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Argentine government blocks at least 20 NGOs from attending WTO ministerial

November 30, 2017

Citing security concerns, the Argentine government is refusing to allow at least 20 civil society groups from attending the 11th World Trade Organization ministerial in Buenos Aires, according to an email from a WTO official to the groups obtained by Inside U.S. Trade.

The ministerial is slated for Dec. 10-13.

Many of the groups -- self-described as being critics of the WTO -- have regularly attended previous ministerials and were initially accredited by the WTO for MC11, but Argentine security authorities have denied the NGOs accreditation “for unspecified reasons,” the Nov. 29 email says.

“We have made repeated enquiries about this unexpected development, but we have little to no hope that a solution will be found,” the email states. “We therefore discourage you from travelling to Argentina so as to avoid being turned away upon entry into the country.”

The WTO accredits organizations based on whether they have a relationship with the WTO, according to spokesman Keith Rockwell.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo has also made clear to Argentine officials “at the highest level” that it cannot be the WTO that bars the NGOs from attending the ministerial, Rockwell said.

“Argentinians have had a problem with some of these members of civil society,” Rockwell told Inside U.S. Trade. “We have explained to them the position we are in and it cannot be us that says no.”

NGOs are calling the move by Argentine authorities “unprecedented.” They have noted only two other instances in which members of civil society groups -- but not entire organizations -- had been barred from attending ministerial; in both cases, the individuals were eventually allowed to attend.

According to several NGO sources, the Hong Kong government initially blocked the accreditation of one individual ahead of the 2005 ministerial. That decision was overturned at the urging of then-WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy. Similarly, the Singapore government initially barred five civil society group members from attending the 1996 WTO ministerial, but later allowed them to attend.

The Argentine government has blocked at least 63 individuals from 20 groups from attending the ministerial, according to Our World Is Not For Sale, a global NGO network. Many of the groups are associated with OWINFS, which condemned the move by the Argentine government in a Nov. 30 letter to Azevêdo and WTO members. OWINFS organizes activities within its network of more than 250 NGOs.

“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, hosts have never denied entry, except for at most, one or two specific persons, with at least some justification provided,” OWINFS network coordinator Deborah James wrote in the letter. “If any host country starts limiting access and does so arbitrarily and without having to explain any motives, not only is this conference's integrity being attacked, but a key principle of international diplomacy is being violated. The WTO should not accept such a blatant violation of well-established international norms.”

James called on the WTO to not hold the ministerial in Buenos Aires unless the Argentine government reverses its decision.

Civil society groups normally lobby in the corridors of the ministerial venue, organize briefings for delegations to discuss proposals and participate in other activities including “flash mobs.” James said the groups normally alert the WTO of the planned activities so authorities are aware. The WTO has always provided space for the groups to express their views, she said.

Several civil society members have been unable to identify a pattern among the groups the Argentine government has denied access to, or say definitively which groups have been approved.

“It seems to be a bit of a randomness -- it's very strange,” Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now UK, told Inside U.S. Trade. “The only thing I can think is that they're expecting a lot of protests and are trying to reduce the number of NGOs.”

Global Justice Now UK, a British social justice organization, was informed that its accreditation for the ministerial has been revoked.

More than 230 NGOs were accredited at the 2015 ministerial in Nairobi, Kenya.

Marc Maes, a trade policy officer at the Belgian-based 11.11.11, and Fiona Dove, the executive director of the Dutch-based Transnational Institute, told Inside U.S. Trade they are asking their governments to intervene. TNI and 11.11.11 are among those that were informed their accreditations were revoked.

Yorgos Altintzís, a trade policy officer at the International Trade Union Confederation, questioned the Argentine government's security justification, contending the organizations that were not accredited are “hardly direct-action groups.” He said the Argentine government is pro-business and anti-labor and suggested it is trying to keep some critical voices away from the ministerial.

The Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was not involved in NGO accreditation for the ministerial. The Security Ministry and office of the cabinet chief of staff did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

According to a Nov. 30 OWINFS press release, the groups that have been barred from MC11 are: Instituto del Mundo del Trabajo, Fundación Grupo Efecto Positivo, Sociedad de Economía Crítica, 11.11.11, the Brazilian Network for People’s Integration, REBRIP, Derechos Digitales, Siemenpuu, the Institute for National and Democracy Studies, the Transnational Institute, People Over Profit and Global Justice Now!, as well as delegates registered with international organizations including UNI global union, UNI Americas and Friends of the Earth International.

Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, noted in a Nov. 30 press release that the NGOs were being denied access to the ministerial on the anniversary of the 1999 ministerial, often dubbed “the battle in Seattle” because of the protests there. Public Citizen has been accredited to attend the ministerial. -- Brett Fortnam (bfortnam@iwpnews.com)

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