Isolated US tries to block MC11 ministerial declaration

The Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference faces the prospect of not adopting a ministerial declaration at its conclusion as the US sought to thwart an outcome document that would refer to the development dimension of the WTO.

by D. Ravi Kanth

GENEVA (23 NOV): The United States stood isolated and exposed on 22 November for its unilateral decision to block the finalization of the ministerial declaration for MC11, trade envoys told the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).

However, an overwhelming majority of countries decided to press ahead with an outcome document despite opposition from Uncle Sam, said a South American trade envoy who asked not to be quoted.

India and Rwanda, on behalf of the Group of 90 countries, delivered the strongest statements yet in defence of the development dimension and the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) negotiations and how these two issues must be protected in the face of an aggressive assault by the US and some other countries.

The drafting group for a ministerial declaration has faced massive opposition from the US to explicitly mentioning the pre-eminent role of the WTO and its importance for multilateral trade liberalization under the Marrakesh Agreement as well as to elaborating on the DDA negotiations and the development dimension.

Members of the African Group, the ACP Group and India insisted that explicit language on these two issues is imperative for developing countries, said a trade envoy who asked not to be quoted.

In the face of worsening differences on these two issues, the WTO General Council Chair, Ambassador Xavier Carim of South Africa, decided to suspend the meeting on 22 November morning and called for the convening of a heads of delegation (HoD) meeting later in the evening, the envoy said.

Carim said that he decided to suspend the ongoing work of the drafting committee for finalizing the ministerial declaration due to opposition from one member.

The chair said it is not possible to work on the ministerial declaration at this juncture but emphasized that work on all other issues which are being currently negotiated will continue.

Intervening immediately after the chair’s statement, the US said that the one member being referred to by Carim was itself. Although the US is not engaging on most of the issues, it said that there has been no progress on major issues, including on the US proposal for institutional reforms in the WTO.

Many countries had said the US proposal is not part of the mandate for the Buenos Aires meeting. While some developed countries are ready to negotiate on the transparency provisions, a large majority of developing countries had maintained that the US proposal on transparency and notification requirements changes the rights and obligations of WTO members.

Members’ positions

In a brief statement at the HoD meeting, the US deputy trade envoy Chris Wilson suggested that members are not even prepared to address the US proposals on institutional issues, including the proposals on transparency requirements in all WTO agreements and notifications. Therefore, said the US, it cannot agree to a ministerial declaration, indicating its willingness instead to consider a chair’s concluding statement at Buenos Aires.

In a sharp rebuke to the US stand, Rwanda, on behalf of the G90 countries, expressed concern over the persistent position of “some members” to seriously undermine “the development dimension of the WTO and the WTO itself.”

Rwanda’s trade envoy, Ambassador Francois Xavier Ngarambe, said “the centrality of development in this institution is the raison d’etre of our membership.”

“Indeed,” said Ngarambe, “we expect that development, in particular special and differential treatment provisions, remains at the core of both existing and future WTO agreements. This is crucial in order to adequately address economic needs of weak economies for their effective integration in the multilateral trading system.”

Rwanda went on to say that the G90 “strongly reaffirms the importance of a rules-based, fair and equitable multilateral trading system as enshrined in the Marrakesh Agreement whose objectives and principles remain our guideline.”

Rwanda said the G90 “reiterates its commitment to a process which must reflect the guiding principles of the WTO and DDA negotiations, namely, full member participation, inclusive, transparent, predictable, and bottom-up processes, and consensus-based member-driven negotiations.”

Finally, the G90 reiterates its support to the General Council chair and remains ready for consistent and constructive engagement for a positive outcome in Buenos Aires and beyond, said Rwanda.

After Rwanda, India took the floor to deliver one of the strongest messages about the “centrality of development to the WTO, particularly the Doha Development Agenda negotiations.”

Indian deputy trade envoy Aseem Mahajan said India “attaches significant importance to the centrality of the development dimension of this organization.”

“The DDA and related decisions have express mandates and all the past Ministerial Conferences have reinforced the DDA issues and mandates,” he said.

Moreover, “substantive work has gone into these issues for the past several years and therefore, there should be no hesitation in expressing the DDA in the ministerial declaration,” India said.

“We also feel there might be differences on the perceived objectives of the Doha development agenda but there is no ambiguity regarding the steps to be taken,” India said.

“What has been also worrisome to us is the debate about the relevance of these issues and the difficulties of some members to engage to take these issues way forward,” India said.

The DDA and the development dimension embodying the work programme represent India’s core interests as well as the interests of a large majority of the developing countries, Mahajan said.

“Consequently, we cannot agree for any formulation in the declaration that says the Doha Development Agenda and the decisions taken in the past Ministerial Conferences are no longer relevant,” India emphasized.

India urged members not to treat the declaration as an end game in itself, suggesting that “many issues stand at the core of our national interests for the forthcoming ministerial meeting.”

“This fact cannot be casually undone,” India maintained.

Without mentioning the US, India said actions by some members “would undermine and question the very basis of this organization.”

India said if there is no agreement on the text, then the drafting group must clearly reflect “the textual positions of the members for resolution at the political level.”

The European Union said it is a proponent of the ministerial declaration while suggesting that such a declaration should not be at all costs. The EU cited the 2009 ministerial meeting to drive home the message that it is fine with a chair’s concluding statement.

China expressed disappointment at the US move to block the ministerial declaration.

Argentina, the host for MC11, also expressed concern over the US decision but maintained that it will continue to work for a ministerial declaration at Buenos Aires. Argentina said members must continue work on the ministerial declaration.

Cameroon raised legal issues on the usefulness of a chair’s concluding statement.

A large majority of countries, particularly from Latin America, joined Argentina in emphasizing the importance of a ministerial declaration. Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador among others reiterated their demand for a ministerial declaration as proposed by Argentina. Several other countries – Egypt, Moldova, Uganda and Bangladesh – also called for continuing work on the declaration.

In his concluding statement, the General Council chair said members should concentrate on other ministerial decisions.

In crux, the Buenos Aires meeting seems now to be poised for an ugly battle between one member, the United States, on one side, and the rest of the members on the other for preserving the DDA project and the development dimension of their demands. If the rest of the WTO membership, in particular the developing nations, blink in the high-voltage negotiations in Buenos Aires, then they will never be able to have any meaningful say in global trade. (SUNS8582)     

Third World Economics, Issue No. 651/652, 16 October – 15 November 2017, pp10-11