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  Félix Peña

INTERNATIONAL TRADE RELATIONS NEWSLETTER
2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009
A BIT CLOSER TO THE PEOPLE?
The idea of discussing the desirability of a WTO Ombudsperson.

by Félix Peña
September 2017

English translation: Isabel Romero Carranza


 

The need to increase the transparency and social responsibility of the institutions of the multilateral system of international trade is becoming increasingly evident. Social responsibility in the sense of informing and explaining what is being negotiated and the effective scope of what is agreed upon, and also in helping to understand the expected effects of the agreed rules and especially the concessions made. This need can be seen at the global multilateral level but also in the interregional and regional levels. One example of this is the difficulty experienced by citizens of Mercosur member countries to gain easy access to the relevant information on decision-making processes and, in particular, on the negotiations with other parties.

On this opportunity, we question whether the creation of the role of ombudsperson in the WTO -i.e.: an advocate for the people- would introduce an improvement in the effectiveness of the institutional framework of the multilateral system of international trade, with the ensuing positive impact on global economic governance. What, then, could be some of its main functions and operational modalities? And to what extent and how could such role contribute to strengthen the share of developing countries and their people in the benefits that the multilateral system of global trade is supposed to offer?
Such an idea could be inserted in a wider context of institutional innovations, which would have the effect of enhancing the effectiveness of the multilateral system of global trade and of reducing the distance that often exists with civil society, with an ensuing impact on its social legitimacy due to its effective contribution to sustainable development and fairer global governance.

Three factors contribute to making such an idea feasible. The first is that of continuous innovations in the field of information technology, which has resulted in a growing public demand for easy access to relevant information. The second has to do with profound cultural changes with broad political implications, both within countries and globally. The third is the empowerment of people with respect to their rights and possibilities.

The fact that the WTO Ministerial Conference will take place in December and the G20 Summit will follow shortly thereafter, opens up auspicious windows of opportunity to stimulate a debate on this and other ideas that may substantially improve global economic governance.


In 2011, Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, Senior Fellow at ICTSD and Senior Researcher at the Global Economic Governance Program at the University of Oxford (where she conducts research on global economic governance) published a book entitled "Making Global Trade Governance Work for Development. Perspectives and Priorities from Developing Countries", edited together with Cambridge University Press. The content of this work becomes current on the eve of the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference, to be held in Buenos Aires in December of this year. The book includes an article of our own authorship which contains some proposals we consider relevant in any attempt to strengthen the multilateral system of international trade institutionalized in the WTO. The title of this chapter is "Why not an Ombudsperson at the WTO? A Proposal for Debate" (pages 442 to 458). (Other two publications by Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, which contain material of interest and timeliness in relation to international trade governance, are listed as Recommended Reading of this newsletter).

The need to increase the transparency and social responsibility of the institutions of the international trading system has become more evident in recent times. Social responsibility understood in the sense of informing and explaining what is being negotiated and the real scope of what is agreed upon. Also in the sense of facilitating the comprehension of the effects that the agreed rules are expected to have and, in particular, the concessions that are made.

Indeed, such need can be seen at the global multilateral level in the WTO, but it can also be seen at the interregional and regional levels. One example at the interregional level is the reaction to the lack of transparency of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. At the regional level, an example can be found in the difficulty that the citizens of Mercosur countries often experience to readily access relevant information on the development of their decision-making processes, especially on the negotiations that are carried out with other countries. The case of the protracted bi-regional negotiations between Mercosur and the EU is, perhaps, a clear example of how people are being left in the dark with regards to what is expected to be agreed by the end of this year, which is when negotiations should be concluded, as both parties have let know.

In the above-mentioned chapter of Carolyn Deere Brikbeck's book, we wondered whether the creation of an ombudsperson role in the WTO -i.e.: an advocate for the people- would introduce an improvement in the potential effectiveness of the institutional framework of the multilateral system of international trade, with the ensuing positive impact on global economic governance. We also pointed out how such role could be introduced in the current WTO institutional framework, with the support of all member countries and, in particular, of developing countries. What, then, could be some of its main functions and operational modalities? And to what extent and how could this role contribute to strengthen the participation of developing countries and their people in the benefits that the multilateral system of global trade is supposed to generate?

Our aim was to bring forward some ideas and suggestions that could eventually contribute to what we consider a necessary global debate on the desirability of creating the role of ombudsperson within the institutional structure of the WTO, in order to bring it closer to the people of the member countries and to substantially improve the participation of developing nations. Certainly, we were not expecting this proposal to have an overwhelming effect. However we did understand that it could be inserted in a wider context of institutional innovations, which would help enhance the effectiveness of the multilateral system of global trade and shorten the existing gap with the civil society of each country, and have an impact on social legitimacy due to an effective contribution to sustainable development and fairer global governance.

We believe that three factors contribute to making a proposal such as this feasible.

A first factor is that of continuous innovations in the field of information technology, which has resulted in a growing public demand for easy access to relevant information. The quality of the websites of institutions such as the WTO and the breadth of the information included there is increasingly valued by public opinion. However, in other cases such as the Mercosur it is not always easy to find updated and relevant information on its website.

A second factor has to do with deep cultural changes that have broad political implications, which can be seen both at country level and globally. One such change is related to the fact that people are -or beginning to be- aware of the power they have, especially as consumers, workers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and citizens. At the same time, they are becoming increasingly aware of the importance that the decisions taken at the level of international organizations, such as the WTO, could have for their own daily lives and for those of future generations.

Institutions and rules at the global level are rightly perceived as an important factor in the development strategies and international competitiveness of all nations, be they large or small, developed or developing, and in their companies, as well as in the future projection of their populations. As a result, more and more people are inclined to use their power and to demand vehicles and channels through which they exercise the power they have.

Everywhere in the world and precisely because it is now possible due to the new technologies, more and more people are demanding to be well informed and to be more involved in the elaboration of the new policies and rules that might affect their lives and their futures. This is true not only at the domestic level of each country but also at the level of global and regional institutions, such as the WTO and Mercosur.

It is possible to predict that the empowerment of civil society, even taking into account the differences that may exist between the various countries, is a trend that will increase in the future and that will have an impact on the demand for top-quality information and participation, both at national level as well as globally and regionally, especially in relation to the decision-making processes and the creation of rules.

The third factor, partly resulting from the two mentioned above, is that the demand for social responsibility of those individuals or institutions with power -especially with capacity to influence the life and future of citizens- is increasing. It can be assumed that it will continue to grow in the future.

In WTO matters, the primary responsibility remains within the national institutions of each country. Increasingly, however, global institutions will share this responsibility in matters concerning the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of the decisions adopted at this level, especially on compliance with the rules, particularly in issues concerning sustainable economic development and the welfare and future prospects of the people.

Specifically, demands for transparency and social responsibility by people around the globe will present growing challenges for the effectiveness and for the social legitimacy of the international multilateral trading system. It is not something that can be addressed only at the domestic level of each country, even if this continues to be the most important aspect. The growing global public opinion will also demand more transparency and accountability from the multilateral trading system.

As was noted earlier, the discussion we suggest should focus on the need and the convenience of introducing an institutionalized space to monitor the social responsibility of the WTO, on the functions that it should have and on the procedures that could be used to channel a debate on the necessity, objectives and functions of such an institutionalized space.

A key role of the ombudsperson would be to express, in the light of specific facts and situations, an independent opinion based on sound technical arguments regarding the effectiveness of actions undertaken within the framework of the objectives and rules of the multilateral trading system and of the WTO, including their level of transparency. Such independent opinion should take into account the main objectives of the system, especially as defined in the Preamble to the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO, which are supposed to express the interests of the people and, in particular, of developing countries.

The process for creating the role of the ombudsperson should be gradual and developed through intensive consultations in and between the member countries. In a first phase, it could have limited functions that could be expanded later on. It should express non-binding opinions with a solid technical rationale. Recourse to the competencies of the ombudsperson should originate from recognized institutions of civil society in member countries, or from international non-governmental organizations, provided they operate with a high degree of transparency of their membership, objectives and funding. The main focus of the issues that could be raised would have to be related to the shortcomings of the multilateral system of global trade that affect its effectiveness in achieving the main objectives, especially those related to transparency.

Bringing people from member countries closer to the multilateral system of global trade would be one of the most relevant effects to be achieved with the implementation of an initiative such as the one proposed.

The fact that the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference will take place in December of this year and that the G20 Summit will be held next year-both in Buenos Aires-will open auspicious windows of opportunity to stimulate a debate on this and other ideas that could substantially improve global economic governance and, in particular, its impact on developing countries and their citizenships.


Recommended Reading:


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  • Blustein, Paul, "Misadventures of the Most Favored Nations: Clashing Egos, Inflated Ambitions, and the Great Shambles of the World Trade", Public Affairs Books, New York 2009.
  • Bremmer, Ian, "The End of the Free Market. Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?", Portfolio, New York 2010.
  • Burges, Sean W., "Brazil in the World. The international relations of a South American giant", Manchester University Press, Manchester 2017.
  • Campolongo, Carlos, "Indignados. La Argentina de todos contra todos", Ediciones B, Buenos Aires 2017.
  • Costa, Olivier, "A Uniâo Europeia e sua Política Exterior (História, Instituiçôes e Processo de Tomada de Decisâo), Fundaçâo Alexandre de Gusmâo, Brasilia 2017, en http://funag.gov.br/.
  • Deere Birkbeck, Carolyn, and Catherine Monagle. "Strengthening Multilateralism: A Mapping of Selected Proposals on WTO Reform and Improvements in Global Trade Governance". ICTSD and Global Economic Governance Programme, Geneva 2009.
  • Deere Birkbeck, Carolyn; Botwright, Kymberley, "The Future of the Global Trade and Investment Architecture: Pursuing Sustainable Development in the Global Economy", The E15 Initiative - ICTSD - WEF, Geneva 2015, en https://www.ictsd.org/.
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Félix Peña Director of the Institute of International Trade at the ICBC Foundation. Director of the Masters Degree in International Trade Relations at Tres de Febrero National University (UNTREF). Member of the Executive Committee of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). Member of the Evian Group Brains Trust. More information.

http://www.felixpena.com.ar | info@felixpena.com.ar


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