There is life after Buenos Aires," claimed Susana Malcorra, chair of the 11th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO). After failing to issue the concluding ministerial declaration, the hallmark of a successful multilateral summit, she said the Buenos Aires summit this month will be remembered for two “defining" and positive outcomes.

First, it has provided a direction for accelerating negotiations on the fisheries subsidies. And second, it has become the staging ground for “a great number of plurilateral" initiatives (those involving more than two countries) for 21st century issues. The issues —negotiating rules for electronic commerce, disciplines for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), investment facilitation, and gender and employment—are important for “people" who should keep negotiating them, she exhorted.Her navigator at the four-day summit, Roberto Azevedo, the WTO director-general, said even though “it was disappointing in some ways but as the chair (Malcorra) said we have made progress in some areas."

“Progress in long-standing areas is particularly challenging," he said, without mentioning the areas or the challenges faced in those areas. Azevedo spoke eloquently about the work programme for stepping up the negotiations on fisheries subsidies for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14.6 for eliminating subsidies to vessels engaged in illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing on the high seas, subsidies that contribute to overfishing and depletion of fish stocks by 2019. He said there is an outbreak of “dynamism" in other areas. “You will have seen a number of statements by a large group of members" on “MSMEs, e-commerce, investment facilitation, and women’s economic empowerment, and domestic regulation," he said, suggesting there are big, medium, and small countries engaged in these issues. “How these conversations are going to advance depends on those members (in those plurilateral groups)," Azevedo said, maintaining “it is important they remain open".

The director-general said it is important that “this dynamism is reflected everywhere" suggesting that in Buenos Aires we had a “successful business initiatives" led by the billionaire Jack Ma of Ali Baba, the Chinese e-commerce trading behemoth. “Multilateral(ism) is not about what you want but what is possible, we need to show greater flexibility in the future, give and take and compromise is needed for multilateralism to flourish," Azevedo said.

Clearly, who should give and who should take always remains a big question. Is the director-general suggesting that the developing and poorest countries must always pay and pay for the commitments they did not initiate in a one-way street—without ever securing the developmental benefits mandated/promised in the Doha work programme which was launched in the 21st century, i.e. November 2001. What is the compromise that countries must settle for the mandated multilateral outcomes that the director-general is suggesting? Were there any compromises on the table at all at Buenos Aires after the US unilaterally blocked further negotiations on 12 December morning—which the WTO spokesperson refused to name at his conference (the spin doctors invariably resort to planting baseless/mischievous stories in The Economist and other western publications portraying India or South Africa as the culprits even though the elephant in the room turned roguish at Buenos Aires)? Isn’t food security for addressing hunger and poverty of more than a billion people an SDG goal that the director general and the chair failed to mention? Is it consistent with rules of the organization as set out in the Marrakesh treaty for the chair of the conference and the director-general to trumpet about “new" initiatives that have no multilateral consensus? Isn’t the director-general violating the Marrakesh treaty by providing a platform at an inter-governmental ministerial meeting for non-governmental organizations with billionaire business tycoons to promote electronic commerce, knowing well that more than 100 countries opposed the issue?

“It’s a moment of truth for the multilateral organization" which faces a grave systemic crisis, Rob Davies, South Africa’s trade minister, lamented minutes before the Buenos Aires meet fell apart. Grotesque attempts were made at the meeting to terminate the special and differential flexibilities for developing countries and walk away from all mandated issues while embracing new issues, Davies suggested. The Buenos Aires meeting, which is the second to collapse in South America after the infamous Cancun ministerial in 2003, has proved that developing/poorest countries are unlikely to secure credible “developmental" results. The US will never tolerate any changes in the Uruguay Round rules crafted during 1986-93 lest it will be required to scrap its hundreds of billions of farm subsidy programmes that sustain its agricultural exports. The US also single-handedly cherry-picked issues such as fisheries subsidies and electronic commerce while paralysing the dispute settlement system. Azevedo’s silence speaks volumes about his ability to legitimize the US’ actions.

Little wonder US reneged on its assurances for a modest “improvement" in the interim peace clause for public stockholding programmes for food security purposes that was first negotiated in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2013, and later further clarified in November 2014, pulled the plug at a meeting of seven countries—the US, the European Union, China, India, Brazil, Australia, and Argentina—on 12 December. It refused to agree to a modest improvement in the upper limit of total procurement not exceeding 12% of the domestic production quantity of the crop in question while providing more than $150 billion green box subsidies that not only distort trade but exempted from any legal action. The US wanted the facilitator for agriculture negotiations Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, to do the hatchet job by terminating the negotiations. But the facilitator refused to acquiesce to US demands.

India’s commerce minister Suresh Prabhu deserves kudos for remaining firm on India’s core demands, particularly the permanent solution for public stockholding programmes for food security. “No agreement is better than a bad agreement," said Celso Amorim, the former Brazil trade minister, who led the G-20 group of developing countries along with India’s former commerce minister Arun Jaitley, at the Cancun meeting, when it collapsed in 2003, because of the intransigent positions adopted by the US on agriculture. India and developing countries have to live to fight another day as their demands are based on mandates.

Fourteen years after that disastrous meeting in Cancun, the Buenos Aires ministerial, chaired by Malcorra and ably assisted by Azevedo sought to inflict another abominable calamity on the multilateral trading system by opening the window for plurilateral initiatives or plurilateralization of the WTO.

Close to the Hilton Hotel in Buenos Aires which hosted the trade summit last week that supposedly gave dubious life to plurilateral initiatives, there is the famous La Recoleta Cemetry. That exclusive cemetery is the last stop for Argentina’s most celebrated and controversial rulers, including Eva Peron, and army generals. Perhaps, the current Argentinean government, with Azevedo’s assistance, had planned to bury the Doha Development Agenda round of negotiations at that cemetery—but that will not happen so easily.

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