WTO news: what’s been happening in the WTO


2 December 1999

Speech Notes to Legislators Assembly

Senator Roth, distinguished members:

It is a useful initiative to have in parallel to this Ministerial Conference, this the first assembly of elected legislators.

I get deeply offended when people say the WTO is not democratic. Take the case of the Indian Ambassador in Geneva. It takes about 300 million people to elect a Government in India. That Government survives at the pleasure of its elected MP's. The Government through its Minister, who is accountable to Cabinet, his Prime Minister, his party, his caucus and to the Parliament and then to his electors at home and to the wider vote to enable his government to function. That's accountability. That's how it should be. And that is how it is for most countries who are members of the WTO. The system changes from nation to nation, but the principles of accountability are the same.

The WTO is member driven, thus driven by Governments, Congresses and Parliaments. Every two years our Ministers meet to give us guidance. Our agreements must be agreed and ratified by members and Parliaments.

So this assembly of parliamentarians and elected legislators is an important and, I hope, permanent part of our process.

Some of those who protest miss these fundamental steps by which we operate. We operate from and by consensus. Any nation can and does block progress. Any nation can pull out of the WTO given six month's notice.

One member of parliament said to me it's fine you are talking to non-government organizations, how about government organizations, it's us who sustain the government of the day. He was right. We should do both.

Equally, when I was talking about non-governmental organizations and their proper, correct and democratic influence on governments, an ambassador from a non-resident country asked us at the WTO to reach out more to him. As a government representative, about 30 countries cannot even afford to keep missions in Geneva. So, we have reached out. I've been in the job a few months, my deputies started last week. But we organised a seminar for non-residents to brief their officials fully on what is happening in Seattle. We have web pages, reference centres and are using the new technologies to keep in touch.

One issue that raises its head frequently is sovereignty. Is the nation state surrendering its legitimate rights and prerogatives to global institutions?

That's a valid question. I come from a small country but I've always seen my nation's integrity and independence enhanced by international institutions, treaties and agreements.

In the modern world we know that without co-operation and agreements sovereign governments cannot function and advance their national interests.

No congress or parliament alone can guarantee clean air or water, even run a tax system, an airline, combat AIDS and cancer without the co-operation of others.

But the base constituency must be the nation state. We in the WTO are member driven, rules driven. Our member states direct our progress. And that's how it should be.

I hope in the future to spend more time with congressional committees and parliamentary groups, because that is where the greatest assembly of popular opinion resides. That's where those who correctly want to scrutinise, criticise and improve our play, live.

It's an awesome task, our total expenditure is less than the IMF's travel budget. The World Wildlife Fund has a budget three times ours.

But within our constraints of time and resources I will do better. I never refuse to meet with elected politicians if I am in Geneva and it is possible.

The word millennium is overdone, but we do face a new century so it is worthwhile reflecting on the future and to see what we can learn from the past.

The WTO, earlier the GATT, was first envisaged by our brave parents who saw it as a sister organization to the UN, ILO, IMF, and the World Bank. They served in uniform, my generation serves in suites and ties. They lived through the great depression and saw how it was prolonged and made more deadly because of protectionism. That depression and the Treaty of Versailles made war almost inevitable and from that came the great tyrannies of our age, fascism and marxism. They said never, never again and we and the other institutions in the global architecture were created to be owned by the people via their Governments.

During this time, we have experienced the greatest period of sustained growth and rise in living standards than at any time in our history.

This incredible generation that did something else unique is world history. They the victors held out their hands and forgave their adversaries, reached into their own pockets and created the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe. The mirror opposite of what happened in 1918. And it worked. Does anyone now think it would have been a better world without the Marshall Plan? Does anyone think the world would be better without a European Union? Should we NOT celebrate an enlarging European Union and a successful Japan? Would it be better if China did not join the WTO? What's wrong with having Russia and China as part of a rules-based system?

Our system has done well. During the Asian crisis many predicted the end of the global economy and suggested we had gone too far. Yet because of sound policy in the affected economies and the generosity of the US, Japan and Europe who kept their markets open, Asia is coming back. They held their nerve.

When the Berlin wall came down, when Nelson Mandela was freed, when the Colonels went back into their barracks, elsewhere, the world celebrated. They celebrated the universal values of political and economic freedom. No one shouted, cursed and swore about the evils of globalisation.

So here we are at Seattle, 30,000 people, many even invited. We meet against a background of hostility and anger. I know all our critics are not wrong, bad or mad. But just occasionally we ought to remind ourselves of our core values and our core business.

Essentially, we want more jobs and more successful businesses so we can get the tax take to pay for these dreams we all have for health care, education and to look after the elderly.

I believe that trade and business is the most powerful generator to achieve these ends.

Trade in itself is not enough, too many countries are marginalised. One African Member pays up to nine times more on debt repayments than on health. Cutting trade, preventing the spread of ideas, medicine, literature and information and investment will not help, it will make it worse. While we have our critics outside, over 1.5 billion people want to join. Why? Several hundred Ministers and political leaders are here now in Seattle. Why? Because it matters. I don't want to see us limp into the next century with a whine and a splutter.

We should march boldly, recognising the contradictions and difficulties, but firmly resolved to begin to negotiate a package text that is balanced. We have differences. That's legitimate, welcome and not surprising.

We need to ensure developing countries have a fairer place at the table. Especially the least-developed nations who account for 0.5% of world trade, and when they have a competitive export advantage they are frequently locked out. This is wrong.

Many countries need time and technical assistance to digest and implement their commitments. This can be done. We need to get closer on agriculture, investment, competition and use this opportunity to advance win/win situations, in the transparency of government procurement, trade facilitation and how that helps good governance.

We should be decisive about market access, welcome what e-commerce can do for every nation and begin to negotiate a balanced package within three years. I know of the interest sovereign congresses and parliaments have in these subjects. In the end, they will have the decisive say. Too much of this century was marked by force and coercion. We need to ensure that the next century is one of persuasion, where differences are settled within institutional law, through proper agreed dispute mechanisms.

This works for the most mighty nation as it does for the most modest nation. It represents a new enlightened age of international and civilized behaviour.

We should this day pay our respects to our parents who in their wisdom gave birth, from the horror of personal experience, to institutions like the GATT, now the WTO, so it can do its job after instructions from governments and parliaments to bring order and the rule of law to our commercial, political, cultural and social differences.

I'm proud to represent an institution that is owned and driven by its member states. I am the Director-General. I'm not really a Director, even less am I a General. I am, I guess, a navigator, a facilitator and a public servant.