8:38 AM Nov 3, 1994


Geneva 3 Nov (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- Negotiations between a GATT/WTO team and Switzerland on the details of the headquarters agreement are running into difficulties and this could at some point unravel the headquarters choice, according to some GATT sources.

A team representing GATT/WTO delegations and the GATT secretariat is negotiating with the Swiss authorities on a number of issues to put down in clear legal language, and as part of an integrated headquarters agreement, the terms and conditions on the basis of which the Preparatory Committee agreed on Geneva as the headquarters.

Trade officials said a whole lot of problems and issues that may sound arcane to others are involved and a number of sub-groups are doing the negotiating and drafting exercises on each of these.

Some issues, they said, are highly technical and not easy to translate in legal language as commitments what the Swiss offered in oral conversations and negotiations.

Others though were substantial and some of the negotiators are having the feeling that they are being given a run around and the Swiss are going back on what was thought to have been offered and accepted.

One of the issues relate to the headquarters buildings of the GATT and the other to the question of immunities and privileges of the WTO and its staff and the diplomatic missions.

On the privileges and immunities issue, the foreign diplomatic missions have had a long history of dissatisfaction with the way they are treated and disputes with the Swiss over their interpretations of their original headquarters agreement with the United Nations and the Vienna Convention on these matters.

As a result, the foreign diplomatic community had decided last year to take the issue to the UN General Assembly and open up the entire UN-Switzerland headquarters agreement and the Swiss obligations under the Vienna Convention.

But when the WTO headquarters issue came up, and Germany made an offer and a pitch to get the WTO to be headquartered in Bonn, the Swiss suddenly realised they were vulnerable and began improving their offers.

The diplomatic community in Geneva at the same time decided to use the occasion to extract from the Swiss concessions normally extended by other countries to foreign missions.

The understanding of the diplomatic community of the terms of the WTO offer that was accepted was that the immunities and privileges that the Swiss would give to the WTO, its staff and diplomatic missions would be part of the headquarters agreement, and would extend to other UN offices and specialized agencies in Geneva as well as all the missions.

But the Swiss apparently want to have the immunities and privileges issues to be dealt with in side agreements with the WTO, which would mean it would apply only to the WTO and those missions or diplomats accredited to it, and not to other UN and specialized agency staff or missions and diplomats dealing with them.

One trade negotiator said, "this is something that is just not acceptable to us" and unless the Swiss change their minds "at some point we might have to go back and report that no agreement is possible".

One trade official not directly involved said that the Swiss side did not seem to understand fully the feelings within the international diplomatic community, coming from varying countries and cultures and practices.

In some cultures, he said, unmarried daughters (whatever their age) and parents were all part of the family. Yet the Swiss have behaved insensitively in refusing visas for prolonged stays.

In one case a 75-year old mother of the head of an important mission was refused a stay for beyond three months and the old lady had to go back. The story surfaced only during the WTO headquarters fight, whereupon the Swiss representative asked the ambassador why he had not been approached and got the retort 'why should I come to you for what you consider a favour, and what in other cultures would be seen as a right and duty'.

As regards the headquarters building, the Swiss are stipulating that they would transfer it to the WTO for a value of about 51 million swiss franks. But if the WTO decides to shift outside Geneva at a future time, whether to another canton or outside Switzerland, the building will revert to the Swiss without any payment.

Even if the WTO, after ten years decided to shift within the canton of Geneva to a new building, it would get only a 51 million franc credit and not the then market value, nor the future indexed value of the 51 million.

Some negotiators think a solution would be found, and the Swiss would not be foolhardy to dig their feet. However, none of the diplomats negotiating the issue are willing to suggest to the Prepcom or the future WTO to overlook some problems and reach an agreement, and continue negotiations later.

While the date of entry into force of the WTO (1 January 1995) is not a deadline, if no agreement is reached soon, new bids and offers may be invited, another trade official said.