| A BIT CLOSER TO THE PEOPLE?
The idea of discussing the desirability of a WTO Ombudsperson.
by Félix Peña
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
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
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
We believe that three factors contribute to making a proposal such as
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
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
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.
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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