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  December 3, 2017

Argentine Government Bars Major NGO Representatives from WTO Meeting

In an unprecedented move that violates World Trade Organization rules, Argentina revoked accreditations of representatives of 20 NGOs, preventing them from attending the 11th WTO Meeting in Buenos Aires next week. Deborah James of CEPR explains the significance of this decision
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Deborah James is the Director of the International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research as representative of the Our World Is Not For Sale Network


GREGORY WILPERT: It's The Real News Network. I'm Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. The government of Argentina unexpectedly revoked the accreditation of 63 activists from 20 nongovernmental organizations on Thursday, preventing them from participating in the 11th ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. This meeting is scheduled to take place December 10th through 13th in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Most of those who had their credentials revoked work with a network of 250 organizations known as Our World is Not For Sale. Many NGOs consider this upcoming meeting to be extremely important because it will deal with digital commerce, among other things.

Joining me to discuss Argentina's decision to revoke the credentials is the coordinator of Our World is Not For Sale, Deborah James. Deborah is also the director of international programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Thanks for joining us today, Deborah.

DEBORAH JAMES: Thanks for the invitation.

GREGORY WILPERT: First, just give us a rundown of what happened with the accreditations and what it is that the government is saying to justify this move.

DEBORAH JAMES: The process with the WTO is that they have, in their statutes, that they can accredit NGOs and the only criteria is that those NGOs have an interest in the World Trade Organization. We've never had a problem with any of our members being accredited before. They all work diligently on the WTO year-round. A lot of them are well-known economic justice organizations in their countries. They all applied for accreditation to be able to participate in the upcoming ministerial. The accreditation was in the summer and fall. They all received an attestation that the WTO had in fact accredited their organizations and the individuals as representatives of those organizations.

Then, shockingly, we just heard on Wednesday morning a number of our members started receiving a letter that was actually from the WTO saying that the Argentines had summarily rejected about 20 different organizations, they had revoked their credentials and that they would likely not be allowing them to even enter the country, and so the WTO was advising that they not plan on traveling to Argentina to not have trouble at the border.

This is very shocking because any host country of an international meeting is not the organization that is supposed to be deciding who gets to come to the meeting. That's for the organization having the meeting to do, and the host is supposed to facilitate the meeting according with the meeting's guidelines. Of all the organizations that we work with, and including other people that we talk to that have been active in the international arena, whether it be the United Nations, or multilateral environmental agreements, or meetings on climate change or the WTO, no one has ever heard of a host country summarily blocking the participation of so many representatives of civil society that had been accredited by the meeting's secretariat.

GREGORY WILPERT: How important is it for these NGOs to be there at this ministerial meeting? What do you do at these meetings? What happens there?

DEBORAH JAMES: The WTO will be conducting negotiations on all of the issues that we've been following for the last several years. Each of these organizations has been analyzing the proposals, has been understanding how it would impact their members, their constituents, their citizens and have written briefs, for example, about what would the impacts of the e-commerce digital trade negotiations be on the citizens of Bangladesh. They've been conducting media briefings and doing education in their countries, doing advocacy work with their own governments and they plan on coming and doing that same activities while they're here. They will be conducting a series of events for delegates. They will be intending to have meetings with the delegates. We also do quite a bit of media work to let the media know more about what the issues are and what are some of our criticisms of the different policy positions that are being put forward.

If these organizations are not allowed to do that, it means that the representative of civil society from that country won't have a voice in the negotiations in the key moment of decision-making in the two-year cycle of the WTO. This is a ministerial meeting. It's the top decision-making moment of the World Trade Organization and to not have those critical voices from civil society who are the actual people representing the people who are going to be impacted by the outcome of the negotiations is really a travesty.

GREGORY WILPERT: What is it that you think might have motivated the government of Argentina to make such a decision? What can you tell us about the government? We know that it's a conservative government. Do you think it has something to do with that and what is it that they might be concerned about?

DEBORAH JAMES: The government of Macri has actually specifically said that they're hosting the WTO ministerial is an example of their coming back into the world, reinserting themselves into the world. They also have just transferred the presidency of the G20, so they will be the president of the G20 next year and they will be holding a summit. That will be a presidential-level meeting. I think that they see this WTO ministerial as a bit of a dry run for them security-wise.

We've been really shocked because like I said, no government in the history of international organizations has ever taken this drastic of a step that we can think of in any context. It really shows them to be very draconian, very repressive, very against public debate and dialogue, and against these civil society groups even being present in their country. They refused to give the WTO any sort of justification for the groups that they were banning and the only thing that's come out in the press since then, in the two days since we've been talking with the media about it and people have been asking them, is that they said that they had decided that the groups that they had banned had a vocation that was more focused on criticism than being constructive.

We find that to be a very inadequate excuse because when you have an international organization having a meeting in a host country, they are allowed of course to still control their borders. Every country has sovereignty over its borders but they are only supposed to invoke as a reason for excluding potentially one specific person or something like that based on national security concerns. The fact that they see us as more critical than constructive is just a lousy excuse. It's just ridiculous especially when you look at the high-level profile of many of the organizations that were banned.

GREGORY WILPERT: Let me just turn quickly to the issue of what this year's WTO ministerial is all about. How important is it in the scheme of things as a meeting and what's the main issue on the agenda?

DEBORAH JAMES: The main issue from the developing countries' point of view is actually the issue of development and agriculture. Developing countries have since actually the inception of the WTO had a lot of problems with the rules that constrain their policy space to use their economies to create jobs, to create development in their countries. They have been demanding a series of changes to existing WTO rules ever since then.

They've also been demanding more policy space to be able to actually feed their own people. In the WTO rules, developed countries are allowed to heavily subsidize their agriculture and export that agricultural produce even if it damages other countries' markets but developing countries are not even allowed to support their own domestic agriculture even if that food is domestically consumed. They are trying to pay farmers to grow food to feed their hungry populations, and that is actually running afoul of existing ridiculous WTO rules. Those are the two things on the agenda, food security and development from the developing countries' point of view.

Unfortunately, what's happened in the last couple of years is that the EU and the United States and Japan and Canada and Australia have developed a completely different agenda, New Zealand, of actually shoving development to the side. They don't want to talk about it anymore. They don't want any rules for flexibility for developing countries to feed their own populations. Instead, they're trying to introduce a suite of new issues.

The main one of this focuses on the digital economy of the future. They have been trying all year to get a mandate to discuss new issues, to have new binding rules on digital commerce in the WTO, seeing that digital is the way everything's going and that almost every aspect of commerce will have a digital component in the future. They're seeking new rules that will enable the big tech industries to keep dominating in all of this, the Googles, the Apples, the Facebook, the Amazon, the Microsoft to keep their monopolistic practices and to actually dominate e-commerce and all sorts of other digital services provision in developing countries as much as they're already doing it in our countries. That is a big problem for us.

They're also seeking to limit the ways that governments can regulate their own domestic services to make it easier for global services corporations to operate in markets and to make a profit without having to worry about government regulation. There's a whole series of issues that they're trying to push through, and we're saying, "No, that's not the right agenda to expand the WTO. What we need to do is fix, transform existing harmful problematic WTO rules."

GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. Just finally, one last point. What do you think can or needs to be done to reverse the decision about the revoking of the credentials of the people in your group?

DEBORAH JAMES: I think people need to register their opposition to civil society activists being banned. People are tweeting at a lot. You can tweet at Susana Malcorra, who is the head from Argentina, the chair of the WTO. You can tweet to the WTO itself, to Roberto Azevêdo, who is the director general and have the WTO put more pressure on Argentina to say that it's the WTO that should be deciding that we are allowed.

If you look at some of the groups, for example, that are banned, we're talking about groups like Friends of the Earth International, the Transnational Institute, a number of Argentine domestic groups. There's Global Justice Now that was just briefing the parliament in the UK on these issues. A full half of the 20 groups that were banned are members of Our World is Not For Sale but almost all of them, 18 of them are civil society groups.

At the same time, DHL, UPS, FedEx, eBay, the International Chamber of Commerce, the Coalition of Services Industries, the European Services Forum, big pharma, Philip Morris, the Semiconductor Industry Association, all of these corporations are still being allowed because there was only two companies that were included in the list of banned groups. Really, we just ask that people voice their opposition to the Argentine government however you can but tweeting is certainly an easy way to do it, to say that they need to reverse the ban and let civil society participate as is our right to do so in the upcoming WTO ministerial. It's the only way we can possibly assure a pro-development outcome in the ministerial is to make sure that civil society is present doing our advocacy work at the WTO next week in Argentina.

GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. We'll definitely want to come back to you once you're there in Argentina to get an update as to how the negotiations are going and how people are interjecting their objections and their constructive engagement in this meeting. Thanks so much, Deborah, for having joined us today.

DEBORAH JAMES: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.

GREGORY WILPERT: I was speaking to Deborah James, the director of international programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and thank you for joining The Real News Network. If you like our news and analysis, please don't forget to support us by donating to The Real News this holiday season.


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