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Getting our Act together


NAVIN SINGH KHADKA


Not having an elected legislature and an elected prime minister is not just grist for the political parties in their 'anti-regression' agitation against the king. It has also thrown Nepal's accession to the WTO into new controversy. Faced with the 31 March deadline for WTO accession, the government has hastily amended the Treaty Act through another royal ordinance. This has drawn fire from parties which accuse the government of trying to sideline parliament and violate the constitution.

"This is another striking example of just how undemocratic this government is," said UML General Secretary Madhab Kumar Nepal. "If they can amend an Act like that, they can do the same with any constitutional provision." The government says the amendment was only to meet the WTO deadline. The Treaty Act requires parliament approval before any treaty is signed with an international body or foreign country. With the amendment in place, it is possible just by royal approval of a government recommendation.

"The amendment is only intended to allow our entrance into the WTO," Commerce and Industry Minister Hari Bahadur Basnet told us. "The words 'exclusively for the WTO' may not appear in the amendment, but that is what it is." WTO cell chief Prachanda Man Shrestha at the Ministry told us in an interview (see p 9) that all the effort for membership of the WTO would go down the drain if the deadline is not met with ratification.

Since Nepal is not a member of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT), it had to negotiate with members of the WTO one by one and that took almost five years before membership was approved last September.

WTO pundits agree that Nepal must not miss the bus. They say that internal political wrangling should not hold the membership hostage. "We cannot afford to do that," says Ratnakar Adhikari, a WTO expert from the group, South Asia Watch on Trade and Environment (SAWTE). "If we fail to ratify the accession in time, it would be disastrous for our economy."

Former lawmakers of the agitating political parties argue the issue is beyond economy and that it raises doubts on the government's true intentions. "Because they did not even bother to hold discussions with us on such a serious issue, we have reasons to be suspicious," said Upper House member of the Nepali Congress and professional lawyer, Radheshyam Adhikari.

Upper House members of the agitating political parties had even jointly demanded an Upper House session for ratification. The session would not only have discussed the prospects and risks for Nepal in the WTO, but would have also demonstrated the government's commitment toward democracy. "But, the government chose to avoid such a democratic way revealing its real character," said Adhikari.

Ministry officials see no reason to politicise the issue like this since safeguards have been built into the amendment with a clause that says it is only for joining international organisations and not for bilateral treaties like river sharing projects with India.

They say the amendment also has a mandatory provision that the government must notify the House of Representatives within seven days of its formation about the changes made. And, if the dates for elections are announced, the changed provision will be null and void.

Meanwhile, officials at the Commerce and Industry Ministry this week were flipping over the pages of international treaties like the Vienna Convention to make sure that the ratification through the ordinance would not be challenged in court.

As far as the WTO is concerned, experts believe it is unlikely that the global body will be interested in knowing the mechanism of ratification as long as it is ratified. "The WTO would not be bothered in the ways adopted for the ratification," said Posh Raj Pandey, a UNDP adviser. SAWTE's Adhikari agrees: "All that it needs is the ratification by the state. Whether the ratification is done through the parliament or any other mechanism is not WTO's business."

Even so, it is clear that the government could have toned down the parties' opposition to ratification by royal ordinance if it had consulted them. Nearly all the main parties have supported Nepal's entrance into the WTO when they were in power. But the way things are done, the parties are angry and may pose problems when (and if) the parliament sits again. "We are not going to take any responsibility if something goes wrong due to the WTO accession in the future," said UML's Nepal. "This government will have to take all the blame."

The opposition of the political parties seems to be less about the practical disadvantages of a rules-based trading regime and how it would hurt the world's poorer countries and more about opposing a royal appointed government. Their argument: If the government has made amendments in an Act through ordinance today, it can also change any provision in the constitution in the days to come. They say that is the real threat to democracy.


LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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