Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct17/09)
11 October 2017
Third World Network
CSOs urge WTO Members to abandon expansionist agenda
Published in SUNS #8549 dated 10 October 2017
Geneva, 9 Oct (Kanaga Raja) - Some 300 civil society organisations
(CSOs) from more than 150 countries have raised the alarm that some
members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are "pushing a
dangerous and inappropriate new agenda" in the run-up to the
WTO's eleventh ministerial conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires beginning
on 10 December.
This caution has come just ahead of an "exclusive, invitation-only"
mini-Ministerial meeting of some 35 select countries in Marrakesh,
Morocco from 9-10 October, aimed at solidifying the agenda for MC11.
In an urgent letter to the WTO Members, the CSOs, comprising trade
unions, environmental groups, farmers and other public interest groups,
demanded a fundamental shift in the WTO agenda ahead of MC11.
The CSOs argued amongst others that there should absolutely be no
new mandate on e-commerce as well as no disciplines agreed on domestic
regulation in services at MC11.
WTO members must deliver at Buenos Aires a positive resolution on
the public stockholding issue that allows all developing countries
to implement food security programs without onerous restrictions,
The letter was organised by the Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS),
a global network of NGOs and social movements.
Among the 36 international and regional CSO networks that signed the
letter are: ACP Civil Society Forum; Arab NGO Network for Development
(ANND); Association of Women's Rights in Development (AWID); Development
Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN); Fair Trade Advocacy
Office; Friends of the Earth International (FOEI); LDC Watch; Public
Services International (PSI); Society for International Development
(SID); Third World Network (TWN); Third World Network - Africa; and
Women in Development Europe (WIDE+).
The letter was also endorsed by a host of national organisations.
In their letter to the WTO Members, the CSOs said that: "We are
increasingly concerned about press reports indicating that some WTO
members are pushing a dangerous and inappropriate new agenda under
the disguising rubric of "e-commerce," even though there
was no consensus to introduce this new issue during or since the Nairobi
"In addition, we are deeply disturbed by reports that the urgent
need to change existing WTO rules which are constraining governments'
policy space for job creation and development, including achievement
of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is becoming further blocked
in the lead-up to the 11th Ministerial."
Citizens around the world have given clear messages to governments
that the current rules of the global economy, including global trade
rules, have exacerbated inequality and left far too many impoverished.
"Thus, we urge WTO members to reflect on this dynamic and to
take decisions that will allow the global trading system to contribute
to, rather than constrain, shared prosperity and development,"
the CSOs said.
E-COMMERCE IS THE WRONG AGENDA
In their letter, the CSOs noted that a number of new e-commerce proposals
have been made at the WTO in the last year.
Proponents often disguise their proposals under the rubric of e-commerce
as being necessary to unleash development through the power of small-
and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
"But SMEs are the least likely to be able to compete with giant
transnational corporations, which enjoy the benefits of scale, historic
subsidies, technological advances, strong state-sponsored infrastructure,
tax avoidance strategies, and a system of trade rules written for
them and by their lawyers."
Key provisions of the proposals include prohibiting requirements to
hold data locally; to have a local presence in the country; no border
taxes on digital products; prohibitions on regulating cross-border
data transfers; and even prohibitions on requiring open source software
in government procurement contracts.
There is no economic rationale as to why digitally traded goods should
not have to contribute to the national tax base, while traditionally
traded goods usually do, the CSOs pointed out.
Data is now the most valuable resource, they said. Furthermore, privacy
and data protection are fundamental human rights and they cannot be
abandoned in the interests of trade.
Locking in rules in the WTO to allow corporations to transfer data
around the world without restrictions would forever deny the right
of countries and citizens to benefit from their own data and intelligence
in the future, and it would restrict the ability of countries to implement
appropriate data privacy and consumer protection measures.
What e-commerce proposal proponents call "localization barriers"
are actually the tools that countries use to ensure that they can
benefit from the presence of transnational corporations to advance
their own development and the economic, social, and political rights
of their citizens.
"We need trade rules that allow for the creation of decent jobs,
including in the technology sector. But the hallmarks of companies
like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Uber include dislocation of local
businesses and labour markets, and increasing precariousness of work,"
said the CSOs.
These would accelerate if e-commerce proposals were accepted in the
WTO, they warned.
"Existing technology giants would be able to further consolidate
their monopoly power. Their infamous tax optimization (which is tantamount
to evasion), including base erosion and profit shifting, would be
facilitated by a binding international treaty, and it would be nearly
impossible to rein in the political instability engendered by the
economic and financial consequences of such a scenario."
The CSO letter pointed out that WTO members do not currently have
a mandate to negotiate new global rules on "e-commerce,"
and they should not obtain one in Buenos Aires.
All of the issues proposed for the e-commerce agenda have either already
been discussed and resolved, or are currently being discussed, in
other forums, most of which are more responsive and accountable to
public interest concerns than the WTO.
E-commerce is already flourishing and SMEs can already sell their
products online without new WTO rules.
Of course, e-commerce can be a force for job creation and development,
and certainly has the power to expand innovation, increase consumer
choice, and connect remote producers and consumers.
But supporting e-commerce is not the same as having binding global
rules that would primarily benefit US-based high-tech corporations,
at the expense of public interest regulation to protect consumers
and promote development.
"While we support efforts by developing countries to address
the digital divide, transfer technology, and obtain financing for
infrastructure and information and communications technologies (ICTs),
the WTO is not the proper forum to negotiate these issues," the
The groups noted that similar to the way other development issues
have been treated in the WTO, these will not become binding obligations,
while the agenda of the high-tech corporations will be binding.
"There should absolutely be no new mandate on e-commerce in MC11,"
the CSOs made clear.
PUBLIC INTEREST REGULATION UNDER THREAT
The CSO letter further noted that the SDGs recently agreed by all
WTO members include a focus on expanding access to and quality of
many public services, as well as key services often operated by the
private sector such as financial services and telecommunications.
"Unfortunately, much like the e-commerce agenda, a similar corporate
agenda is behind the effort to have new rules limiting domestic regulation
The proposed rules on Domestic Regulation in the services negotiations
in the WTO seek to ensure that three kinds of regulation - qualification
requirements and procedures, licensing requirements and procedures,
and technical standards - meet vague and open-ended standards that
would severely undermine the regulatory sovereignty of countries,
the CSOs argued.
"These are open-ended terms designed to minimize regulation and
maximize the lobbying power of transnational corporations over sovereign
According to the CSO letter, giving the WTO jurisdiction to adjudicate
whether a regulation was "reasonable," "objective,"
"transparent," and "not more burdensome than necessary
to ensure the quality of the service," and further that a technical
standard was developed in an "open and transparent process"
would put the interests of foreign services providers above governments'
obligation to ensure that services are operated in the public interest.
It is not the WTO that should decide whether the administration of
labour, tax, environmental or safety laws affecting foreign services
firms is "reasonable."
The WTO should not be given authority to decide if the local zoning
commission's agreement with local objections to place a big box store
near a historic site is "objective."
If a state decides to accept an environmental review's recommendation
to ban fracking as a method of mining gas, a WTO panel should not
have the jurisdiction to decide if that is "too burdensome."
The CSOs said local governments - not trade panels - should have the
ultimate authority to decide community issues that are inherently
subjective because they involve important judgment calls.
And foreign companies should not have "rights" to comment
or input on measures proposed by local or national authorities before
they are decided domestically.
"Members did agree years ago to develop any necessary disciplines
on these measures - but there has never been an agreement whether
such rules are "necessary," which they obviously are not.
Thus, no disciplines should be agreed on domestic regulation in Buenos
Aires," the CSOs emphasised.
NEW RULES ON FISHERIES SUBSIDIES
According to the CSO letter, the other big "deliverable"
being pushed for Buenos Aires is a way to tackle the problem of overfishing
by negotiating limits to the subsidies that governments provide to
"There is a clear mandate for a pro-development and pro-environment
outcome; but this cannot be lost due to the insistence of existing
industrial fishing nations on rules that undermine the future developmental
aspirations of developing countries," said the CSOs.
Despite the use of subsidies to build their industrial fishing capacity,
those very same nations are attempting to prevent other developing
countries from also building their domestic capacity, undermining
development and doing little to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated
(IUU) fishing as well as over-fishing.
For many developing countries, fisheries are at the heart of their
economic and developmental aspirations.
Protecting the policy space of developing countries and the ability
to support small-scale and artisanal fishers must be at the heart
of any outcome, along with effective, binding prohibitions on subsidies.
The developmental and economic policy space of developing countries
must be maintained whilst those nations that have contributed most
to the problem of IUU and overfishing must agree to eliminate harmful
"The management of fisheries resources must be maintained outside
of the WTO," the CSOs pointed out.
ISSUES THAT SHOULD BE ON THE AGENDA
According to the CSO letter, both e-commerce rules and domestic regulation
disciplines would amount to an expansion of the WTO.
But the vast majority of WTO members have argued that existing unfair
and damaging rules must be fixed before the WTO remit can be expanded.
The CSOs said that this fight was at the heart of the last Ministerial
in Nairobi, which concluded with ambiguous language acknowledging
that some countries wanted to bring in other issues, while others
(the overwhelming majority) want to continue with the unfinished development
agenda that had been the reason they had agreed to the Doha Round.
Unfortunately, the CSOs added, some WTO members are obstinately refusing
to move forward on what should be the core agenda: to fix the unjust
rules that hinder global efforts to ensure true food security, sustainable
development, access to affordable healthcare and medicines, and global
The CSOs noted that this was outlined in the Turnaround Statement
of the global Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS) network, endorsed
by hundreds of civil society groups from around the world.
"At a minimum, in Buenos Aires, WTO members should focus on transforming
the global agriculture rules that restrict developing countries from
ensuring food security for their populations (while allowing big agribusiness
nearly limitless public subsidies) and increasing flexibilities for
developing countries to be able to use trade for their own development."
The top priority for a genuine development agenda would be transforming
the current rules on agriculture.
Unbelievably, the CSOs noted, it is the rich countries, not the poor,
which are currently allowed to subsidize agriculture under WTO rules
- even in ways that distort trade and harm other countries' domestic
The tens of billions of dollars of subsidies allowed in developed
countries per annum encourage over-production and artificially depress
world prices, wiping out farmers' livelihoods in countries that should
be benefiting from global agricultural trade or production for domestic
Thus, a major outcome in Buenos Aires should be to reduce the amount
of subsidies under the "domestic support" negotiations -
including subsidies in the so-called "Green Box" category
of subsidies when these actually have trade-distorting impacts.
Given the existing subsidies, developing countries should also be
able to increase tariffs to protect domestic production when faced
with import surges. Unfortunately, some countries are opposing negotiations
towards a workable "Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM)" for
An outcome on SSM - unconditioned on further tariff cuts - at the
upcoming Ministerial would greatly enhance developing countries' ability
to achieve food security, promote rural development and safeguard
farmers' livelihoods - and would be a step towards removing WTO constraints
on Food Sovereignty, said the CSOs.
By contrast, most developing countries are only allowed miniscule
subsidies. But the SDGs entreat countries to increase investment in
sustainable agriculture. Also, there is growing acceptance of the
"right to food" as a human right.
One of the international best practices for supporting farmers' livelihoods,
ensuring food security, and promoting rural development is "public
stockholding," in which governments guarantee farmers a minimum
price for their production, and distribute that food to hungry people
within their own borders.
But these programs, implemented in dozens of developing countries,
often run afoul of WTO rules - even though the agriculture supported
is not traded in global markets.
The majority of WTO members have agreed that domestic public stockholding
programs should not be constrained by antiquated WTO rules.
But the changes have been steadfastly blocked by the United States,
the EU, Australia and other big agribusiness exporters.
The CSOs said: "And now reality is being turned on its head as
China and India are being accused of being the biggest subsidizers,
when their payments per farmer on a per capita basis remain miniscule
- only a few hundred dollars per farmer, as compared to tens of thousands
for the United States."
WTO members agreed to find a permanent solution to the public stockholding
programs by December of this year. Unfortunately the positions of
countries representing big agribusiness exporters have remained entrenched.
In Buenos Aires, said the CSOs, WTO members must deliver a positive
resolution on the public stockholding issue that allows all developing
countries to implement food security programs without onerous restrictions
that are not even demanded of developed countries' trade distorting
Along with transforming the global rules governing agricultural trade,
developing countries have long advocated for other changes to the
existing WTO (rules) to increase flexibility for them to enable them
to enact policies that would promote their own development.
The group of 90 developing countries has made concrete proposals for
changes to existing WTO rules that would remove some WTO constraints
on national pro-development policies.
Many of them are updated versions of the "Implementation Agenda"
that have formed the basis of developing country critiques of the
existing WTO (rules) since the time of its foundation. These include,
for example, changes to allow developing countries to promote domestic
manufacturing capabilities, stimulate the transfer of technology,
promote access to affordable medicines, and safeguard regional integration.
"The G90 proposals should be accepted in the Buenos Aires Ministerial
as proposed - without being conditioned on further market access concessions
from developing countries," the CSOs argued.
They noted that even in an area that all WTO members should be able
to agree on - ensuring benefits for Least Developed Countries (LDCs)
- there is no consensus yet.
Although it was a priority mandate, the small LDC package agreed at
the WTO Ministerial in Bali in 2013 is not yet operationalised.
This includes ensuring 100 percent Duty Free, Quota Free market access
for LDCs' exports; simplification of the Rules of Origin that define
how much of the value of a product has to be produced in the country
to qualify for reduced-tariff benefits; and providing actual binding
commitments for the LDC services waiver (which allows developed countries
to provide market access in services for LDCs without offering reciprocal
access to other countries - a "flexibility" which has proven
almost impossible to utilize).
It also includes mandated reductions in the subsidies that the US
and the EU provide to cotton producers - which enrich a few thousand
there, but that have unfairly decimated production of hundreds of
thousands of cotton farmers in Africa.
"This modest LDC package must be strengthened and made operational
by the time of MC11," the CSOs underlined.
"Much is at stake this December in Buenos Aires. We believe in
a democratic, transparent, and sustainable multilateral trading system,
and do not want to see the WTO depart even further from that ideal."
The secretive and anti-democratic practice of negotiating behind closed
doors with only certain powerful members, and then bringing massive
pressure to bear on developing countries to accept another bad deal,
which has characterized the WTO since its inception but has become
even more pronounced in the last two Ministerials, must be abandoned
in favour of a transparent and member-driven process that leads to
outcomes that are consistent with the multilaterally-agreed Sustainable
"Will members agree to a harmful new mandate on e-commerce and
new rules limiting the democratic oversight over services regulations?
And new rules on fishing subsidies which end up harming poor fisherfolk?
Or will members act in the interest of their citizens and change course
at the WTO, removing WTO constraints over domestic policies that promote
food security and development, and supporting LDCs in their efforts
to increase their share of global trade?" the CSOs asked.