Report On Hong Kong WTO Ministerial Meeting
- by Bill Rosenberg
This is an edited version of Bill’s report on his attendance at the Hong Kong Ministerial of the WTO. He went in his capacity as a tertiary education union representative. Ed.
I attended the 6th World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial meeting, held December13-18 2005 in Hong Kong, as an accredited observer on behalf of the Association of University Staff (AUS). This is a report on both my activities as part of an international group of education unions, and more general observations of the events both within and outside the conference.
This report first summarises the outcome of the Ministerial as it affects education and services more generally, and proposed actions. I then go into more detail about what we did in Hong Kong, the nature of the conference, activities inside and out, its tensions, its nature, and its dynamics. Peter Conway, NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) Director Industrial and Policy, has written a more extensive report on the outcomes, covering all aspects of the negotiations (available on request).
The Guts Of It
In the run up to the Hong Kong meeting, the European Union (EU) had been aggressively pushing for much accelerated negotiations in services (the General Agreement on Trade in Services, GATS), trying to make them a quid pro quo for any movement, slight as it is, in access to its agricultural markets. The mechanisms it was demanding – euphemistically called “complementary approaches” – included radical numerical targets for the number of sectors each country was required to commit, and a so-called “plurilateral approach”. The latter meant that groups of countries with common interests in opening markets in a particular sector would jointly draw up model commitments and then call other countries in turn to a meeting at which they would be called on to sign up.
The latest list of sectors for plurilateral negotiation is: Air Transport, Architectural and engineering services, Audiovisual services (which includes broadcasting and film), Computer and related services, Construction, Distribution, Education, Energy services, Environmental services, Express delivery, Financial services, Legal services, Maritime transport, Postal and Courier, and Telecommunications. In addition there is expected to be a group looking for openings in “Mode 4” – “movement of natural persons” – i.e. temporary migration of individuals to provide the service; “temporary” is undefined.
One of these sectors – initiated by New Zealand – was education. As I reported in Watchdog110, December 2005, the New Zealand government is organising a “ Friends of Private Education Exports” group for this purpose (this can be read online at http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/10/02.htm. Ed.). This once again forces education towards this commercial straitjacket – a direction exactly opposite to where educationists internationally have been heading.
There was strong and widespread opposition to this acceleration of the GATS negotiations. The great majority of developing countries opposed the approaches because they removed the much-vaunted (though much exaggerated) flexibility in GATS allowing countries to choose whether they would make commitments. Most of them had not even made an initial offer. The underhand procedure which led to much of this agenda being forced into the draft Ministerial text for Hong Kong is described below. The focus of services negotiations and opposition was on an Annex to the Ministerial text, Annex C, which detailed the programme and approaches that the WTO would take over the next year.
Many civil society organisations also opposed the EU approach, fearing further encroachment into public services, and dangerous moves into short-term migration and international outsourcing. Education unions made a unanimous declaration at the November 2005 Higher Education conference of Education International in Melbourne, which AUS representatives attended (see Appendix 1).
Education unions therefore focused on bringing what influence and pressure we could to bear in order to stop Annex C being accepted, and if it was, to weaken it as much as possible. By the time it got to Hong Kong, the Annex had lost the numerical approaches but still had a requirement that countries must enter negotiations with all plurilateral groups. In addition, it called for concluding negotiations on Domestic Regulation, an area very sensitive to education (affecting accreditation of institutions and professionals, qualifications, and technical standards) and public services in the broadest sense. Unions and many civil society organisations joined those concerns. Developing countries fought strongly, but in the end were defeated by undemocratic processes and huge pressures.
The outcome was a slight softening: countries were no longer required to enter negotiations with plurilateral groups, but instead were only required to “consider” their proposals. Domestic Regulation and all other aspects of the draft remained intact. The timetable set for plurilateral and further bilateral negotiations on further commitments and Domestic Regulations is extremely short (so short that it will be very difficult to meet, although initial “requests” from the plurilateral groups were made on schedule by February 28) so further work to oppose the agenda, including the involvement of education, will need to be maintained with urgency. Public Services International (PSI), the international federation of public service unions, is also working on a strategy with the broader aim of protecting public services.This will be in conjunction with other unions and with other like-minded civil society organisations.
Who Was There?
AUS, along with education unions internationally and many other significant education organisations, has longheld concerns at the effect of the WTO, and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in particular on public education and public services in general. The CTU has reflected that view. It was therefore appropriate and, as it proved, very timely, that AUS should have a presence at the Ministerial meeting.
Also observing the conference was the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) to which the CTU is affiliated. It was represented at the highest level: by Sharan Burrow (President; also President of the Australian CTU) for some of the time, Guy Ryder (General Secretary), James Howard (Director Employment and International Labour Standards) and others.
Education International (EI) was represented by its President, Thulas Nxesi (also General Secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union) and Elie Jouen (Deputy General Secretary), along with representatives of education unions in approximately eight other countries. Public Services International (PSI) was represented by its Assistant General Secretary, Mike Waghorne (a New Zealander) who also works for EI on trade issues.
The WTO Ministerial is formally the decision making body of the organisation. In practice, most of the work is done between Ministerial meetings, mostly through officials in Geneva, but also through unofficial “mini-ministerials” (these are controversial because admittance is by invitation only.They are largely driven by the major powers – US, EU, Japan and, since the last Ministerial in Cancun in 2003, which ended in failure, India and Brazil.) Even at the Ministerial itself, most of the negotiating takes place between officials, with most ministers having insufficient knowledge and grasp of the detail to play more than a ceremonial or political role. The outcome of the meeting is a “Ministerial Text” which may include decisions made on negotiations, but more often a programme of intent for the next st age of negotiations. The wording of this text is hard fought, down to the last word and comma. A draft is supposed to be agreed by consensus among officials and then circulated for approval by governments prior to the meeting. Parts of the draft that are not agreed should appear in square brackets, which in theory are progressively removed during the Ministerial as agreement is reached.
This time however (and this is a continuation of trends from recent Ministerials) because negotiations in Geneva have been tortuously slow, some of the text was inserted without agreement and without any indication that it was not agreed. One major section affected was that of most concern to us – on services. The text referred to an Annex C which laid out a programme (“modalities” in the jargon) of forced acceleration of the negotiations as if it had consensus. In fact that was far from the case, with most developing countries strongly opposing it. Probably under pressure from the EU, the chairman of the Services negotiations inserted it anyway and, only after strenuous opposition at a higher level were brackets put around the reference to it in the text. Despite this, the highly contentious Annex C became the basis for negotiations at Hong Kong, framing the whole discussion. More of this below. This was just one indication of the distrust that exists within the organisation, the lack of proper process, and the power politics (dominated by the EU and US) that substitute for it. This is a world legislature without democratic procedure or transparency.
The heart of the conference is the delegations. Few of their meetings (only the largely ceremonial opening and closing meetings) were open to the public, and then only in severely limited numbers for accredited NGOs. The delegations are admitted to areas off limits to the rest of the world. Even the delegations however are not allowed into everything. One notorious institution of the WTO is the “Green Room” (apparently named after a room opposite the Director General’s office in Geneva). This is not a single room, but a non-process in which invited members of a small number of delegations are brought together in largely off-the-record environment where the real deals are done and then presented as faits accomplis to the rest of the membership. The rest of the delegates and delegations can only stand outside and wait.
It was said that the Green Room procedures were more open than before in Hong Kong – due to the outr age that developing country delegates expressed at previous conferences – but it is not clear how much more open. Members of groups of countries were in some sense recognised this time. For example, the group of 40 or so Least Developed Countries was given representation in some Green Room discussions. Even this “representation” seems to be devalued. After one discussion, the chair pronounced those in favour or against by counting the representative of the “G90” group (Group of 90 countries) of the majority of developing countries as being worth only one.
For delegations not invited to the Green Room discussions, their options are to lobby sympathetic invitees, be a member of one of these groups, or enter into “confessionals” – one on one sessions with the Chair of each negotiation. The latter are yet another method for putting pressure on countries. A delegate of a small South Pacific nation for example told me that nothing they said in the confessional ever surfaced in summaries or outcomes. Delegates told journalists and NGOs that Chairs ended further discussion or debate in confessionals by asserting that matters had already been decided – which subsequently proved untrue.
The closest the organisation comes to transparency is that many delegations have non-governmental members of the delegations and observers. Most of these are industry representatives – the New Zealand delegation for example had several farmer representatives, including from Federated Farmers and the kiwifruit industry, and a fishing industry representative. It also included Tim Groser, until 2005 New Zealand’s WTO Ambassador and now a National Party MP. Observers included Peter Conway from the CTU, a development agency representative (from Oxfam, selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and one from the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. The observers get varied treatment, some being treated virtually as delegates, others (like Peter) being given very little access or information other than being able to talk to members of the delegation and attend their morning briefings.
However the observers did provide another source of information to us on the “outside”. Peter was very helpful in providing what information he could, and organising a meeting with the New Zealand GATS negotiator. We were in frequent contact and it was very useful to be able to discuss developments with him.
The conference is therefore an intense rumour mill. Little useful information is available from official sources, and without being associated with at least one network (and preferably as many as possible) there is little more information available than reading newpapers and the uninformative WTO Website. Those with contacts in the delegations (usually the Geneva lobbyists) provide the most useful information, but it can also be gleaned from meetings with delegates or by accosting delegates as they emerge from the restricted area. However meetings with delegates were difficult to get without a contact in the delegation, as there was no directory or even internal mail system available to outsiders. Even delegates are often as much in the dark as the rest of the world – Third World delegates in particular frequently learn what is going on from non-governmental sources.
Surrounding the official meeting is an army (in part literally) of interested parties. AUS was registered as an “NGO” (Non Governmental Organisation), along with over 1,000 others. Many of these NGOs are business pressure groups trying to force the speed of the negotiations and lobby for their interests. Very prominent among them for example were European, US and global coalitions of service corporations. Many of these corporate groups have strong links to governments and delegations and have been hugely influential in determining directions. This is particularly true of GATS. Others included unions, development agencies and groups opposing the WTO in whole or in part. These amounted to several thousand people.
There is a growing dynamic between Third World delegations and the NGOs sympathetic to their position. Some NGOs (often Third World based themselves) have made it their job to support the position of Third World countries, which constantly struggle to have their interests heard in an organisation dominated by extremely aggressive and ruthless economic powers. After initial suspicion, a number of Third World countries are now actively working with sympathetic NGOs by calling regular briefing sessions with them, and working together on applying pressure – the NGOs on the outside, through political action, the media and their governments; the Third World delegations on the inside and on occasion through the media.
For example, I attended one meeting called by the South African delegation, attended by the South African Minister of Trade and Development, on the state of the services negotiations. This was at a crucial time in the negotiations; the South Africans had previously put out a statement with five other countries decrying Annex C and had called an initial meeting with NGOs to ask for support for their position. At this second meeting, while the Minister asked for views from those present, it was clear that they were at a crunch point – either to stand out against the proposals in the Annex and hope to bring about significant change at the risk of being accused of causing the negotiations to fail or to try to achieve minor improvements. They went away to discuss their position, and events show they chose the latter.
Journos, Protesters, Cops:
There were large numbers of accredited journalists – a mixture of the buffs and the bewildered. The buffs, who follow the travelling show wherever it goes, have contacts who give them credible stories which add to the rumour mill. The bewildered (such as Charlotte Glennie from TVNZ) work on official handouts, photo ops, interviews and platitudes. Amongst the journalists though are alternative media who use their access to interview Third World delegates about how they are being treated, and cover the external activities more sympathetically than for example the South China Morning Post which described demonstrators as “a motley collection of local troublemakers, students, NGO delegates and an assorted rent-a-crowd… fanatical peasant[s] and unionist[s]” (Sunday Morning Post, “Koreans’ precision”, by Barclay Crawford, 18/12/05, p2).
Outside were even more people, most of them from groups opposing the WTO. They had been placed by the Hong Kong government in Victoria Park, several kilo metres from the conference venue (the enormous Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre) but many also held events in nu merous venues in the nearby areas of Hong Kong. There were almost daily marches, the first on the Sunday before the conference officially began. These were in general well attended, with considerable support from local Hong Kong residents despite the Hong Kong authorities warning locals against attending so me of them. They included a very active contingent of do mestic workers – temporary immigrants coming mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia to work in the ho mes of the Hong Kong well to do. There were dozens of seminars and similar events every day. Many of the accredited groups, including the unions, also took part in these. There were also continuous seminars and press conferences within the Convention Centre, but these were only open to those with accreditation.
Guarding the Centre was an army of 9,000 Hong Kong police. Each was heavily equipped with handgun, baton, pepper spray, riot shield, hel met, and body protection. There was tear gas, water cannon (in enormous truculent vehicles), and seemingly hundreds of police vans and other vehicles. The area was surrounded by water-filled plastic barriers and guarded metal barriers. The police moved in formation, frighteningly reminiscent of the 1981 Springbok Tours – though my observation was that at least in the first few days, they were better behaved than the New Zealand police. As the marches continued, with highly creative and disciplined protests especially by a large contingent of Korean far mers and unionists (who earlier in the week jumped into the sea to try to swim to the blocked off convention centre), the police beca me increasingly impatient.
On the Saturday, the day before the conference was due to end, after some demonstrators almost entered the convention centre, the police closed off all access to the building except for those with accreditation, and warned those inside not to try to leave (Alison Tate of the ACTU and I went out at a suitable opportunity and made our way without trouble through the spookily deserted streets to a great little restaurant she had found near our hotel). The police cleared several streets deep into the neighbouring Wanchai area for most of the night and following morning, entered in full force with water cannon and tear gas, and arrested over 1,000 demonstrators. All but 14 were released within 48 hours, but the 14, including unionists from Korea, were held in custody for trial. At a hearing on 11 January, 11 had charges dropped for lack of evidence but the remaining three (all Koreans) remained for trial, on charges of “unauthorised assembly” or “unlawful assembly”. No violence by them was alleged, and little evidence was produced by the police. By the end of March, charges had been dropped or dismissed against the last three. The arrests and continued charges have brought letters calling for their release from around the world, including from the ICFTU and CTU.
The organisation of the conference by the Hong Kong govern ment was superb. It had spared no expense. There must have been thousands of local staff (including another army of security personnel). NGOs, for the first ti me, had facilities inside the sa me venue as the delegations – though strictly divided off from them. This included a room full of computers with Internet access, free photocopying, and access to rooms for meetings.
Fittingly, the conference was sponsored by over 30 corporations, led by transnationals Microsoft, BMW, Fuji Xerox and two major Hong Kong communications companies (one of which, Hutchison Global Communications, is in the group that is currently in line to take a half share in the Port of Lyttelton). Each was presented with a “certificate of appreciation” in a special ceremony. The chair of the conference, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology, Mr John Tsang, told the corporations:
“I am deeply moved that we have received some HK$55 million in sponsorship, both in cash as well as in kind, in the form of services and supplies, from some 30 corporations in various sectors,” he said. “What touchs me most is not just the encouraging monetary value we achieved but the unfailing support and unity of our business community”
In New Zealand, I contributed articles to The Independentbusiness weekly (both before and after the conference) and to the ChristchurchPress. I thank AUS for enabling me to attend this event. It was simultaneously hugely stimulating, horrifying, mind-expanding and depressing.
Appendix 1: Educational International Declaration
Higher Education International Conference
Melbourne 7-9 December 2005
Declaration adopted by the participants
Statement to the Delegations to the 6 th WTO Ministerial concerning GATS and Education
As representatives of education unions and associations, we write to you regarding our concerns and recommendations with respect to current services negotiations under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
Our concerns with GATS cover age of education services are as follows:
1/ We believe strongly that the principles of GATS are, at root, in conflict with educational values. GATS is a commercial agreement aimed at expanding business opportunities for investors. By contrast, the goal of education is to serve the public interest.Education advances human understanding, preserves and promotes cultures, and strengthens civil society and democratic institutions.
2/ Education must not be treated as a commodity or subject to commercial trade rules. Education is, as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, a human right to be equally accessible to all people regardless of their ability to pay.
3/ We are deeply troubled about the potential impact of GATS disciplines on education. Once a country has agreed to commitments, GATS rules can enforce open education markets and enable offshore institutions and companies to eng age freely in education activities. Local authorities, including accreditation and quality control agencies, may have little control.
4/ Troubling questions have also been raised about the impact of GATS on educational access and quality, on public subsidies and funding, and on domestic authority to regulate education providers. While many of these questions remain unsettled, it is clear that there are significant risks associated with including education services in the GATS.
5/ We are also concerned that the rules of GATS will have the effect of imposing one model of education – a private, commercial and import-oriented one -- on developing countries, thereby weakening their own national systems of education.
6/ We remain concerned that the exception for public services in GATS is ambiguous and open to conflicting interpretation. Article 1:3 of GATS provides a very narrow interpretation of “services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority” that, in a strict reading, would not fully exclude education, health care and other mixed public-commercial services from GATS.
7/ We oppose attempts by some Members to seek commitments on private education services. Given the mixed public and private nature of many education systems, particularly at the tertiary level, we believe it is extremely difficult to define which education services are supplied strictly on a non-commercial basis. Commitments taken on private education services may inadvertently expose the public education system to deregulation and commercial competition.
8/ We are deeply troubled by recent proposals from developed countries for a “benchmarking” or “complementarity” approach to negotiations. This approach threatens to take away what limited flexibility there is in the GATS. It would coerce Member Countries into making commitments in areas, such as education and other public services, in which they were not prepared to do so.
9/ We are aware of a substantial list of requests for the deregulation of education systems which plurilateral groups intend to pursue. These include removal of regulatory settings which affect governance and ownership of institutions, accreditation, recognition of qualifications, educational materials, and quality.
10/ Discussions aimed at developing a “domestic regulation” discipline under GATS could also adversely affect education. Current proposals would apply a necessity test to technical standards, licensing and qualifications requirements to ensure that these regulatory measures are not “more burdensome than necessary to ensure the quality of the service”. If applied to education services, domestic regulation rules could well mean that the ability of domestic authorities to control the quality and accreditation of overseas institutions may be hampered.
11/ Other discussions on GATS rules include government procurement and subsidies. We are concerned that GATS already applies to subsidies (such as through its National Treatment* provisions). Introduction of rules on government procurement into the GATS, or changes in the rules on subsidies could further constrain the ability of governments to fund public education and related services without accepting increasing commercialisation and private competition. *National Treatment – a requirement to treat foreign service suppliers (including foreign investors) at least as well as local ones. This implies that New Zealand service suppliers cannot be favoured over foreign ones, though foreign suppliers may be favoured over New Zealand ones. BR.
12/ We are also aware of how other WTO negotiations can affect education. We note that discussions on Non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA), for instance, could result in a lowering of tariffs. For many developing countries, tariffs account for a substantial portion of overall government revenues. Less revenue from tariffs would mean less public funding available for education.
13/ Similarly, we recognise that commitments made in other service sectors can also have a significant impact on education. An example is computer-related services or commitments in telecommunications that involve cross-border transfer of educational content. Also, commitments taken in research and development services can affect tertiary education.
14/ We recognise the need for capacity building initiatives to expand education opportunities in developing countries, in particular for higher education.This may occur through financial assistance to the governments of developing countries to create more student places, or agreements between those governments and education institutions from other countries. The key point is that capacity building should be able to occur at the request and initiative of the government of a developing country without that country reducing its policy options by making binding commitments on education services under GATS.
Accordingly, we offer the following recommendations to Member States:
Recommendation 1: Adopt A Precautionary Approach
Recognising the risks outlined above, we strongly encour age Member States to adopt a precautionary approach by not making or seeking any further commitments in education services, or other service sectors that may affect education.
Recommendation 2: Do Not Make Or Seek Commitments In Private Education Services
Given that it is extremely difficult to clearly define which education services are provided on a strictly non-commercial basis, we urge Member States not to make or seek any commitments in private education or other related services.
Recommendation 3: Clarify And Make Effective Article 1:3
Substantive changes are needed to Article 1:3 to ensure that its meaning is clarified and, most importantly, that it is made fully effective. Article 1:3 should be amended so that mixed public-commercial services are explicitly excluded from the GATS.
Recommendation 4: Reject Benchmarking* And Complementarity**
Proposals to develop benchmarking and plurilateral approaches to GATS negotiations may coerce countries into making commitments in sensitive sectors like education and other public services. This would seriously reduce the flexibility of Member States, particularly those from the developing world. We strongly recommend that Member States reject benchmarking and the use of plurilateral groups to bring undue pressure on Members. * Benchmarking – covers various possibilities, but mainly used as a shorthand for setting minimum numbers of service sectors and subsectors which countries would have to commit to open up under the GATS. ** Complementarity – a euphemism for any approach other than bilateral (one-country-on-one) which would speed up the GATS negotiations and pressure countries to increase their offers. Includes benchmarking and plurilateral approaches. BR.
Recommendation 5: Oppose Further Domestic Regulation Disciplines
Changes to the GATS’ Domestic Regulation disciplines, as proposed, could seriously limit the ability of governments to regulate their education systems. The existing provisions already raise concerns. For this reason, we recommend that Member States reject proposals to further constrain domestic regulation.
Recommendation 6: Oppose Further Disciplines On Subsidies Or Government Procurement
Introduction of rules on government procurement into the GATS could allow commercial competitors to demand access to government funding. Changes in the rules on subsidies could further constrain the ability of governments to fund public education and related services. We recommend that Member States reject proposals to develop further rules in these areas.
Recommendation 7: Review The GATS
We note that the mandated review of the GATS has not been carried out. We recommend that this review occur, and include a review of cover age of education within the GATS with a view to removing it. The review should also focus on ways to improve transparency in negotiations. As part of this review, we also recommend that Member States who have made GATS commitments in education or education-related services should be permitted to withdraw those commitments without compensation.
We strongly support increased international cooperation, mobility and exchanges of students and staff and we reaffirm that in international education/academic cooperation, education/academic values should prevail not commercial ones. We believe that education is not simply a commercial product. Its most important characteristics are cultural, social and developmental. For it to be governed by commercial agreements like GATS is simply inappropriate.
At the same time, we recognise that education-specific international rules are needed to address the emerging issues in cross-border education, rules that allow domestic regulation as required. For these reasons, we call on Member States to remove GATS cover age of education.
Adopted unanimously by the delegates to the 5th Education International Higher Education and Research Meeting, Melbourne, Australia, December 9, 2005.
Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. December 2005.
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