WTO to hold seventh Ministerial Conference end November

Original Publication Date: 
28 May, 2009

Geneva, 27 May (Kanaga Raja) -- The WTO General Council on Tuesday decided to convene its seventh Ministerial Conference in Geneva from 30 November to 2 December, nearly four years after its last conference in Hong Kong-China in 2005.
 
The Marrakesh treaty establishing the WTO mandates a regular Ministerial Conference at least once in two years. Article IV: 1 of the Treaty stipulates that there shall be "a Ministerial Conference composed of representatives of all the Members, which shall meet at least once every two years."
 
The sixth WTO Ministerial Conference was held in Hong Kong-China in 2005, and another should have been held in 2007, but was not.
 
The general theme for discussion at the seventh Ministerial Conference shall be "The WTO, the Multilateral Trading System and the Current Global Economic Environment."
 
According to the Chair of the General Council, Amb. Mario Matus of Chile, the conference is not intended to be a negotiating session. The Doha Development Agenda negotiations are on a separate track.
 
The intention is simply to fulfil the rules of procedure agreed for sessions of the Ministerial Conference adopted by the General Council in January 1995, he said.
 
In his consultations, he had suggested that this conference be based on three guiding principles - full participation, inclusiveness and transparency. The conference should be centered around plenary sessions, in which all Ministers participate equally.
 
According to trade officials, there seems to be wide agreement among members on setting an overall theme for discussions in the plenary sessions which Ministers could address in their statements. Some ideas have also been put forward for sub-themes which Ministers could discuss, and the format in which discussions in these sub-themes could take place.
 
Ambassador Matus said that a different sort of Ministerial Conference than from the recent past is being planned, one in which the emphasis would be on transparency and open discussion, rather than on small-group processes and informal negotiating structures.
 
According to the Chilean envoy, there would not be need for a Ministerial Declaration. But an effective way of recording the substance of Ministers' discussions and any convergence or conclusions they reach needs to be considered.
 
The General Council Chair will be holding consultations with members on issues concerning the format of discussions, and the election of officers.
 
He also stressed that given the global economic environment, the conference would be much leaner and economical than those held in the past. This departure from past Ministerial Conferences could help establish a new model of Ministerial-level meetings conducive to good governance and overall review of the WTO, and one that is not inextricably tied to any ongoing negotiations.
 
According to the Chair, this kind of scaled-down, no-frill, low-key meetings of Ministers on a regular biennial basis would require a similarly radical change in delegations' approach to the event, particularly in terms of the number of representatives that will be attending from each member state.
 
Uruguay, which had submitted a communication to the General Council with respect to the holding of the Ministerial Conference, said that a line needs to be drawn over the fact that there hasn't been a conference for a while. It sought to de-mystify this meeting, saying that it was high time that a seventh Ministerial Conference was convoked.
 
It is important that Ministers come together on a regular basis every two years, said Uruguay.
 
In its communication (WT/GC/W/509), Uruguay said "... we should not confuse the convening of the Seventh Session of the Ministerial Conference with the special session provided for under paragraph 45 of the Doha Declaration or those implicit in the negotiating process itself."
 
It said that there would be no justification for continuing to postpone the regular convocation of the topmost body of the WTO, particularly in the current world economic and trade environment, which requires international cooperation, direct political involvement at the multilateral level, and strong and credible institutions.
 
According to some trade diplomats, Switzerland, as the host country for the WTO, has been anxious to avoid holding a ministerial meeting until the end of the year, because of worries over an upcoming popular referendum in Geneva city over the expansion of the WTO headquarters building at Centre William Rappard in Geneva, and Geneva cantonal elections. Any ministerial meeting that may inevitably attract civil society presence and protests, or even large entourage of ministers and officials, it is feared, may act negatively in the referendum.
 
Under the Swiss confederal system of cantonal governments, any issue can be put to a popular referendum, if enough signatures are collected calling for such a referendum. The referendum called by Geneva city voters on the WTO building issue is now set for 27 September. As against a minimum of 4000 signatures needed for a popular referendum, there were almost 7000 signatories opposed to the extension of the headquarters building on the shores of the lake in Geneva.
 
While it may have no binding effect on the Geneva Canton, the authority to grant the permit, it would be difficult to ignore the consequences of an adverse popular vote in the city, particularly since the referendum will take place two weeks before the cantonal governmental election vote. +