South cannot even begin to address the problem. "It is unacceptable that the WTO, to this date, has failed to devise a system that incorporates all of its members to build a real consensus," commented Shefali Sharma from the Agriculture and Trade Policy's Geneva office.

Held behind closed doors, the Sydney meeting excluded 120 WTO member countries from participating in negotiations, the outcome of which will crucially affect the lives of billions of the world's poor for years to come. The message was not lost on the thousands of anti-corporate-driven globalisation demonstrators who had flooded the streets of Sydney to protest against the WTO meeting and the looming war in Iraq. Holding placards reading the by-now-familiar "drop Bush, not bombs" slogan and "hands off Iraq", the demonstrators chanted "WTO and CIA are the real terrorists today", before they were clubbed by the Sydney police. Thirty-five youths were arrested.

"The Sydney meeting substantiates the endemic problems of transparency that have plagued the WTO since its inception in 1995, and which brought its third ministerial meeting in Seattle to a halt," said Herbert Villalon Docena from the Global South, a Philippines-based development NGO.

At the Seattle WTO summit the hullabaloo started with the mysterious "green room", a privileged and exclusive meeting ground for the rich countries' delegations. Providing privacy behind closed doors, the green room was definitely where it was at. In the shared intimacy of the green room, Northern countries defined and fine-tuned their own version of the WTO agenda, while Southern delegations aimlessly roamed the hallways, accompanied by hordes of journalists waiting for their scoop. Humiliated, marginalised and literally locked out of any meaningful negotiating process, Southern delegations finally walked out in protest. At the end of the day, the ministerial broke down in chaos as Southern dignitaries began to echo the discourse of militant anti-capitalist street protesters.

Notwithstanding the Seattle setback, which was duly followed by resounding pledges of transparency, democratic reforms and better things to come, it is evident that the "green room" syndrome was back at work in Sydney. Besides being based on excluding the "great unwashed", the syndrome is defined by its dark secrecy: no records are kept and no minutes of the meetings reach the uninitiated. In fact, the green room looks like a modern replica of the Masonic paradigm.

In terms of conducting business as usual at the WTO, the green room, or mini-ministerial, has an essential function. Analysts believe that both secrecy and autocracy are essential for Northern countries to assemble pre-packaged deals, which they then present to developing nations on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. "As deals are done and positions reached when the chosen few meet among themselves, the rest of the membership will be persuaded and coerced to accept such positions and deals," explained Ambassador Boniface Chydyausiku of Zimbabwe.

Besides mere coercion, persuasion can also have an impact. Suspension of trade preferences to the United States and European Union markets, withdrawal of economic aid and much-coveted foreign-direct investment deals, trade sanctions and exclusion from the WTO are all powerful deterrents to potential dissent.

At the Doha Ministerial, which was preceded by two mini-ministerials, OECD countries presented the "green room" package like an immutable boat schedule: no changes allowed. You had better hop on before you miss the boat.

The urgency naturally masks the stakes, and the stakes are high. The TRIPS deal-in-the-making at Sydney, ostensibly "aims to provide affordable medicines to impoverished nations", and involves billions of dollars in revenues for pharmaceutical giants. "TRIPS imposes patents and monopolies on drugs, taking essential medicines beyond the reach of the poor," said renowned physicist and political activist, Vandana Shiva. Indeed, AIDS medicines without patents cost $200, those with patents, an astronomical $20,000. The outcome of the Sydney Ministerial will affect the lives of 15 million people who die each year from infectious diseases and the 40 million suffering from HIV/AIDS.

While last year's WTO meeting in Doha seemingly overruled TRIPS by stating that public health concerns should take precedence over patent rules, it remains unclear whether the scales have been tipped in favour of the South.

Although the Doha agreement allows the import of generic medicines, it restricts producer countries from exporting them. For the time being, and in the absence of any conclusive agreement reached by the Sydney Ministerial, TRIPS currently allows rich countries to commission generic equivalents from another manufacturer, but effectively denies this right to poor countries that lack a manufacturing base, according to Oxfam, a London-based development NGO. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical bigwigs are lobbying hard to uphold the bizarre TRIPS-imposed export ban. The "green room syndrome" seems to have won the day, for now.

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