The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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At word torture organisation
- When at WTO, forget the language normal people speak

Cancun, Sept. 12: “The confessionals are going well,” said a World Trade Organisation official.

He was replying to my query about how things were shaping up on the second day of the global trade body’s fifth ministerial conference.

Confessionals' What on earth was he talking about' Mexico, of course, is a Catholic country, but we were not talking of any absolution from sin at Cancun!

Detractors of WTO, of whom there is no dearth here, may well claim, however, that the trade organisation and its “big boys” have a lot of sins to answer for.

“Confessionals”, in WTO jargon, means bilateral meetings. In this instance, the official was referring to bilateral meetings with key members, which the so-called facilitators of working groups set up at Cancun have been authorised to hold in order to narrow differences on major issues.

The world of WTO is a world of jargon. Jargon so unintelligible even to those within its orbit that the WTO headquarters in Geneva has been forced to include a chapter called “Jargon Buster” in the briefing notes for those attending the Cancun meeting.

If you are at a WTO dinner or reception, don’t ever commit the indiscretion of asking for a “bit” of something: “I would like a bit more salt in this”, for example.

In WTO jargon, “bit” is acronym for bilateral investment treaties.

“Border protection” does not mean preventing jihadis trained by Pakistan’s ISI from crossing into India. Or stopping illegal migrants from Mexico from entering the US.

In WTO, “border protection” is defined as “any measure which acts to restrain imports at point of entry”. Here, a “box” is not something into which you put your possessions. Believe it or not, it is a category of domestic support in agriculture.

As you wade deeper into WTO’s world, the jargon gets more and more bizarre. “Green box” is support considered not to distort trade and, therefore, permitted with no limits.

Blue box: “Permitted supports linked to production, but subject to production limits and, therefore, minimally trade distorting.”

Amber box: “Supports considered to distort trade and, therefore, subject to reduction commitments.”

Who would have thought that the WTO does not recognise mad cow disease in its documents even after it devastated Britain’s cattle population and wreaked havoc on European beef exports last year'

No. The WTO is only content with “bovine spongiform encephalopathy”.

Because of Cancun’s merciless sun, it would be handy to have a cap as one moves here from hotel to hotel, covering the scores of daily press briefings or the anti-globalisation protests.

But never make the mistake of asking anyone associated with the WTO meeting for a cap. He will immediately tell you that it is short for “common agricultural policy”.

If you look askance, he may even explain that it is the European Union’s comprehensive system of production targets and marketing mechanisms designed to manage agricultural trade within the EU and with the rest of the world.

But wait a minute! Just as mad cow disease is taboo for the WTO’s bureaucrats, they do not recognise the EU either!

In all WTO documents, the EU is referred to as the “European Communities”. Occasionally, you may find a note to say that it is the official name in the trade body for the European Union. Never mind the fact that the EU calls itself the EU and not what the WTO has christened it.

CBD may be the central business district in a metropolis for most of the world, but for the WTO, it is the Convention on Biological Diversity.

And don’t mistake MEA for ministry of external affairs. It stands for Multilateral Environmental Agreement.

PSI is the term used worldwide for measuring the tyre pressure in automobiles, but in the trade jargon at Cancun, it stands for pre-shipment inspection.

More familiar to Indians are the terms QRs, TRIMs and TRIPS because of controversies associated with India’s need to conform to WTO measures and standards. So obsessed is the trade body with acronyms that the briefing book for Cancun insists that TRIMs should be spelt with a small “s” while TRIPS has a capital “s”.

I came to Cancun with an open mind on the WTO. But the need for jargon-busting here has made me a little more sympathetic to those who run down the trade body. If only because of how its acronyms are distorting acceptable phrases in the English language.

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