The WTO's 6th Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong, And the Continuing Resistance of the Peoples of Developing Countries

Mme. Trinidad Domingo*

The 6th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization was held in Hong Kong from December 13 to 18, 2005. WTO ministerial conferences are the WTO's highest decision-making body, and are empowered to take decisions on all matters under any of the agreements within the WTO regime. Previous to this Hong Kong conference, the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the WTO was held in Seattle, USA, in 1999 ; the 4th conference in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001 ; and the 5th conference in Cancun, Mexico, in September 2003.

In Seattle, the resistance of developing countries against the intransigent positions of the USA and the European Union (EU), and massive civil society mobilizations (with tens of thousands of protestors calling for an end to WTO and its negotiations), disrupted the conference. The forging of a general agreement was derailed, and WTO trade talks collapsed for the first time. In Doha, the absence of civil society mobilizations allowed the big trading powers to bamboozle developing countries to sign on to the so-called "Doha Development Agenda" which would include investment, government procurement and competition policies in negotiations, thus further expanding the ambit of the WTO over national sovereignty issues.
Then in Cancun, a more unified South and better organized civil society mobilization forced the USA, the EU and Japan to provoke a collapse in negotiations, rather than give in to the persistent demands for significant reductions in their agricultural subsidies, and for the non-extension of WTO jurisdiction to investment and other activities beyond trade. The historic walkout led by African delegates was the appropriate response to the bullying by the North. To try to save the situation and help ensure that no deadlock will again happen in the next ministerial conference, a smaller General Council meeting of the WTO in Geneva in July 2004 crafted a "framework agreement" for the Hong Kong conference to keep negotiations alive on the different issues of the so-called "Doha Development Round".
The Doha conference in 2001 promised a "development round" for developing countries, particularly the poorest and least developed. The Hong Kong conference aimed at forging an agreement on the elements of a new trade deal which would conclude the "Doha Development Round" by 2006. The Hong Kong conference brought together the trade ministers from all the WTO member countries (currently 149) to make final decisions on trade negotiations on WTO agreements such as the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), Non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA, which pertains to tariffs on industrial goods), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreements (TRIPs), and Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs).

The WTO Framework : Profits Before People
The WTO's July 2004 "framework agreement" for the Hong Kong ministerial conference was primarily focused on the modalities of agreements on agriculture. Essentially, the framework maintains the right of the trade superpowers to subsidize their agricultural production ; creates a new category of "sensitive products" in developed countries in order to hamper market access for agricultural products from developing countries ; and makes any USA-EU-Japan concession in the agricultural field dependent on the opening up to foreign investment of the services and industry sectors of developing countries (under GATS and TRIMs). The framework was deceptively embellished with a promised 20% reduction by the USA, EU and Japan in their maximum allowed subsidy level. The 'reduced' level amounts to USD $152.6-Billion, which is still much higher than their 2000 actual subsidy level of USD $118.1-Billion. Clearly, the framework for the Hong Kong negotiations on agriculture was in favour of the trade superpowers of the North.
On the issue of services (under GATS), the framework increases the pressure on developing countries to open up their services sector (which now account for 50% of the GDP of developing countries) to investment penetration by the northern superpowers. At stake is the privatization of public services (such as energy, water supply and education). Governments are to be effectively prevented from exercising national control over private service providers, and would therefore be unable to regulate prices, ensure universal coverage of services, or oversee labor standards. Agreements to this effect would mean the death knell for public services.
On the issue of market access for industrial products (under NAMA), the industrial powers require deeper tariff cuts on the part of developing countries. This would mean a continuation and aggravation of the import liberalization imposed upon developing countries under previous structural adjustment programs. The de-industrialization of developing countries is to be accelerated.
On the issue of intellectual property, of special concern is the need to put the public health and food security interests of developing countries over the profit drive of pharmaceutical and other transnational corporations which own or control patents and trademarks over such items as life-saving drugs, food formulations for special infants, hybrid seeds and vital chemical products. The framework for the Hong Kong conference gave short shrift to this and other main concerns of developing countries.
In general, the continuation of the "Doha Round" of negotiations at the Hong Kong conference was used by the rich countries to protect their interests, to the detriment of the vast mass of humanity belonging to the developing countries.

The Peoples' Resistance : For Fair Trade, Not "Free" Trade
In the months prior to the start of the Hong Kong ministerial conference, there were a number of anti-WTO activities in many developing countries, as well as in Hong Kong itself. As early as September 2004, the Hong Kong People's Alliance against the WTO (HKPA) was organized to prepare a powerful representation of the peoples to the official delegates at this WTO conference. The HKPA was formed by representatives of trade unions and organizations of migrant workers, students, women, human rights advocates and social researchers, as well as of regional organizations based in Hong Kong.
In November 2004, also as an advanced preparation for the Hong Kong ministerial conference, an "Asia-Pacific Conference on Trade" was held in Penang, Malaysia, by NGO representatives from 11 Asia-Pacific countries. The main position approved at that Penang conference was that trade should be in the service of sustainable development - development which should reflect equity, address environmental concerns, and meet social needs. Developing countries of the region must reject any trade arrangement which is detrimental to sustainable development. As the main slogan goes : No deal is better than a bad deal ! Better to derail the Hong Kong ministerial conference, than to worsen inequity.
In the days immediately before the opening of the ministerial conference, a number of anti-WTO activities were already being held in Hong Kong. On December 11, an anti-WTO seminar, on the theme of women and economic justice, was well attended at the City University of Hong Kong. On December 12, a press conference was held at the media center at Victoria Park by the "Peoples' Caravan for Justice and Sovereignty", to rally local support for anti-WTO activities planned for the duration of the ministerial conference. On December 13, the opening day of the ministerial conference, an anti-WTO fluvial parade was held off the Kowloon pier in the morning, followed in the afternoon by a demonstration of around 10,000 participants led by the HKPA at the Victoria Park.
For the whole duration of the ministerial conference, protest actions were staged, mainly by representatives of farmers' groups from developing countries of Asia. Most of these manifestations were held at the main lawn of Victoria Park (around a kilometer from the venue of the ministerial meetings), and were very informative and inspiring affairs. There were presentations on the alternative agenda for peoples' food sovereignty ; workshops on poverty alleviation and women's rights in the rubric of trade liberalization ; discussions on agricultural subsidies and dumping practices by the USA and the EU which destabilize farm incomes and rural communities in developing countries ; and country reports on specific problems such as the channelling of credit programs for export crops controlled by transnational agri-trading corporations, instead of being used to support food production for domestic needs and to improve farm livelihoods.
On December 17, around 10,000 farmers, fisherfolks and agricultural workers held a rally at Victoria Park, after which around 4,000 Korean participants stayed on for a candlelight vigil. On December 18, the last day of the ministerial conference, around 10,000 rallyists at Victoria Park were joined by around 5,000 migrant workers as they marched to the vicinity of the ministerial conference venue at Wanchai district. The substantial participation of migrant workers dramatized the fact that the deepening crisis in agriculture and the de-industrialization of developing countries are driving millions of people off the land and out of local employment, and driving many to overseas migration as domestic helpers or as cheap labor for industrial and agricultural corporations.
The acrimony that prevailed in Hong Kong during the ministerial conference, both inside and outside the official meeting halls, had created apprehensions among delegates from the North that consensus may prove elusive and that the drafting of a general agreement could be derailed as in the earlier ministerial conferences in Seattle and Cancun. The official debates and discussions showed that majority of the member countries oppose the way the WTO is conducting its job. The developed countries, especially the USA, the EU and Japan, therefore wanted to ensure that the WTO would not suffer a third derailment after Seattle and Cancun.

The Disappointing Results Of Hong Kong Ministerial Conference
Faced with the resistance from most of the developing countries, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy decided to settle for limited progress in Hong Kong, in the hope that negotiations would be completed in the next General Council meeting in Geneva. A third crash for the WTO in Hong Kong would have fatally undermined its credibility. The rich countries tried to undermine the unity of the opposition by selectively offering concessional morsels (such as opportunities in business process outsourcing) to some developing countries. Unfortunately, some representatives of developing countries did not do enough to adequately protect the interests of their countries, and especially of their farmers. In the end, the developed countries prevailed, with the developing countries succumbing to their manoeuvres.
The Hong Kong ministerial conference concluded on December 18, 2005, with a finalized draft which showed that the global trading system continues to be systematically skewed in favor of the few rich trading powers of the North. At the same time, it was the best that the developed countries could squeeze out of the developing world, considering the overwhelming opposition from more than 125 members of the 149-member WTO. In the end, there was no commitment from the developed countries to lower their domestic agricultural subsidies, or to liberalize the entry into their territory of service providers from the developing countries.
The rich countries merely promised to eliminate all forms of agricultural export subsidies by 2013. As a concession, the finalized draft allows developing countries to declare an appropriate number of special products (on a self-selective basis) to remain outside the ambit of tariff reduction formulas. It also provided for a special safeguard mechanism under which developing countries would be able to raise their import duties on agricultural products in the event of a surge in their import volumes, or a sharp fall in their import prices.
It would of course be an exaggeration and unwarranted optimism to consider these concessions as significant safeguards for the interests of developing countries. First of all, the export subsidies form no more than 3.5 % of total agricultural subsidies in developed countries, and will hardly protect agriculture and farmers of the South. While developing countries have demanded the reduction of the rich countries' enormous subsidies and restrictions, the US almost doubled its farm subsidies during the 10 years since the start of the WTO. While the USA preaches free markets to others, it practices tighter protection for its industry and agriculture. Ironically, representatives of a number of developing countries agreed during the Hong Kong negotiations to further cuts in agricultural tariffs, instead of protecting the interest of their small and marginal farmers.
The agreement on NAMA will entail substantial cuts by developing countries in their tariffs on industrial imports. In the light of the insignificant reductions in domestic farm subsidies by the advanced countries, the tariff reduction commitments on industrial imports agreed to by many developing countries are unjustifiable and would only accelerate their de-industrialization.
Regarding negotiations on GATS and TRIMs, the results have been a one-way avenue for services-sector investments from advanced countries to developing countries. The enhancement of foreign direct investments (FDIs) in the various services sectors of developing countries were committed to be further discussed, which would lead to less regulation by developing countries of foreign service providers from developed countries. The issue of government procurement are also to be further discussed, which would lead to wider privatization in the global South of such services as health, education, financial management and telecommunications. In the coming continuation of negotiations, the imperial objective will be to get all limitations on FDIs removed, and to reinforce such commitments as part of international treaty obligations. In effect, the national sovereignty of developing countries would be curtailed, and even their constitutional limitations on the entry of FDIs in the retail business, in natural resources exploitation and other nationally-reserved investment areas, would be jettisoned.
Regarding TRIPs, agreements have been in favor of the advanced countries, and prices of patented drugs, seeds and chemical formulations are expected to rise further, affecting the common people. Overall, the Hong Kong declaration further reinforces the unequal trade regime and neo-colonial international economic order.

The Continuing Struggle
A positive development in Hong Kong was the increase in the number of developing countries which stood in unison to oppose and try to thwart the moves of the rich nations. Even before the ministerial conference, the G-20 grouping of big developing countries, as well as the G-33 grouping of smaller agricultural countries, came out with strong statements against the non-transparent WTO process of decision-making which is dominated by the big trading powers. The G-20 now has 21 members, while the G-33 swelled in number to 44 countries. Other new coalitions based on regional backgrounds (African-Caribbean-Pacific) put up a united fight against the farm subsidies in the USA, the EU and Japan.
The Hong Kong ministerial conference also saw the formation of another core group of 9 developing countries (India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Argentina, Venezuela, Egypt, Namibia and the Philippines) which demanded that developing countries should not make as much of a cut in industrial tariffs as the developed countries. They demanded the removal of high tariffs and an end to non-tariff barriers in developed countriesí markets.
The developed countries' concept of "fair" trade - that of equalizing industrial tariffs in both developed and developing countries in order to "level the playing field" - is in fact very deceptive and unfair. Developing countries should not decrease tariffs unless developed countries eliminate, their trade-distorting subsidies and other internal "incentives" which prevent the attainment of a level playing field. Special and Deferential Treatment (SDT) for developing countries should be emphasized.
There are four general themes that the masses of our people are pursuing in all aspects of the WTO : (1) Make trade fair ; (2) No to unilateral impositions by the WTO ; (3) Save our jobs ; and (4) Protect our agriculture and domestic industries. The success of these themes depends on firm resistance against the pressures of the trade superpowers. These superpowers have realized (from the examples of Seattle, Cancun and Hong Kong) that pressure tactics could invite a debacle in the wider setting of a ministerial conference where decision-making is based on majority rule, and where negotiators are subject to popular pressure from citizens' groups. It is for this reason that the trade superpowers - primarily the USA, the EU and Japan - now want the negotiations to be continued in the limited and non-transparent setting of a General Council sitting in Geneva.
The trade superpowers now want the decision-making function of the Ministerial Conference to be formally usurped by a smaller and more pliant General Council meeting of a few handpicked countries. But if that happens, then the WTO would totally lose credibility. Then there would be greater reason for peoples to say : No deal is better than a bad deal!


*President of Federation of New Filipina Women and representative of Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization at the Hong Kong protest actions.