TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Feb17/12)
16 February 2017
Third World Network

CSOs urge WTO DG to advance development mandate, not ‘new issues'
Published in SUNS #8400 dated 13 February 2017

Geneva, 10 Feb (Kanaga Raja) -- Over 80 Indian civil society organisations (CSOs) called on WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo to advance the development mandate of the WTO negotiations especially on key issues in agriculture, instead of his current push for agreements on e-commerce and investment.

The CSOs said that they met with Azevedo on Thursday during his current trip to New Delhi where they handed over a letter urging him to change the current approach in the negotiations.

A separate letter was handed to the DG by the largest farmer's alliance across the country (see below).

According to information posted on the WTO website, during his trip to India, Azevedo also met amongst others with Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, and representatives of the private sector (including the Confederation of Indian Industry).

[Other Indian media reports earlier this week had said, during his trip to India, Azevedo was to participate in an event, organised by the International Chamber of Commerce, to promote e-commerce.

[In a series of green room meetings in Geneva for outcomes at MC11 in Buenos Aires later this year, Azevedo has been reported by developing countries as promoting issues and agendas, not on the Doha Development Round, but which the US and other industrial countries want to negotiate and achieve some outcomes at MC11.

[While Indian media reports have cited Azevedo as stating in India that negotiations are by members and it was for them to find agreements, in his green room consultations he has reportedly been promoting viewpoints of the US, such as differentiation among developing countries on Special and Differential Treatment.

[This effort by him to promote US agendas even brought him a sharp rebuke this week from the Indian envoy, Mrs. Anjali Prasad, who asked him to desist from making "value-loaded" pronouncements on issues even before negotiations begin (see SUNS #8395 dated 6 February 2017, #8397 dated 8 February 2017 and #8398 dated 9 February 2017). SUNS]

In their letter to the Director-General, the CSOs urged Azevedo to re-orient the WTO, which will enable the organisation to fulfil its development mandate.

"The WTO was set up to help developing countries catch up. It needs to fulfil that mandate to justify its sheer existence," they said.

The CSOs called upon Azevedo to respect the spirit of multilateralism in the negotiations, and not resort to processes "that push decisions by a few rich members while leaving out the voices of the poorer members and the vast majority of their people in these processes."

"Globalisation, including on WTO's terms, is leaving large numbers of countries and people behind while it enriches a privileged few worldwide. Unless institutions like the WTO takes the voices of this vast majority seriously, its existence will justifiably be in jeopardy," they warned.

Among the signatories of the CSO letter are the All India Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements, All India Drug Action Network, All India Kisan Sabha, All India Trade Union Congress, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Delhi Network of Positive People, Forum on FTAs, India FDI Watch, Lawyers Collective, Madhyam, Public Services International South Asia, Right to Food Campaign, Save Our Rice Campaign, and Third World Network India.

"Indian farmers are getting threatened by the subsidy regime pushed by the WTO. On the one hand, it allows the rich countries to continue their huge domestic subsidies. On the other hand it is challenging even the minimal subsidies Indian farmers get through the MSP and input subsidies", said Yudhvir Singh of All India Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements (AICCFM) and Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), in a press release.

Dipa Sinha, from the Right to Food Campaign, said "food security cannot be ensured for India's poor consumers without ensuring the ability of farmers to produce. The very difficult compliance conditions of the current Peace Clause on the Food Security Proposal for public food-stockholding makes it ineffective in protecting essential and minimum domestic subsidies through the MSP and must be replaced by the permanent solution that fully allows such subsidies by 2017".

Vijoo Krishnan, from All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), encompassing 20 million farmer members, said that "even the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM) which is essential to protect farmers from import surges is being outright denied to us or being linked to tariff reduction commitments. It is clear that the outrageous subsidies given by the western countries are already distorting agricultural markets and threatening the very sustenance of our farmers and food security".

Shalini Bhutani, from the Forum on FTAs, expressed deep concern "at the push in WTO for new issues (such as e-commerce and investment) while outstanding development issues are still not addressed. The WTO Secretariat ought to take a proactive approach to ensure that pending concerns from developing countries, such as those on intellectual property and its negative impact on local seed systems and people's knowledge, do not fall off the agenda".

Prof. Biswajit Dhar, of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said "given the relatively smaller coverage of IT in India, the benefits from a multilateral binding agreement on e-commerce will go to giant multinationals at the cost of domestic retailers and even small manufacturers, not to speak of data security and privacy which is still relatively unregulated in India. The foregone customs duties will mean loss of potential revenue that could fund crucial social services."

Ranja Sengupta, from Third World Network, said the process being currently followed at the WTO is opaque and does not respect multilateralism. "We would prefer W room [one of the large meeting rooms at the WTO] type of open negotiations where all countries, rich and poor, can participate equally and uphold the rights of their people," she said.

In their letter to the Director-General, the CSOs pointed out that since its inception, the WTO has not addressed the legitimate developmental concerns even when it was mandated to do so.

In the past two decades during which the WTO has implemented the Uruguay Round Agreements, there has been an unacceptable level of increase in the inequalities between the rich and poor both across and within countries, because the trade rules have ensured benefits for a few at the cost of millions of people worldwide, they said.

The recent deliberations in the WTO raise grave concerns about the further worsening of conditions of the people across the global South.

"Though the Doha Development Round (DDR) is far from perfect in terms of its conceptualisation, ambitions and achievements, the push for the ‘new issues', even before the minimalist mandate of the DDR has been met, is a major cause for concern."

In particular, said the CSO letter to Azevedo, the push for multilateral agreements covering e-commerce and investment, both in their ambition and approach, will be extremely damaging for the interests of large constituencies in India, including farmers and small producers, workers, patients, small traders and many others.

"These will also have detrimental impact on our government's ability to regulate in public interest and to implement social protection measures," it said.

"Prohibiting custom duty on e-commerce, for example, will force our government to forgo much needed tariff revenues that could have been used for key social services such as health and education, and advancing development objectives including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

"Incentives for the growth of e-commerce by allowing physical import of goods into our country will threaten the livelihoods of small traders, as well as the small and medium enterprises, which are the backbone of India's manufacturing sector."

Further, said the CSOs, it can compromise India's security considerations. Cross-border transfer of information through e-commerce subordinates privacy to profits and could override privacy laws and permit corporations to challenge such laws under Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

"We are shocked to learn that the framework of the WTO talks on e-commerce goes even beyond that of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the TISA [Trade in Services Agreement], and sneaks in TRIPS-plus provisions as well as those related to the Singapore issues," the CSOs said.

They emphasised that a binding agreement on e-commerce could hurt not only countries like India but all the poorer members of the WTO.

The CSOs also noted that globally, there is a growing questioning of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) in the light of evidence that corporations are abusing the ISDS mechanism to undermine the rights of sovereign states to regulate key areas including agriculture, environment and health, even as they are proving insufficient to attract foreign investment.

They pose an enormous threat to government's ability to regulate, change and implement policies in the public interest, public health and environment, and uphold human rights, they said.

A large number of countries, including South Africa, Indonesia and India, are terminating their current BITs. India has terminated 57 of its BITs and is currently engaged in amending the text of the remaining 25 treaties to introduce safeguards against abuse.

"At a time when there is a growing public opinion and apprehension among policy makers that the existing investment treaty regime undermines the efforts being made by sovereign states to address emerging social, economic, environmental and developmental challenges, no attempts should be made to revive the long-rejected principles of multilateral agreement on investment for launching negotiations for an investment agreement under the WTO framework," the CSOs stressed.

They also told Azevedo that they were deeply worried to learn that "while these new issues are being pushed under your leadership," key issues on agriculture such as the permanent solution on the food security proposal and the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM) are being pushed to the background.

"In fact, the issue of the disproportionately large domestic subsidies maintained by several OECD members has not received serious consideration in the four years of your leadership," the CSOs told Azevedo.

"We want to draw your attention to the immense importance of agriculture, food production and farmers' livelihoods in a country such as India and to tell you what a travesty it is that the huge developed country agricultural subsidies continue unabated while minimum subsidies given to poor farmers in India are coming under close scrutiny at the WTO."

"We also want to add that we cannot support any move on fisheries subsidies without ensuring special & differential treatment, which will help to protect poor and small fisher-folk in India," said the CSOs.


Meanwhile, on behalf of major farmers' organisations in the country, the Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements expressed "deep frustration" and concerns about the way the agricultural negotiations have been moving at the WTO.

Representing what it said is the largest farmer's alliance across the country, the Coordination Committee said that India is a nation that still depends heavily on its agriculture sector with 800 million dependent on agriculture who feed a population of over 1 billion.

It pointed out that since the Agreement on Agriculture was signed in 1995, there has been an attempt to cut agricultural tariffs even for developing countries.

In their letter to Azevedo, the farmers' group said that farmers in developing countries such as India work under very difficult circumstances without much support from their governments, and need the protection the import duties offer.

"Developing countries are required to cut more duties under the formulae being considered and special and differential treatment is being weakened with every round of negotiations, with disastrous implications for Indian farmers' very lives. There is already a grave agrarian crisis and rising levels of farmers' suicides in India."

On the other hand, the letter noted, the huge domestic subsidies that the Western countries give to their farm sector, which is dominated by agri-business and not small farmers such as in India, are going unchallenged.

The US gives 57,901 USD per farmer as applied domestic support, the EU gives 8,286 USD. In comparison, Indian farmers get only 99 USD per farmer.

"This huge inequity has not been addressed at the WTO. Any talk on domestic support has been scuttled by the rich countries with the tacit support of the DG's office," the group charged.

"To add to the affront, the small amount of subsidy we receive is now being challenged at the WTO. Our farmers receive nominal support through the administered price, for supporting our public food programme. These support prices barely cover the cost of production in almost all the 26 crops that it is applicable to. We also receive nominal input subsidy."

All these, despite being nominal, are now being threatened under the WTO's imposed conditions.

The group reminded the DG and the OECD that "developing countries including India do not give the major share of ‘trade distorting subsidies', as you often call it. The US gives out 44% of its value of production as applied domestic support."

The Peace Clause that is granted on the Food Security Proposal is not effective and it is not a guarantee against disputes.

"We are standing on very precarious grounds here; our basic survival as farmers is being challenged, which also threatens the country's food security and our people's right to food. We need movement on a permanent solution on the food security proposal," it said.

The so-called achievement on export measures during the Nairobi Ministerial Conference of 2015 was hailed as a major breakthrough by the WTO.

"But for us, export subsidies have decreasing importance, and the key issue remains that of unfair and very different set of rules on domestic subsidy for rich and poor countries."

The letter noted that the WTO has not been able to deliver on a Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM) either, in spite of efforts by the G-33 during the Nairobi Ministerial.

"This is of tremendous importance to us as we face threats from import surges which wipe out the livelihoods of millions of farmers in India in one go," the group said.

With a coastline of over 8,000 kilometres, fisheries form an integral part of India's primary sector, one that we see as a provider of essential food and livelihoods, said the group.

"India's fisheries consists of numerous small fisher-folk who work under informal and very harsh conditions. It does not represent a major industrial sector for us. Currently we are alarmed to hear that fisheries subsidies are to be disciplined, without respecting the principle of special & differential treatment. We will not support any move to eliminate the small subsidies that our fishing and farm sectors receive."

The above goes to show why a majority of farmers' groups across the world have taken a position to take agriculture out of the WTO, said the letter.

The Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) was promised to developing countries' farmers, most of whom are small and marginal, as one that would help them export more and help grow their agriculture sector.

"The reality however is exactly the opposite. Not only did we not get any support from the WTO, we are being attacked and our very survival is at stake."

The farmers' group asked Azevedo: "We ask you, what have you done for farmers in India, and other developing and least developed countries? Why do you want to unleash new issues like investment which will further threaten our access to land, water and essential natural resources to grow food? Why has the WTO still not delivered on agriculture issues under the WTO's development mandate? We are asking you to tell us why farmers in India should support an institution like the WTO?". +