The gnomes of unscrupulous banking have been confined to Zurich, the unsightly scars of industry banished to Basle. So Switzerland, the country that made its fortune from neutrality in war, can afford to set Geneva aside for peace, with a convention on the humanitarian rules of war named after it.
The WTO believes that it too brings peace to the world. I doubt whether it feels at all out of place on the shores of Lake Geneva, overlooked by the huge Palais des Nations of the UN, from which it conspicuously stands apart. And the setting for its own headquarters is fantastic; in a public park – a trifle inconvenient for ‘security’ – with a quaint little kindergarten to one side, a vista of snow-capped Alps to the other.
My arrival coincides with a routine meeting of the WTO’s General Council: hand-picked delegates from its member states. I expect to find a bustle of traders urgently engaged on the ‘reforms’ I’ve been hearing so much about. But there’s no-one in sight, just a thicket of Mercedes and BMWs with diplomatic plates.
The meeting is already underway in a mirror-clad bunker you enter across a drawbridge over a moat that might well be infested with piranha. Mario, the menacing and totally bald security boss, looks at my visitor’s pass with contempt. It’s no good. I have to return to the Press Office and find another kind of pass, in exchange for my passport.
Once inside, I can glimpse the conference through a door. A lone figure hovers outside it with a notepad. He’s only interested in Yugoslavia, which is trying to join the WTO. He says there’s no-one else from the press here. You can’t get into the conference hall or listen to what’s going on. This is private business. There’s not much point in hanging around.
I retreat to the cafeteria to contemplate my next move. From time to time little bunches of delegates break out of the conference for a smoke. They all wear suits, speak English and are male. Evidently, they don’t expect to encounter anyone but each other. The smokers are joined by other delegates, in search of fresh air no doubt.
One comes and sits quite close to me. I introduce myself. Mr M Supperamaniam, Ambassador to the Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the WTO, apologizes – he does not feel very well. I ask him how he thinks things are going. As well as can be expected, he says. How well is that? Well, not very well at all, as a matter of fact. There’s absolutely no sign of change from the ‘big players’. He heads back a little unsteadily towards the conference hall.
Retselisitsoe Victor Lechesa is Ambassador of the Kingdom of Lesotho to Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the European Union, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. How are things going for him? Well, he’s sorry, but he can’t be too sure. It’s impossible for him to keep track of the WTO as much as he would like. But no, he wouldn’t say countries like his are being consulted much more than before.
There’s someone else I’ve seen, too. Not long ago the NI published a ‘Worldbeater’ featuring – in a rather less than flattering light – the Director General of the WTO, former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore. So I know what he looks like. He doesn’t look very well either. There are dark patches under his eyes.
The cafeteria empties and I’m left almost alone. Then Mike Moore comes out again. He must be a heavy smoker. My requests for an interview with him have met with no response, so I impel myself towards him, ready to duck, with my hand held out. He shakes it as if by instinct and tries to centre his gravity. He says he used to be a subscriber to New Internationalist before it got a bit... strange.
I ask him how things are going. Oh, well enough, he says. Only there’s no bloody security! And he’s only got half a person to deal with non-governmental organizations, when others have got about 80. The trouble is, he says, that NGOs are throwing bricks at the WTO when they don’t understand it. They’re not the only ones, I say. Do I realize, he says, that agricultural subsidies in the rich OECD countries are larger than the entire Gross Domestic Product of Africa? Well, yes I do as a matter of fact – though that may say more about the impoverishment of Africa by free trade than the wealth of subsidies in OECD countries that advocate free trade. He stubs out his cigarette and I thank him for his time.
I abandon the conference centre and go in search of the chief spokesperson for the WTO, Keith Rockwell. His enormous office overlooks Lake Geneva. He is an ebullient North American. I sense that talking to me is a bit of a chore for him.
The WTO is, he says, ‘a place where disputes can be settled in a relatively, er, er...’
‘Amicable?’ I suggest.
‘Generally amicable? Well, I’m searching for the right word... It’s a generally... civilized way of settling disputes. We do have our bananas and beef and things like this. Remember, in the old days you had people going to war over disputes over trade. I mean, basically, going to war!’
I ask him how the WTO works.
‘Well,’ he says, ‘in fits and starts. I would say that at the moment we are in a...’
‘The normal work of the organization is ticking over. You aren’t seeing any frantic bursts of activity. The work is often methodical, because decisions are made by consensus. You need to find some solution to which all parties can agree, or at least none will disagree.’
Does that mean the WTO never actually votes?
‘We have voted on a couple of things...’ he says. ‘I mean, there was discussion about having a vote with respect to the last process of appointing the Director General.’
Mike Moore? There was a split?
‘It was split, but nobody really wanted that. You can imagine, people coming here and saying: “Well, you’re not my DG! I didn’t vote for you!” We really don’t want that. We want this place to be as, er... businesslike, as orderly, as it can be...’
Is the WTO, then, a democratic organization?
‘Well, every decision is taken by governments on the basis of consensus. If you’re talking about rules which are binding, those rules must be ratified by parliaments and congresses. The rules of this organization are inscribed in domestic law in the national governments of our member states. I don’t know how you get much more democratic than that!’
I say that not many people back home seem to be aware of this.
‘I know,’ sighs Keith Rockwell. ‘Well, we say this until we’re blue in the face. Some people choose not to listen, frankly... There are those who think that if this organization had open meetings that a lot of these problems would go away. But before I segue into that, let me tell you something else.’
Whatever it is, it’s obviously bugging him.
‘I mean I, for example,’ he says, ‘was accused by a member of the British Parliament of being on the take!’
‘Good heavens!’ I say.
‘She asked me: “How do I know that you’re not pocketing money from powerful financial institutions to rig the rules of the game in favour of powerful multinational corporations?”
‘So I took her... with me... not by the ear as I would have liked, but out the door. And I said: “Come with me!” I took her into what I believe was the Dispute Settlement Body and said: “Here, look around!” I said: “That man over there is the Ambassador of the European Union. That woman there is the Ambassador of the United States of America. Here is the Ambassador of Japan. Do you actually think that I, as a member of this Secretariat, have any influence over what they do?” I mean, I have no influence at all!’
Why in the hell is he telling me all this? Other than the fact that I’m British, I have absolutely no idea – though I would dearly love to know.
‘Now, whether these institutions have any influence over governments is another matter,’ he continues, ‘and of course they do. But so too do environmentalists. So too do labour unions. So do human-rights activists. It comes down at the end of the day to governments, which are imperfect and perhaps not in all cases as representative as everyone would like. But... c’est la vie!’
Well, he’s being a bit disingenuous here. In one famous case, the WTO ruled against measures taken by the US Government to prevent dolphins being caught in tuna fisheries. Trade rules prohibit any consideration of ‘process’ – how things are made. The potential for conflict with international agreements on the environment and human rights is huge and remains to be resolved.
I recount to him my briefing from the official at the Department of Trade and Industry in London and his explanation for the absence of any hard evidence about the performance of the WTO so far. I say I wasn’t unduly impressed by what he had to say.
‘Well, I can see why you would feel that way,’ says Keith Rockwell. ‘And it’s true. It’s extremely difficult to say. You can say, I think, without any qualification, in a general way, that because the rules of the WTO were in place the Asia crisis of 1997 and 1998 was much less devastating than it might have been... We have quite a good example of a financial crisis that became a full-blown economic crisis in 1929...’
I can endure it no longer. Surely, I say, the argument isn’t about what happened during the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression and protectionism in the 1930s – it’s about who or what gets protected now. Isn’t that so?
‘Well, there you go,’ he says.
Using the 1930s in this way rather short-circuits debate, doesn’t he think?
‘You haven’t watched the United States Congress in action, have you! Watch them!’
So the ‘protectionists’ aren’t out there on the streets of Seattle or Prague – they’re in the US Congress?
‘Those countries that liberalize...’ he persists, after a slight pause. ‘And there are numerous studies... There’s the famous Sachs and Warner study, there’s the famous World Bank study of a year-and-a-half ago...’
At this point the interview degenerates. I produce the WTO’s own study, Trade, Income Disparity and Poverty, which features prominently on the WTO’s own website (www.wto.org). This shows, Keith Rockwell is willing to concede, that no-one has the faintest idea what world trade is supposed to do to income disparity and poverty.
‘This study is not the study I’m speaking of,’ he counters. ‘To be very frank with you, since we don’t have the kind of economic firepower of the World Bank, we cannot engage in as much new research as they can. Frankly, I prefer not to comment on this study, because it’s not a study which... Frankly, our economists are not really... We have six economists. I would not measure them by the World Bank.’
It’s not often that you hear a spokesperson disparaging his own report. I am astonished.
‘I mean, this much is for sure,’ he continues. ‘No country has ever been able to climb out of poverty through a system of protectionism. It hasn’t happened.’
Places like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in the years before 1970 – and even Britain and the US while they were establishing their respective empires – spring to mind. But I sense there isn’t much to be gained from saying so out loud. I say he has a point, but only one.
Does he expect a new ‘round’ to be launched at the WTO’s next Ministerial meeting in Qatar this November?
‘Virtually all the members have said at one time or another that they would like to see a new round,’ he says. ‘The difference is, some want some things in and some want other things out... This place shuts down in August and people don’t really come back until the middle of September... Even if we don’t get a new round, there are plenty of other things for us to do.’
Our time is up, the sun is shining, there is lunch to be had. I wander off towards the lake. I see two men walking slowly, deep in conversation. One is tall, excessively elegant, wearing a long, graceful raincoat. The other is in a grey suit, short, a bit squat, bald... Well, if it isn’t Mike Moore! They disappear through the trees. Further along the lakeside is an expensive restaurant – the Orangerie. It might just be worth taking a look... And there, sure enough, is Mike Moore at the plate-glass picture window, seemingly fearless of bricks, surrounded by pokerfaced chums, tucking into a lavish lunch. He’s still there at two-thirty.
No sign of life back at the General Council. At the front gate Mario must have called in a squad of Swiss police officers who are hurriedly bolting down crowd-control barriers. A security alert, a wake-up call of some sort? But there are no anti-globalization trolls in sight. It can’t possibly have been me! Just another little fit at the WTO, no doubt.
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