Tuesday 13th December: Protests inside and out
(Photo: Tom Head)
Today the conference opened to demonstrations both inside and outside the conference centre.
The agenda for the coming week was formally set at an opening ceremony by Hong Kong’s Trade Minister and Chair of the conference John Tsang. Hong Kong’s strong economy and the role that its free trade economy played in the Special Administrative Region’s relative affluence was a theme of this and another two of the five opening addresses, which were clearly intended to encourage delegates to get into the negotiating spirit.
The most notable speech, in terms of the reaction it received, if not its content, was that of Pascal Lamy, the former EU Trade Commissioner and current Secretary General of the WTO. Almost as soon as he had started, a hidden banner was unfurled, signs taken out of bags and around 30 of the 200 NGO participants that had been allowed into the plenary session interrupted shouting “Yes to development. No to Doha round!” Our two Quaker colleagues, who were sitting not far away reported that the chanting was allowed to continue unchecked for several minutes and then the protestors were gently ushered to the back of the hall.
Throughout all of this Lamy, quite the professional, continued with his speech as if nothing had happened. He relegated the processes and language of the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to the past and lauded what he saw as the relative openness and transparency of the WTO today. He emphasised that although this made negotiations more difficult, it would ultimately result in a better agreement, which would enable each and every party to take something away and say that they had won. Other speeches were given by Amina Mohammed, Ambassador of Kenya and Chair of the WTO’s General Council and on behalf of Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General. The latter emphasised the development aspect of the round, called upon rich countries to eliminate their agricultural export subsidies and to invest in and improve upon the “human condition” of developing countries.
The formal business part of the conference started immediately afterwards, although it is clear from a number of the press and NGO briefings that I attended today that many delegations have been in town and involved in informal discussions for a few days already. This conference will essentially work on two tracks. The first formal and more public part consists of plenary sessions, which in addition to opening statements made by the 149 member delegations, will deal with the accession of Tonga to the WTO’s fold and at the request of Honduras and four west African countries, special talks about trade in bananas and cotton. The second track, the closed negotiations we understand will first focus on the issue of development, then move on to agriculture, industrial goods and finally services.
Although the entire Doha round is ostensibly about development, some, particularly amongst the NGOs have raised concerns about having singling out a special ‘development package’ as the first issue on the table. According to the Chair of the conference the reason for this was simply because there has been obvious interest in such a deal in Geneva, Brussels and elsewhere and so this is an issue where there is a higher likelihood of a successful outcome.
The package is particularly being pushed by the EU, which amongst other things wants all developed country members to offer duty and quota free access to goods from the 49 countries within the WTO that are classed as being Least Developed. Another proposal is for members, in conjunction with the World Bank and IMF to agree a ‘trade for aid’ package to help poorer countries implement WTO commitments. Whilst the market access idea seems to be generally welcomed by civil society, questions have been raised about trade for aid. Some NGOs are concerned that this would increase the debt burden of the poorest countries whilst others have suggested that were such a package to be agreed, developing countries might end up being beholden to rich countries in other parts of the talks. This latter notion was rejected by the Indian Ambassador at a briefing held for NGOs this morning, but there remains concern for other smaller and less powerful countries.
Even outside of these closed negotiations, the conference centre is buzzing with activity. A number of governments have been holding press conferences outlining their hopes and demands for the rest of the meetings and many of the NGOs represented here have been hosting briefings, debates and other events about the issues that they are working on.
The QUNO and QIAP delegations, which include a number of technical and legal experts, have been working hard to make contact with delegates from developing and least developed country groups who have a particular interest in talks on intellectual property as part of the TRIPS agreement. This is not necessarily an easy task as delegates generally are working in the ‘Phase 1’ part of the conference centre whilst NGOs and the press are restricted to ‘Phase 2’ areas. This means that there are relatively few areas where NGO participants and delegations naturally ‘bump into’ one another. This is certainly not helped by the fact that unlike at previous ministerial conferences, there appears to be few places outside of formal meeting rooms where participants can sit down, eat or chat. For some this is simply just unfortunate, for the more cynical, a deliberate ploy by the organisers.
A number of the delegations that QUNO and QIAP work with are relatively small, under resourced and at a disadvantage when it comes to taking part in complex and technical aspects of these talks. Every evening these Quaker groups are providing a space for delegates to meet, work with and receive advice from their experts in the hope that this will promote and support a fairer negotiation process.
News is filtering in that there have been scuffles outside the conference centre between demonstrators and police and that tear gas has been deployed. At one point this afternoon a number of small boats could be seen outside in the harbour which we have since learned were the authorities intervening in a peaceful protest whereby a group of around 50 Korean farmers jumped off a boat and started to swim towards the conference centre. We are also starting to hear about a number of people being detained at the airport. Some of these cases are relatively high profile, including someone whose release was secured directly by Pascal Lamy, but there are others less much less visible. We learned this first thing this morning from colleagues from the American Friends Service Committee who had spent hours at the airport last night working, ultimately successfully, to secure the release of someone from one of their partner organisations.
As I walked back from the conference centre to post these thoughts it is clear that security has been stepped up. Although the streets are calm and I saw no sign of the clashes earlier today, there are now armed guards in the area surrounding the centre. Our hotel has boarded up some of the windows on the ground floor and I came out of the lift on my floor to find half a dozen security people lined up along the corridor!
Tomorrow we hope there will be some news from the negotiations themselves. However, with the talks scheduled to go on for another five days it is likely to be some days before we get an indication of what kind of deal, if any, will result.