October 19, 2001 – Many civil society groups around the world [1] are deeply concerned that confusion over the dates and venue of the WTO’s 4th Ministerial will allow governments to retreat behind closed doors, effectively preventing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from participating in or even protesting against the process [2].

The same confusion is also obscuring the fact that developing countries are still being excluded from meetings of critical importance to them, such as the Singapore ‘mini-Ministerial’ of 13-14 October [3]. Furious objections to these ‘green room’ procedures led in part to the collapse of the WTO’s last Seattle Ministerial.

Singapore’s Internal Security Act prevents public demonstrations In particular, the groups note with concern that Singapore, suggested as an alternative location for the 4th Ministerial, does not tolerate public dissent. Civil society groups, including those not accredited to the WTO Ministerial, wish to hold peaceful demonstrations outside the WTO Ministerial. However, the laws in Singapore make this extremely difficult and demonstrations are unheard of. A police permit is required before it is legal to hold any gathering of more than five persons. Even more worrying, Singapore’s Internal Security Act gives Singapore’s government the right to arrest anyone they deem a threat to internal security and to detain them without trial.

Ronnie Hall of Friends of the Earth International said: “The WTO already faces a crisis of legitimacy. Selecting Qatar as a venue raised eyebrows: moving to Singapore would confirm the WTO’s determination to avoid legitimate dissent, the lifeblood of democracy. The WTO must formally guarantee that wherever the Ministerial is finally held, civil society groups are allowed to assemble and demonstrate peacefully.”

Continued bias against developing country participation One of WTO’s key faults, evident in and since the WTO’s 3rd Seattle Ministerial is the difficulty that developing countries have in participating in WTO negotiations. A major problem is their continued exclusion from the now notorious ‘green room’ meetings, in which certain carefully-selected governments are invited to informal discussions.

Developing countries’ anger about this situation was one of the main reasons why the Seattle Ministerial collapsed, but it seems that nothing has changed since then, despite all the promises made. Last week’s ‘mini-Ministerial’ in Singapore was nothing other than the green room writ large, with a handful of governments deciding how, when and where to move forward on the WTOs’ agenda [3].

The other factor which disadvantages developing country delegates is the high cost of maintaining negotiators in Geneva and sending them to Ministerials around the world.

Aileen Kwa of Focus on the Global South said: “If goverments opt to move the Ministerial to Singapore rather than Geneva, they will be making it much harder for poorer countries to participate. Many developing countries are currently faced with funding problems and cannot afford adequate representation at a Ministerial outside Geneva. This seriously weakens their ability to ensure their interests are taken into consideration in critical negotiations. The WTO must make sure all governments can participate on an equal footing.”

[1] The following organisations support this press release and any of the people listed can be contacted to discuss it:

Berne Declaration, Switzerland
Marianne Hochuli +41 1-277 70 11 (Zurich)

Corporate Europe Observatory
Erik Wesselius, +31 30 236 4422 (Amsterdam)

Focus on the Global South
Nicola Bullard, +662 2187363 (Bangkok) or Aileen Kwa, +41 22 7918050 (Geneva)

Friends of the Earth Finland
Ville-Veikko Hirvela, +358 2231 0321 (Turku)

Friends of the Earth Netherlands
Bertram Zagema, +31 205507387 (Amsterdam)

Friends of the Earth US
David Waskow, +1 202 783 7400 (Washington)

Friends of the Earth International
Ronnie Hall, +44 7967 017281 (London)

Shefali Sharma, +41 7881 79930 (Geneva)

IBON Foundation, Inc.
Antonio Tujan Jr, +632 713-2729 / 2737 (Manila)

International NGO Forum on Indonesia Development (INFID)
Bonnie Setiawan, +62 21 79196721 (Jakarta)

REDES (FOE Uruguay)
Alberto Villareal, + 598 52 28481 (Montevideo)

World Development Movement
Barry Coates, +44 207 737 6215 (London)

[2] Non-governmental organisations have had access to the Ministerial conference centres and press facilities at all previous WTO Ministerials. Furthermore, the delayed delivery of accreditation letters is increasingly problematic for all participants waiting to finalise travel arrangements.

[3] Only 21 Members of 142 WTO members were invited to the mini-Ministerial held in Singapore where key decisions were taken on outstanding issues. The Chair of the General Council and the Director General have defended these green room practices by rationalising that closed consultations have been followed-up by open-ended General Council meetings. However, these open-ended meetings have been extremely limited in effectiveness since the views of the majority expressed are not reflected in the draft Ministerial text. Instead, the views expressed in closed Green Room consultations are taken as the basis for drafting the text. This practice seriously calls into question the lack of democratic process and accountability of the institution.