Promoting transparency in world trade negotiations

Making full provision for public transparency and the involvement of civil society in all world trade negotiations.

Increased transparency through the de-restriction of documents and consultations with civil society can be expected to have an (indirect) positive sustainability impact, in each of the three WTO country groups.

When crowds of protestors seriously disrupted the 1999 Seattle trade talks, the potential power of non-governmental organizations was pushed to the forefront of international policy debate. NGOs are a legitimate force in society. Their legitimacy stems from two fundamental rights: the freedom of expression and the right to assemble. The strength of NGOs is matched by the growing weakness of governments to respond to societal needs.

What differentiates the WTO from the two Brettonwoods institutions is that every Member, irrespective of its trade share has one vote. Another important feature is the Dispute Settlement System of the WTO, which has been vested with powers to punish erring Members. The latter makes the Members more sensitive and cautious about the decision making process and the level of transparency associated with it, where as the former provides them an opportunity to exercise their influence on the decision making process without any diminution.

There is considerable public interest in the work of the WTO. Civil Society is a major stakeholder in the trade liberalisation process and acts as an important conduit of public opinion to policymakers. Significant progress has already been made in enhancing the dialogue between the WTO and organisations of civil society, as evidenced by the High Level Symposia on the Environment and on Development.

NGO representatives can attend Ministerial Conferences, although they are excluded from negotiation meetings, and at the country level, an increasing number of member states consult regularly with NGOs and other representative groups.

The success of the world trade negotiations in achieving a sustainable development outcome requires a broad level of public support for trade liberalisation measures which will be consistent with environmental protection, social justice and development needs. A greater sense of 'ownership' on the part of civil society in developed and developing countries would enhance the likelihood of achieving a sustainable development outcome for the New Round negotiations.

On the dissemination of information, the WTO has set up an efficient electronic document distribution system, but it is still at the discretion of individual member governments whether to release a document for public consumption. Members have adopted varying practices with regard to the release of WTO documents to civil society groups. The United States and the EU have supported more openness and transparency in the WTO, but a number of other member states fear excessive politicisation of the WTO and have been less willing to agree to the de-restriction of documents.

Within the context of the WTO DSU review, a number of changes in transparency procedures are being discussed. These include (I) public release of members' submissions (ii) opening panel and appellate body hearings to the public, and (iii) a procedure for the presentation of written submissions by interested members of the public.

1. Mike Moore, Director-General of the World Trade Organization, issued a stinging indictment of those NGOs in Seattle (1999) who demonstrated in order to stop the trade ministers from meeting. After all, he said, those trade ministers were representing elected governments and had a legitimate right to assemble. Moore disputed allegations that the WTO is fundamentally closed and undemocratic, saying that the organization does want to work closer with NGOs. He also said that many lessons had been learned from the Seattle experience.

2. Transparency, public participation and accountability must be guaranteed in multilateral institutions such as the WTO. Currently, WTO processes are opaque, closed to public participation and lack accountability. This reduces accountability of national governments and results in unsound policy at the national and international level and must be addressed.

Type Classification:
F: Exceptional strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions