WTO news: what’s been happening in the WTO

22 November 2000

External Transparency

Overview — November 2000

The Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in late 1999 in Seattle placed a number of issues regarding the external transparency of the multilateral trading system under renewed scrutiny. This overview provides an account of initiatives on external transparency which are currently being pursued within the framework and guidelines agreed by Members.

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An Historical Perspective

Important progress has been made in the WTO over the past year in the area of external transparency and public outreach. Although this issue received some attention when the GATT was founded in 1948, the creation of the WTO five years ago firmly recognized that increased dialogue with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society in general could play an important role in building public awareness in respect of WTO activities. Whereas there were no provisions for inter-action with NGOs under the GATT, Article V:2 of the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO contains a clear reference to cooperation with non-governmental organizations. In July 1996 Members decided to provide the Secretariat with a more articulate interpretation of Article V:2 and adopted the Guidelines for Arrangement on Relations with NGOs (WT/L/162). These guidelines have since served as the principal foundation upon which the ever increasing interaction between the WTO and civil society has been built.

Although there is currently not a consensus in favour of involving NGOs directly in the work of the WTO the guidelines were designed by Members to give the Secretariat a large degree of flexibility in its dealings with civil society. This flexibility has been illustrated by the increasing number of symposia as well as other initiatives to increase the dialogue between the multilateral trading system and the public.

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Transparency Initiatives

The relationship between the WTO Secretariat and non-governmental organizations continues to evolve. Since 1996, NGOs have registered an ever increasing presence at WTO Ministerial Conferences and have participated in numerous symposia organized by the WTO Secretariat. The Secretariat hosts regular briefings for NGOs on the work of WTO committees and working groups and extends each month to the 139 WTO Member countries a list of documents, position papers and newsletters submitted by NGOs. These documents are made available upon request from Member states. A special section of the WTO web site, including a recently opened chat room for interactive discussion, is devoted to NGOs. Finally, a special electronic NGO bulletin is available to organizations that wish to receive information on the current status of activities at the WTO. This facility is an integral part of the efforts to reach out to individuals and organizations located all over the world.

Among the most significant improvements in the area of external transparency is the WTO web site. One of the most popular web sites among international organizations it is visited by an average of 200,000 individual users per month and receives between 15 and 20 million hits per month. Users of the WTO web site download the equivalent of 80 million pages of text per month. The web site was re-launched in a new, improved and more user friendly version in May 2000 and is continuously up-dated. The overwhelming majority of WTO documents are placed on the web page instantly and may be downloaded from anywhere in the world.

The WTO Secretariat has long had a reputation among journalists of providing timely and comprehensive information on the work of the organization. The Secretariat has six full-time press officers who brief the media after virtually all meetings of WTO Councils and Committees. Taking into account the organization's increasingly high news profile the Information and Media Relations Division has recently added a Spanish speaking press officer to ensure that briefings for the media may take place in all of the three official languages of the WTO. The Secretariat is also making increasing use of information technology to inform the media of WTO activities. This includes providing electronic press releases and background notes on a regular basis.

Since the Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle the Director-General and his Deputies have kept up a comprehensive programme of participation in international meetings with the public and private sectors and NGOs. In addition, the Director-General has participated in a number of meetings with parliamentarians and representatives from international parliamentary groups. These activities have focussed on developing the WTO's outreach activities towards civil society and on stimulating a constructive dialogue with the public at large on the future direction of the trade agenda. Other WTO staff continue to participate in events hosted by non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and others all over the world.

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Member Discussions on External Transparency

Another significant development in the area of external transparency was the informal consultation in early November held by the Chairman of the General Council to discuss the issue. Drawing on the experience from the discussions on internal transparency and effective participation of Members the Chairman invited delegations to submit written suggestions on external transparency which would serve as a basis for informal discussions among Members.

The constructive discussion at the informal consultation on 9 November was a significant event in itself. A majority of delegations welcomed a discussion of external transparency, though some questioned the need for it. Many delegations signalled that it remained the primary responsibility of individual governments to keep the public informed. In this context a number of delegations expressed support for a process of exchanging national experiences of interaction with civil society.

There was broad agreement that the WTO should continue to improve its outreach activities, including symposia, as these had proved to be useful for delegations and NGOs to engage in an exchange of views on a broad range of issues. A large number of delegations highlighted the WTO web site as one of the principal vehicles in the quest for improved transparency and encouraged the Secretariat to continue the efforts in that area. On the issue of de-restriction of documents several delegations urged the Chairman to continue his consultations on how to make documents more speedily available to the public.

While some delegations saw some room for further involving NGOs in the work of the WTO, a large number of delegations emphasized the intergovernmental character of the WTO as well as the need to focus on the more substantive elements on the WTO's work programme as a matter of priority. Several delegations expressed the view that a clearer distinction needed to be made between enhancing public understanding of WTO activities, which they favoured, and considering any direct participation of civil society in the work of the organization. They emphasized that efforts to improve the transparency of the WTO should not affect the intergovernmental nature of the WTO or change the existing representation system of the organization.