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Transparency Summary

The Third Ministerial Conference, held in 1999 in Seattle, succeeded in bringing the issue of transparency to the forefront of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) concerns. NGOs, the general public, and smaller Member Countries of the WTO all voiced frustration at their inability to participate in and access information regarding ongoing WTO activities and negotiations. Since the Seattle Conference, the WTO has made significant changes and is continuing to improve both public and citizen access to information about WTO procedures and decisions (external transparency) and equal access to WTO negotiations and decisions by all Member Countries (internal transparency).


The WTO had initiated efforts to improve external transparency at the Singapore Ministerial Meeting in 1996. In addition to adding transparency to the agenda, members published the "Guidelines for Arrangement on Relations with NGOs" as a model for interactions between the WTO and NGOs. A number of the Secretariat's post-Seattle efforts to raise outside awareness of WTO activities and decisions have garnered a great deal of praise. One of the most successful endeavors has been the improvement to the WTO website. The site now includes frequent updates and timely postings of documents relating to ongoing WTO negotiations and procedures. In addition, the WTO routinely posts press releases and conferences regarding WTO activities.

The Seattle conference also brought to light some serious issues with internal transparency within the WTO. Several countries found that when they arrived at the conference, they had not been invited to participate in some meetings (the so-called "Green Room deals"). These countries have voiced their anger with the U.S., EU, and Japan for closing off some of the negotiations to other smaller countries. Consequently, the General Council decided in February 2000 to devote special attention to the issue of internal transparency in the Doha Development Round negotiations. Improvements in the interim include an online Daily Bulletin of the previous day's proceedings, and "Reference Centers" that debrief absent member countries on recent WTO activities.

Current Debate

The current improvements in external and internal transparency have mostly been small concessions relative to the demands made by member nations, NGOs, and civil society groups. This reluctance to overhaul WTO procedures is due to a lack of consensus on a number of issues. Members disagree on whether or not it is within the domain of the organization to increase public awareness, and they debate to what extent proceedings should be publicized. While most nations agree to increase transparency within the WTO, some fear that the aims of external transparency will jeopardize the ability of all members to participate equally in negotiations.

The first schism among members is the issue of who should be responsible for increasing public awareness of WTO activities. Some WTO Members (namely Egypt, Pakistan, and India) argue that the issue of external transparency should be left to individual countries rather than the WTO. They believe that member countries should shoulder the burden of disseminating information and documents about WTO procedure within their own respective countries, leaving the WTO as a whole to focus on other, more germane issues.

External Tranparency

Even those who agree that the WTO should be responsible for increasing public awareness disagree on the degree to which the system should be made transparent. Specifically, members are concerned about publicizing dispute settlements, diminishing the strictly governmental nature of WTO proceedings, and making negotiations vulnerable to heavy lobbying by interest groups. Developing countries protest that opening meetings up to interest groups will further skew proceedings in favor of wealthy countries. They argue that their national interests will languish because they cannot afford to send lobbyists to negotiations, while developed countries' interest groups will be well represented.

Members in favor of external transparency attempt to counter those fears by insisting that the particular needs of developing countries will factor heavily into improvements. Some proposals include suggestions such as restricting fewer documents in the future, shortening the period it takes to de-restrict official documents, opening WTO meetings to the public, web-casting WTO meetings, and holding more symposia for NGOs. In particular, by web casting or broadcasting WTO meetings by satellite every nation and interest group can stay informed at no cost.

The US recently submitted a proposal calling for many of these improvements as well as some major reforms. Namely, the US calls for open dispute settlement meetings, timely access to briefs and hearing statements, timely access to final reports, and guidelines for handling amicus curiae submissions (reports submitted by non-members such as interest groups and NGOs). The proposal does provide for confidentiality when necessary.

Internal Transparency

The increase in external transparency has served to increase internal transparency as well. Small countries (often developing countries) who cannot send large delegations to conferences, or who simply are not represented because they do not have resident delegations in Geneva, have benefited from online access to information about WTO negotiations. They now can have at their fingertips Internet resources, web casting of proceedings, and frequent online updates.

However, external transparency measures can also have the opposite effect on internal transparency. In response to the US proposal, some members assert that allowing interest groups and NGOs to submit outlines of their views on an issue in an amicus curiae report will favor the prerogative of wealthy nations. Again, the concern of developing countries is that the wealthier nations will be able to flood the panel with briefs in favor of a certain position. Also, negotiations on external transparency will have to tread carefully to make sure that non-governmental groups do not acquire greater access and influence in the dispute settlement process than WTO members have.

Doha Development Round

Negotiations on transparency begin at the Fifth Ministerial Meeting in Cancun, September 2003. In preparation the WTO held a symposium on transparency in government procurement in October 2002 in which nations gave first hand accounts of attempting to increase public awareness in their countries. Members have also held a number of informal meetings to address the content and process of the upcoming negotiations. In the time leading up to the launch of the meeting, members will be assessing the US proposal and tabling suggestions of their own. The focal point of these negotiations will be whether members agree to significantly reform their closed-door policies or continue to make conciliatory concessions.

Last updated March 2003