New row breaks over WTO access for NGOs

Developing countries, environmental groups, trade blows over trade dispute mechanism

An ongoing trade dispute between the EU and Canada over the former's intention to ban white asbestos has sparked a new row over access by environmental groups and other NGOs' to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). A large group of developing countries yesterday expressed anger at what they said was preferential treatment given to NGOs. Five environmental groups have hit back, claiming that they were in fact excluded.

The dispute surrounds a Canadian appeal against WTO backing given in September for restrictions on white asbestos (ENDS Daily 19 September). However, it has nothing to do with the merits of the asbestos appeal but is part of an ongoing struggle over NGO participation in WTO decisions.

In preparation for Canada's appeal, sources told ENDS Daily, the WTO appellate body responsible for the process developed procedures for handling submissions from NGOs because it expected to receive several relating to the asbestos case.

Many developing country members interpreted this as an open invitation for NGO submissions. At a special session of the WTO general council yesterday, dozens of states accused the appellate body of overstepping its mandate, reminding it that only member countries can decide on development of such procedures. The USA was the only country to speak in defence of the appellate body's actions.

NGO submissions have been accepted during some previous WTO trade disputes, but most developing countries - which make up the bulk of the organisation's membership - are resistant to allowing access for environmental and labour groups. During last year's disastrous Seattle summit and elsewhere, they have argued that input from NGOs would lead to trade restrictions that would disadvantage their economies (ENDS Daily 6 December 1999).

The environmental groups under attack are less than happy either, complaining yesterday that their submissions regarding the asbestos dispute had been rejected by the appellate body. "One year after Seattle, the WTO has slammed the door on NGOs," said Greenpeace. The development "would only fuel concerns about the secretive way in which the organisation makes decisions," said the group's Remi Parmentier.

Sources denied any wish on the part of the organisation to exclude the NGOs. Their applications had not properly addressed the legal issues at hand and were therefore not accepted on technical grounds, one told ENDS Daily.

Follow Up:
WTO, tel: +41 22 739 5111; Greenpeace, tel: +31 20 523 6222.

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