Resisting WTO’s culture of terror and impunity

30 December 2015 by Yash Tandon

This article seeks to explain the process leading to WTO’s Tenth Ministerial Conference (WTO MC10). The next (final article in this series) will focus on the substance of negotiations. Of course, you cannot separate the process from the substance. But conceptually and strategically it is important to understand the difference as well as the interaction.

The most significant aspect of the process is its underlying power politics.

World Trade Organisation
The WTO, founded on 1st January 1995, replaced the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The main innovation is that the WTO enjoys the status of an international organization. Its role is to ensure that no member States adopt any kind of protectionism whatsoever, in order to accelerate the liberalization global trading and to facilitate the strategies of the multinationals. It has an international court (the Dispute Settlement Body) which judges any alleged violations of its founding text drawn up in Marrakesh.


The Nairobi Declaration (if such is the outcome of the MC10) will be a negotiated text. What does that mean? Like in all previous MCs, it means, effectively, that the powerful get what they want and the weak surrender under the threat of sanctions, such as withdrawal of so-called ‘development aid’ and ‘market access’ to poor and weak countries. Yes, indeed, it is that simple. It takes collective efforts of the Global South, and the solidarity voices of the people of the world to beat Empire - as in Seattle in 1999, and Cancun, 2003.

In between the powerful and the weak are countries like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that do have some – but limited - negotiating leverage Leverage This is the ratio between funds borrowed for investment and the personal funds or equity that backs them up. A company may have borrowed much more than its capitalized value, in which case it is said to be ’highly leveraged’. The more highly a company is leveraged, the higher the risk associated with lending to the company; but higher also are the possible profits that it may realise as compared with its own value. , provided they act in concert. Opposed to BRICS and the Global South is the Empire - a term that is not admissible in diplomatic – including WTO - discourse. But the Empire exists; it is an existential reality. Some readers may want to include China in this category, but in the WTO and broader geopolitical context, the Empire comprises of the USA, Europe and Japan. The WTO was created by the Empire with very little participation from the Global South – including China. The Empire structured well-thought-out built-in rules of the WTO that are lopsidedly pro-Empire. For example, in theory all countries can provide the so-called ‘green subsidies’ to agricultural production, but in practice only the Empire is able to apply this provision; even the BRICS are not able to provide these for various technical reasons.

However, the global geopolitics are shifting rapidly. The chaos in the Middle East is part of this shift. The Empire is in crisis, in decay. This opens the door for an alternative system to emerge. China is beginning to flex its political and financial muscle. It is possible that it will make its weight felt at MC10. This explains why the Empire is in a state of panic and in some urgency to ‘conclude’ the Doha Development Agenda (DDA), and move on to a new pro-imperial agenda.


When the DDA was launched in November 2001 it was under overbearing pressure from the Empire. Following 9/11 (the terrorist attack on New York), the US had announced that if the Doha Round was not launched, those opposing it would effectively be ‘siding with the terrorists’. The emphasis during the negotiations was largely on market access – primarily for the benefit of the Empire. As a member of the Tanzanian delegation – then negotiating on behalf of the Least Developed Countries Least Developed Countries
A notion defined by the UN on the following criteria: low per capita income, poor human resources and little diversification in the economy. The list includes 49 countries at present, the most recent addition being Senegal in July 2000. 30 years ago there were only 25 LDC.
(LDCs) - I remember how very disappointed we were at the outcome. [1]

However, at the last minute, on the insistence of the Tanzanian Minister of Trade, the word ‘development’ was inserted between ‘Doha’ and ‘Round’ making it the Doha Development Round (DDR) or Doha Development Agenda (DDA). The Empire did not at the time understand the significance of inserting that one word. This word has saved Africa – and the South. One must remember that the WTO is a trade – not ‘development’ - institution. Its ideological assumption is that ‘free market’ promotes development, which we know from hard evidence on the ground that it does not. However, following Doha, the developing countries have been able to use the word ‘development’ to argue for genuine development emerging out of the DDA. In other words, development first, then trade.

In the last 14 years the DDA has not shown much movement. This is the reason the Empire wants to jettison the DDA at the MC10 in Nairobi, to ‘conclude’ it. But for the Global South the DDA is their anchor; remove it and you never know to what destination the Empire might steer the WTO ship... For example, one area where the DDA anchor is not allowing the ship to drift is the so-called Singapore (and other new) issues. It gives the developing countries policy space to determine their own development priorities, to give preferences to local companies over foreign corporations and foreign imports. It is no wonder that the Empire wants to kill the DDA. The corporate interests that sit waiting to take over the helm are now even more powerful - but also more desperate - than they were fourteen years ago.


Let us get back to the process. At the apex of the WTO is the Ministerial Conference (MC) which usually meets every two years, often outside Geneva - like this time in Nairobi. In Geneva, however, the highest decision-making body is the General Council (GC) comprising of representatives (usually ambassadors) from all member governments. In between the MCs the GC has the authority to act on behalf of the MCs.

Below the GC, there is an official body called the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) chaired by the Director General (DG) of the WTO – presently Roberto Azevêdo. However, most strategic and weighty negotiations take place within the cloistered chambers (called the ‘Green Room’ process). Admission to the Green Room – and the process itself - is wholly non-transparent and undemocratic. Negotiations take place among the Empire and a number of developing countries selected by the Empire. Also, there are a plethora of committees and ‘special sessions’, ad hoc negotiating groups and secret meetings. The Empire manipulates the process inside and outside the Green Room – including all kinds of wheeling and dealing and pressure on governments in Africa and other poor nations - and it gets away with what can only be described as terror and bully tactics. It enjoys unparalleled impunity from responsibility for serious violations of the principles of fairness and justice.

The DGs are not neutral and are appointed at the pleasure of the Empire – just like the Heads of the World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

and the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
– together with the WTO, the three primary institutions of global governance. Azevêdo is not neutral. He is a free market fundamentalist and buys into this ‘holy grail’. On 3rd June this year, for example, China and India rebuffed his proposal to change OTDS (Overall Trade Distorting Domestic Support) in favour of the developed countries. He comes from Brazil, which is the coordinator for the G-20 developing country farm coalition. But Brazil remained silent on this issue. [2]

On July 10 Uganda’s Ambassador Christopher Onyanga Aparr challenged the DG. He is reported to have asked the DG : ‘We called for a discussion on the nature and scope of the work program, but apparently the call has not yet found a landing zone… what is so wrong with the Doha Work Program?’ [3] Needless to say, he got no response from Azevêdo.


The MC10 process began - practically speaking – almost immediately after the MC9. The outcome of MC9 was disastrous for Africa. [4] Since Bali, the trade technical experts from the member countries have been negotiating the implementation of the DDA and a possible future work program. After nearly seven months of intensive negotiations, the GC set up a three-person team of ‘facilitators’ - from Colombia, Kenya and Norway - who were asked to summarise the state of the negotiations up to that time and suggest a possible text for the Nairobi Declaration.

When the facilitators presented their report on December 1, it was immediately challenged by the Global South. Briefly, there were two things wrong with their report:

• To start with it said nothing on the DDA; it totally ignored the DDA mandate.
• Then, having claimed that it will not have language on New Issues, it opened the door to these in a roundabout way by, for example, looking at the systemic implications of Regional Trade Agreements s (RTAs) and their coherence with WTO rules.

It was a very serious setback for the South as their demand to continue talks on DDA was simply set aside. On December 2, the report by TNC Chairman, Azevêdo, was postponed. On December 3, the DG was forced by the Global South to insert specific language for DDA continuance post-Nairobi. The South was no longer in a mood to take further beating from the Empire and its agents within the very structure of the WTO. [5]

This is where we stand today. The process in Geneva has more or less reached an impasse and has moved to examining the various possibilities of the format in which the final outcome might be embodied in Nairobi.


Several scenarios are possible. I rank them in order from good to bad – that is, from the perspective of Africa and the Global South.


1. The WTO was created by the Empire and controlled and coordinated by it - like a war machine. There are differences among its constituent members (for example between the US and the EU), but on the DDA they are united – they are bent on killing it.

2. The WTO political game is played with complete lack of any democratic or moral scruples. The Empire speaks of democracy and good governance, ad infinitum, but there is not a morsel of it within the WTO system of global economic governance. And the Empire gets away with total impunity.

3. The WTO’ ideology of ‘free trade’ is a pure fiction. Nothing like that ever existed in history, not even during its ‘high point’ of 19th century English mercantile system.

4. The WTO is not neutral. Its DG - Azevêdo - is not neutral. He is a ‘free market fundamentalist and works for the Empire.

5. The Chairperson of MC10, Ambassador Amina Mohamed, is officially neutral. As the Chair she has to be. But she will be under huge pressure from the Empire, Azevêdo, and the WTO Secretariat to produce an outcome favourable to the Empire.

6. Of the seven possible scenarios presented above, for Africa and the Global South the first is the best; the second is a ‘fall-back’ position; the next two are not ideal but they do not close the door to the DDA; and the last three are where are the ‘no go’ areas.

Africa will be subject to ‘waterboarding’ by the Empire at the MC10 in Nairobi under the WTO process. [6] It is time Africa sits up and gets counted. It must resist the WTO’s culture of terror and impunity for the Empire.

View online : Pambazuka News

Yash Tandon is a Ugandan policymaker, political activist, professor, author and public intellectual. His latest book, Trade Is War, was published in June 2015.


[1See: ‘The Three-Layered Reality of the WTO’ in Yash Tandon, Trade is War, OR- Books, 2015.

[2The best blow-by-blow accounts of these negotiations are given on a daily basis by a Geneva-based ‘third world’ South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) edited by Chakravarthi Raghavan, a doyen of trade negotiations since before the WTO was created. See SUNS #8048, 24 June, 2015.

[3See: SUNS #8060

[4See: ‘The long losing fight over S&D in Bali’ in Trade is War, op.cit.

[5See: SUNS #8148

[6Waterboarding is a form of torture widely used by the US government in which water is poured over the head of a captive making him feel as if he is drowning.



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