With just 10 days for the WTO Ministerial Conference to convene in Buenos Aires, the Argentine hosts have created a public relations disaster for the WTO, by taking the unprecedented step of denying accreditation (and entry into Argentina) for about 63 persons from some 20 civil society organisations.
All of them are persons duly accredited by the WTO for the Conference. One of the groups denied is from Africa, two from Asia, and the rest from Europe and North and South America.
Two of the organisations denied accreditation are business groups (a US corn/maize business group - the National Corn Growers Association; and an Argentinian spirits business association).
The groups denied accreditation by the host include some prominent civil society organisations like the Americas regional office of UNI (the global umbrella trade union for private sector services (http://www.uniglobalunion.org), Friends of the Earth, the Transnational Institute (TNI) (https://www.tni.org/en), 11.11.11, the Belgian umbrella NGO for development NGOs in Belgium etc.
Deborah James of the OWINFS, an umbrella global network of some 250 civil society groups, noted that based on the experience of the more than 250 members of OWINFS who have attended international meetings of the WTO, the United Nations, and other fora, the hosts have never denied entry, except for at most, one or two specific persons, with at least some justification provided.
Previous WTO Ministerial meetings in Singapore, the United States, Qatar, Mexico, Hong Kong (China), Switzerland, Indonesia, and Kenya, she said, did not see similar such repression.
Nick Dearden of "Global Justice Now!", one of the groups denied accreditation, said: "We have participated in many previous Ministerial meetings without any problems, but now our entire four-person delegation has had their accreditation evoked - in spite of the fact that we have been engaging our government on WTO for years, and have non-refundable tickets and hotels (for the conference in Buenos Aires)."
Several of the NGOs said that it is ironic that this occurred on the same day that Argentina is "celebrating the transfer of the presidency of the G20 from Germany to Argentina."
The banning of registered WTO delegates is an outrageous and worrying precedent, not just for the WTO meeting itself, but also for the G20 presidency of Argentina.
The WTO's liaison official, Bernard Kuiten (Head of External Relations, WTO), dealing with civil society groups, has been contacting the affected groups and representatives about the Argentine government refusal, and advising them not to travel to Argentina, as they are likely to be stopped at immigration and sent back.
In identical messages (seen by this writer, courtesy of some affected NGOs), sent out by Kuiten, to each affected NGO or individual, he says:
"The WTO has duly accredited your NGO as an eligible participant of WTO's 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires from 10 to 13 December 2017. However, we are informed by the host government that for unspecified reasons, the Argentine security authorities have decided to deny your accreditation.
"We have made repeated enquiries about this unexpected development, but we have little to no hope that a solution will be found. We therefore discourage you from travelling to Argentina so as to avoid being turned away upon entry into the country.
"We asked the Argentine authorities to contact you directly and inform you of their decision but to avoid that it does reach you at too late a stage, we have decided to contact you now.
"We apologise for the inconvenience that the Argentine decision may cause. We are unfortunately not in a position to provide any explanation or background and suggest you contact the Argentine authorities directly on firstname.lastname@example.org."
Most of those excluded seem to be EU-based, but there are also a couple of Latin Americans, 2 African groups, some Argentine NGOs, and a few small business groups including the US Maize Alliance and an Argentine spirits business association.
In conversations or exchanges with some of the groups, the WTO officials involved appear very upset, and have advised those affected that "it is 100 percent Argentine government decision."
The officials said they had been going back and forth with the Argentine government for the last two weeks, and the issue had gone right up to DG Azevedo, who had a meeting with the Argentine minister (at their mission to theWTO), but that the Argentine government has refused to budge.
Officials confess they could make no sense of the host's actions. Some of those being denied accreditation were serious researchers the WTO has been dealing with for years, some from the time of the Marrakesh meeting in 1994.
The WTO officials said they have never seen such a development for all their meetings over the last 15 years. The only instance they could recall was at the time of the Hong Kong Ministerial in 2005 when Jose Bove (from France) was denied entrance. At that time, then DG, Pascal Lamy, intervened and got him in. The WTO officials were quoted by some NGOs as saying that the Argentine government people seemed really scared regarding security for MC11.
In this writer's experience with the UN in New York (1962-71), and with UN organizations and specialised agencies in Geneva (1978- to now), we have seldom come across such a large scale denial by a host government on "security grounds".
The standard UN-host country agreement for such conferences and meetings has a provision enabling the host to deny entry to those accredited for the Conference - diplomats and delegates from member countries, journalists, representatives of other inter-governmental organizations and observers, NGOs etc. But this provision is invoked in very, very exceptional instances.
In 2006 at the time of the World Bank-IMF annual meeting in Singapore, 27 NGO delegates accredited to the official meeting and dozen others that wanted to attend the parallel meeting were denied entry into Singapore.
Under pressure from the NGO community, then heads of the World Bank and IMF, respectively Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Rato, declared publicly that the Singaporean government had "shot itself on the foot" and met with the Prime Minister of Singapore to request that all those granted accreditation be admitted, in accordance with standard diplomatic practice for governments hosting international meetings. Finally, 22 of the 27 were allowed in a rare episode of Singapore changing a decision under international pressure.
Meanwhile, some Argentinian NGOs have addressed a letter to the President of Argentina, Mr. Mauricio Macri, expressing their "extreme concern" over the decision of the Argentine government to cancel the accreditation of many delegates of national and global civil society, who had been accredited by the WTO to participate in the next Ministerial Conference, and denying entry visas to them, as also delaying or unnecessarily complicating the processing of the papers of others, either to participate in the Ministerial Conference or in related activities.
The Argentine NGOs rejected "these unilateral and authoritarian measures that violate the rights of individuals and organizations involved to participate, to express themselves freely, and to defend the full complement of human rights" that the government seems determined to curtail systematically and by all means possible.
"While the government negotiates in secret agreements it seeks to announce during the WTO meeting, including a so-called free trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur, it alleges unknown reasons of "security" to suppress the participation and voice of those who might express a different opinion."
With this action, the Argentine groups told the President of the country, "your government is showing the whole world that it is a government with nothing but contempt for the rule of law, human rights and democratic coexistence."
The groups also reported that the host country's action had puzzled Argentine Congressional leaders, and that leaders of their Foreign Affairs Committee were demanding from the government the details of "national security" reasons claimed for the action.
Whether these developments will make the host government change its stance vis-a-vis the NGOs remains to be seen, but it seemed unlikely.
Going back into the far distant past, this writer had a somewhat similar experience in Argentina, way back in 1978 at the time of the UN/UNDP organised UN Conference on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC).
In 1975 or 1976, the UNGA had called for such a conference, and the UNDP was asked to organise it. Mr. Bradford Morse was then the head of UNDP. Morse made an effort to generate some "out of the box" ideas, reaching out to sources other than normal UN and UN Specialised agency bureaucracy. One of the organisations he contacted at that time was the Swiss-based International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA).
The late Marc Nerfin, the IFDA President, who was also the vice-president of the Inter Press Service, organised a consultation meeting at Nyon, and I was one of the participants. Among the various ideas that came up at that meeting was a couple from me: the UNDP, with help of other relevant UN agencies, should take steps for promoting infrastructures for direct communication and transportation among the developing countries, rather than such channels having to go through Europe or North America. Morse was taken up with the idea, and knowing I would be going to Buenos Aires as a journalist, invited me to participate in some parallel expert panel meetings and discussions.
At that time, Argentina was under a military dictatorship, the authoritarian Peron regime having been overthrown in a coup d'etat by the military (with the connivance of the US government), and with the military government headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla. The repressive regime had "disappeared" a large number of opposition activists and others.
When I went to Buenos Aires, accredited as a correspondent for the IPS Third World News Agency, went to the conference hall and the accreditation desks and presented my credentials, an Argentine army officer, a colonel perhaps, sitting behind the desks, scrutinised my papers and came and told me, "we don't recognise any Third World here".
With all my knowledge of and experience of UN organisations and their conferences, I was flabbergasted, and thinking on what I should do.
Just then, Mr. Morse was entering the conference building, saw me and waved to me. I quickly waved back and called out to him, asking him to come and sort out my problem. Morse came, and I explained what the army persons sitting at the registration desk had told me in refusing accreditation. Some UN officials, seeing
Mr. Morse, came forward, and Morse instructed them to get my papers processed, and my badge prepared and brought; he waited with me, and when the badge came, pinned it on my coat, and then took me with him into the conference.
My local Argentine colleagues and friends however got worried, and cautioned me to be very careful, lest I be "disappeared".
The next day, I was chairing a panel of experts (on communications and transportation), and Morse was with me on the rostrum. I made a few opening remarks, and threw the floor open to comments and or remarks by those attending. A few experts from other developing countries briefly spoke or intervened, but the large number of Argentine and other Latin American participants remained silent. A note came to me from the floor, and it pointed to the presence of Argentine military inside the room and said this inhibited floor interventions. After consulting Morse, I requested the military men to leave the meeting, which they did reluctantly.
But through the remaining 3-4 days of the conference, the military men were keeping an eye on me, and my movements, meetings with delegates etc. Morse who had also noticed it, detailed one of the UN's own security persons to make sure that I would be safe in Buenos Aires during the conference days, and to see me off to the airport and my emplaning to fly back to Europe!
[* Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Editor Emeritus of the SUNS.]