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Power Politics in the WTO

By Aileen Kwa

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The World Trade Organization (WTO) has often been portrayed as the pinnacle of the multilateral system of global economic governance. Why it has achieved this reputation is puzzling since it is one of the most undemocratic organizations around. Formally speaking, the WTO is a one-country, one-vote system. Yet actual decision-making is done by a process called “consensus,” in which the big trading powers impose a consensus arrived at among themselves on the rest of the body. In the WTO, formal parliamentary sessions where decisions are made in democratic institutions are reserved for speechmaking. Real decisions are made in backrooms by informal caucuses whose members are not determined by formal rules and votes but by informal agreement among significant players.

This non-transparent, non-accountable system of decision-making is one of the elements that has contributed to the crisis of legitimacy of the WTO. After Seattle, there were expectations that reform of the decision-making process would be at the top of the WTO agenda. Instead, the organization lurched into the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the WTO with its decision-making structure unreformed, and Doha has now become a byword for the perversion of democracy and the thwarting of the will of the majority via intimidation, threat, and bribery on the part of the strong.

This publication is an effort to throw much-needed light on this sordid process. This much-needed study is based on extensive interviews with developing country delegates to the Doha ministerial. This is essential reading for everyone with an interest in one of the most powerful economic groupings of our time. For both critics and partisans of the WTO, it makes a very powerful case that the decisionmaking process has become the Achilles heel of the organization.