Supachai attempts to project air of confidence on Doha talks

Geneva, 4 Apr (Chakravarthi Raghavan) - Though some important deadlines, including that on agriculture modalities have been missed, the meetings of the Trade Negotiations Committee this week has ended with renewed message from all sides of the intent to complete the ongoing trade negotiations in accordance with the time-lines set by Doha, according to the WTO’s chief.

The WTO Director-General, Dr.Supachai Panitchpakdi, sought Friday at a press conference to project an air of confidence about the WTO and its trade talks staying on course, despite missed deadlines and the increased work loads ahead, of trade negotiators staying engaged, and agreeing to take up work across the board between now and Cancun, including on the Singapore issues, so that the Cancun ministerial meeting could take stock, and give political guidance and a road map for work ahead to complete the negotiations by end 2004. At a press conference Friday, Supachai also underscored that the work of the Cancun ministerial meeting had also been set out in the Doha declaration (and thus it would be unlike either the Seattle or the Doha meetings), and the ministers would undertake an assessment and review and provide political guidance for completing the negotiations in time, and take decisions wherever they were required to do in terms of the Doha mandate.

Though the Bush-Blair war in Iraq and its effects is on everyone’s minds, it was not a subject that figured at the TNC meetings, informal or formal. At his press conference, when questions about the war and its effects were addressed to the WTO head, he sought to respond in terms of trade and the liberalisation of trade as an instrument of peace.

His remarks did not indicate an awareness inside the trading system that trade and its functioning as an instrument of growth and employment (and peace) is not independent of the international system of law and state rights, and that in the first half of the 20th century the failures of both peace and security resulted in economic depression, war, unemployment and other ills. Only as a result of peace after the second world war, and international systems, underpinned by the UN Charter and the entire post-war political, economic and social systems, and the order accepted by everyone produced growth and prosperity (for the North)!

It is Supachai’s intension between now and Cancun to work as fully as possible with the members, negotiating groups and the General Council which was seized of some issues (like Special and Differential Treatment), so that well in time before Cancun “we can simplify, particularly areas of decision-making for ministers as much as we can, set up the options for them as to where we stand and to have the capitals and the ministers fully informed before we go to Cancun.”

In perhaps a reference to the fears among many developing countries of an attempt of the major powers and the secretariat to repeat the processes leading to Doha, and there were complaints of non-transparency and ministers being caught by surprises at Doha, that Supachai said “we don’t want to see delegations caught by any surprises at Cancun.”

Senior capital-based officials came to Geneva to participate at the TNC meeting, informal session on Wednesday, some consultations with key delegations Thursday, and the formal meeting Friday.

Senior officials from the like-minded group of countries met Thursday outside Geneva, and senior officials of these and some other developing countries are also meeting Saturday.

Supachai indicated that he would hold another TNC meeting with participation of senior officials in June, and that Egypt was likely to host a ministerial meeting of a small group of countries (as in Sydney and Tokyo) in June or July, while the issues would also be reviewed at the OECD trade ministers meeting.

Though some important deadlines had been missed, and everyone regretted it, there had been no recriminations or finger pointing. The disappointments at missed deadlines had been overcome, Supachai said, and everyone was focussing on the work programme and the heavy work load ahead the meetings of the TNC.

In Supachai’s view, everyone was fully committed to the Doha timelines and the completion of the negotiations by end 2004, as well as to the level of ambitions.

He mentioned the initial offers that have been put forward in Services, from the demandeurs in agriculture, as well as discussions on the other areas of negotiations such as market access on non-agricultural products, as well as the review of the talks on the Dispute Settlement Understanding, which was not part of the Doha single undertaking, but agreed on all sides to be crucial and a process where no issue could be forced to a conclusion, but needing progress to maintain WTO credibility.

The real negotiations were starting, Supachai asserted, and contrasted it with the Uruguay Round where along the way things were added and the mandate interpreted. In the current talks everyone stayed on course in terms of the agenda and mandates set at Doha.

The road map between now and Cancun he expected would be determined by delegations.

Supachai was hopeful that before Cancun, agreements would be reached on the implementation of para 6 of the Doha declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, that he himself was keeping in touch with pharmaceutical companies, and he was confident that agreements would be reached to ensure access to essential drugs for the poor.

The war in Iraq had created some uncertainties and there were divisions, but everyone was agreed in trying to see trade as an important means of getting countries together to address the management of the peace process, Supachai asserted.

The US war in Iraq, he was reminded, had dealt two blows to the international legal and property rights systems: Bush and Blair have torn up the United Nations Charter to go to war. The plans of the US to seize and use the Iraqi funds and property sequestered by the UN, and to use the Iraqi funds (with the UN under the oil for food sales programme), as well as the Iraqi oil sales while the country is under military occupation for reconstruction, had dealt a blow to the other pillar of the international system, the very basis of relationships among states and international private property rights that had evolved since Westphalia. While all these fundamentals would be patched up and/or sought to be repaired and patched up, it would take time.

Did the WTO head seriously think that all these could be done in time to enable him to complete the Doha negotiations and conclude the WTO agreements?

Dr. Supachai insisted that while there were divisions as a result of the war, both those opposed and supporting the US-led war were agreed on the trade negotiations, and making trade serve the cause of peace. There were many economic uncertainties now, and there had been falls in stock markets across the world to average levels of 20 years ago, and world trade for the first time had contracted. Consumer confidence had suffered all over the world and this has had negative effects on the economy. Concluding the trade talks, he claimed, would restore confidence, increase employment and growth and benefit everyone.

Several trade ambassadors, and their senior officials from capitals, speaking privately and non-attributively however, were agreed that the war and the way it had been launched was having and will have some serious effects on the entire systems, but that everyone was implicitly agreed not to raise or focus on the issue at the WTO.

The course of the trade negotiations and the outcome and completion would all be affected by the US-war and its effects, many developing country diplomats agreed.

Several of them were also concerned that while at one level there were deep differences among the great powers, and divisions across the Atlantic over the issues of war and peace, there were signs that there was a studied effort by the Quad countries, and in particular the USTR Robert Zoellick and the EC Commissioner Pascal Lamy, to keep these differences out of the WTO.

These countries feared that just as in 1992 and 1993, the US and EC did a deal and then forced everyone to accept it, a similar move may be afoot, particularly since the terms of both Lamy and Zoellick would end by about end-2004 and would be anxious to complete the talks successfully while in office, as does Supachai whose term ends in August 2005, and can’t be renewed.

Supachai indirectly responded to these and said that he would ensure that there would be no repeat of the Blair House accords that marked the end of the Uruguay Round.

It was not however clear whether the air of confidence that Supachai sought to project at his press conference was merely a case of whistling in the dark or one based on the information and assurances he has received.

As one developing country ambassador put it, geopolitics could help trade, but it was difficult to envisage trade as helping geopolitics at this juncture. – SUNS5319

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