The ‘Cartagena/Vienna setting’: Towards more transparent and democratic global negotiations

The ‘Cartagena/Vienna setting’:
Towards more transparent and democratic global negotiations

While it was public pressure that finally pushed the negotiations in Montreal to a successful conclusion, the process was greatly facilitated by the innovative and transparent procedures initiated by the active but impartial chairman of the meeting, Minister Juan Mayr Maldonado of Colombia. Dubbed ‘the Cartagena/Vienna setting’ (since these procedures were first adopted in the Vienna preparatory meeting that followed the collapse of the negotiations in Cartagena), they provide a democratic alternative to the secretive negotiating processes that have characterised the WTO, and a healthy precedent for future global meetings.

by Chee Yoke Ling


IN Cartagena last year, it was clear, by the time the Ad Hoc Working Group was dissolved after two and a half years’ work, that the polarised positions of the countries could not be resolved through the conventional UN style. Countries which were frustrating the process could evade openly putting forward their positions and rationale (if there were any apart from trade protection) and hide behind statements devoid of content. Those in favour of a comprehensive biosafety agreement had to keep defending and explaining their stand.

There were many occasions where these delegates almost appeared to be on trial.

The balance of representation was also skewed. The more than 100 countries in the Like-minded Group (LMG) of developing countries had only one spokesperson, having agreed to speak as one voice. On the other hand, six countries in the Miami Group had one full representation (predominantly voicing the interests of a non-Party, the US). The European Union on many issues were aligned with the Miami Group, and their combined force could easily defeat the LMG proposals.

It was at this point that the chair of the Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Biodiversity Convention which had taken over the negotiations, Minister Juan Mayr Maldonado of Colombia, stepped away from UN tradition.

The first step taken was to reconfigurate the number of spokespersons, and this was a turning point towards a more equitable representation of views and positions in the closed-door smaller ‘contact group’ that was set up to try to resolve the controversy over the general scope of the Protocol and the scope of the application of the Advance Informed Agreement procedure.


The LMG was given four representatives to speak. The Miami Group had two representatives and the EU, Central American/Caribbean countries, Central and Eastern Europe (including Russia) had one spokesperson each. (In subsequent meetings, Central American and Caribbean countries merged with the LMG to speak as one voice.) The Compromise Group, initiated by Norway and Switzerland to ensure they could participate in the negotiations, had one representative.

Each spokesperson was allowed to bring two advisers, chosen by each Group from amongst themselves. This was very significant because normally, Northern delegations would have a large team overwhelming the under-represented South. Often, the US delegation itself would exceed an entire region’s total number of delegates.

However, it was agreed at the end of Cartagena that an open process was crucial. All contact group meetings which followed in Vienna and Montreal were open to all governments.

Between Cartagena and Montreal, over one year, a confidence-building exercise took place which also helped to crystallise the core issues that could break the impasse on the Protocol.

On 1 July 1999, taking advantage of the presence of a large number of countries at a meeting to prepare for the 5th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Biodiversity Convention scheduled for May 2000, Minister Mayr held an informal consultation to confirm that there was indeed political will to conclude an agreement. Where key negotiators were not present, their views were sought, too.


It was agreed that an informal consultation on the core and related issues, left pending from Cartagena, would take place in Vienna in September.

In his summary of the 1 July consultation, the minister stated that he ‘consider(ed) transparency as being critical to the preparations of the (Vienna) meeting’. He thus promised to keep all governments informed about his consultations by forwarding to all national focal points, through the Secretariat, ‘all correspondence and minutes’. He also highlighted the important role of the Bureau and Secretariat in achieving transparency of the process.

In Vienna, each negotiating group met on its own for two days.

This was especially important for the LMG, which had no opportunity to meet between negotiation sessions. In contrast, the EU and Miami Groups met frequently as groups and bilaterally outside the global meetings. The third day was spent on interactions amongst the groups ‘to test the waters, gauge the mood and identify critical issues’, as Minister Mayr put it.

The last two days, chaired by the minister, identified common conceptual ground and possible solutions, without venturing into precise wordings of the controversial provisions.

Easy consultation

A second innovative development was introduced in Vienna. Instead of sitting in their country seats by alphabetical order in the usual fashion, delegates sat as their respective Groups. The advisers sat behind the chief spokespersons, and in the case of the LMG, delegates from each region sat behind their regional advisers. This arrangement enabled easy consultations amongst delegations.

In addition, each negotiating group now had one chief and one alternate spokesperson. The LMG, given its size, was asked to elect a chief spokesperson, and two others from each of the three regions (Asia, Africa and Latin America/Caribbean) as regional spokespersons to assist the chief person. The Brazilian delegate was also the alternate spokesperson for the LMG. Any of the regional advisers could join the discussions when asked by the chief spokesperson.

The order of speaking in plenary then followed a pattern. Minister Mayr used coloured balls, with each chief spokesperson picking one from a bag at the start of each plenary session. Each session had a different colour sequence.

This approach eased the flow of discussion. By going round each Group to elicit views in this way, and by the Chair actively asking questions to clarify positions, the atmosphere was significantly transformed. Delegates and observers alike felt that the result was exchanges that were more frank and less couched in obtuse diplomacy.

This method of conducting a plenary became known as the ‘Cartagena/Vienna setting’.

The physical setting of a roundtable in Montreal with delegates actually seeing each other as they spoke was a basic but important additional feature in group dynamics. It also made consultations among the members of each Group more convenient during negotiations.

Good humour was a component, too, when coloured teddy bears were used instead of balls, which proved to be elusive in Montreal!

The clearer grouping of countries and interests that evolved in the Biosafety Protocol process provided a much more transparent picture of country positions. The replacement of the Group of 77 and China with the LMG (the former minus Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, which joined the Miami Group) in Cartagena was another turning point. Developing countries went from near-paralysis to active unity as a negotiating group.

The time provided regularly, or when requested, for internal group consultations in the midst of negotiations was particularly valuable for developing countries to discuss ongoing developments amongst themselves, make assessments and maintain their joint stands.

It was interesting that while the Compromise Group operated on a principle of bridging polarised positions, the countries did not make consensus amongst themselves a rule. So, on issues where there was no agreement, the lowest common denominator would not be presented. This was useful, as individual countries were then free to express their views informally with other like-minded delegates. For example, Norway supported the inclusion of contained use in the general scope of the Protocol in Montreal even though they had two years earlier given up this crucial area ‘in the spirit of compromise’, while Mexico was strong on the need for an international liability regime, even though there were other Group members that did not share the same views. By the last meeting in Montreal, Mexico, Japan, South Korea and Singapore had joined the Group. The move by Singapore, which LMG countries had found to be more aligned to the Miami Group position, was good for the continued solidarity of the LMG (Singapore had initially been a member of the LMG).

Access for NGOs

In Montreal, plenary sessions were conducted in the Cartagena/Vienna setting where rounds of views on key issues were heard. Where contact groups were set up to further explore an issue and negotiate text, these were open to all government delegations. Regular reports to the plenary were made, again in the Cartagena/Vienna setting.

In Vienna and Montreal, the Chairman met informally with the spokespersons and representatives of each negotiating group.

In Vienna, he also met separately with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and industry. It was in response to the NGO request for access that a decision was made to have instantaneous audio reception in a ‘spill-over’ room next to the government consultation room. NGOs and international organisation representatives, as well as government delegates (if there was lack of space in the other room), were thus able to follow the discussions.

In Montreal, all observers, including the media, were able to sit in the plenary sessions.

As negotiations intensified, and plenaries had to be postponed, notices were prominently displayed and ample time given for delegations to re-convene.

There were remaining frustrations caused by the lack of interpretation facilities in the contact groups, and non-English-speaking delegates had to work with English draft text. This is a serious shortcoming in all global negotiations, and really needs to be overcome since more and more legally binding agreements are being made which have a huge impact on countries and peoples.

Also, the large group of developing countries in the LMG during the Montreal session had to meet in the plenary hall without even microphone support, sometimes needing to shout at each other to be heard. While many recognised the problem of insufficient Secretariat funds, such a lack of fundamental facilities was very unfortunate. More worryingly, it reflects the power of money over democratic processes. The bulk of the meetings for this Protocol were financed from voluntary funds, with the Secretariat scrambling for support from one meeting to the next. The lack of core funding for the participation of developing countries and economies in transition, and to a large extent the inadequate Secretariat support, were due to a few rich countries not wanting a Protocol in the first place.

However, there was enough commitment to a Biosafety Protocol which made the final conclusion possible.

While the humour and personal dynamism of Minister Maldonado was a major factor, delegates found the actual approach and process very useful.

Unlike in other negotiations, especially those in the trade arena such as in the World Trade Organisation, there was far less confusion and mistrust amongst delegations, especially those from developing countries. In many respects, the process made it possible for the narrow trade interests of the major Miami Group countries to be publicly exposed and even isolated.

At the final plenary, a number of delegates suggested that the Cartagena/Vienna setting would be a good precedent for other global negotiations.

While the powerful interests of a few countries still won the day in many ways, the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol did see a fairer fight. The procedures were predictable and allowed for more open, transparent and democratic meetings.

Chee Yoke Ling, a former university law lecturer, is an Environment Representative of the Third World Network.

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